Kimchi originated in Korea centuries ago and is popular today in many Asian countries. In Western cuisine, it is frequently compared to sauerkraut because both are products of lacto-fermentation (so-called because the microbes involved produce lactic acid, not because of any association with dairy products). Fermentation has been used for centuries by cultures around the globe to preserve fresh foods: fermenting microbes create an acidic environment that prevents contamination. While the process for making sauerkraut and kimchi are similar, their flavors differ drastically. Kimchi is heavily seasoned, incorporating hot peppers and fish sauce (another fermented food!). One of the benefits of making your own kimchi is that you can play around with the flavors and tone down the spice level to your taste.
A traditional Korean kimchi fermenting vessel is called an onggi.
The Basics: To make kimchi, napa cabbage is first soaked in a strong brine, rinsed, drained, and then combined with a red pepper spice paste. After fermenting for several days, the mixture softens and takes on a complex and tangy flavor.
Quick Reference (just the numbers if you already know what you're doing):
1-qt. Batch 1-gal. Batch 5-gal. Batch
2 lbs. 8 lbs. 40 lbs.
1/4 cup 1 cup 5 cups
1/2 cup 2 cups 10 cups
1/2 cup 2 cups 10 cups
1 tbsp. 1/4 cup 1 1/4 cup
1 tbsp. 1/4 cup 1 1/4 cup
Sugar 1 1/2 tsp. 2 tbsp. 1/2 c. + 2 tbsp.
2-3 tbsp. 1/2 - 3/4 cup 2 1/2 - 3 3/4 c.
Hot Pepper Powder
1-3 tbsp. 1/4 - 3/4 cup 1 1/4 - 3 3/4 c.
Materials You'll Need to Get Started:
Sea Salt (non-iodized)
Cutting board and knife
Fermentation vessel (ceramic crock or glass jar)
Cheesecloth and rubber band (optional)
reCap mason jar lid and airlock (optional)
Instructions (see table above for ingredient amounts for different sized batches):
Quarter and core cabbage(s). Rough-chop into 1" - 2" pieces.
Alternate layers of cabbage and salt in large bowl so salt is evenly distributed throughout cabbage. With hands, massage salt into cabbage until cabbage starts to soften.
Add water to bowl until cabbage is submerged. Cover with plate and use weight to keep cabbage from floating. Leave for several hours.
Strain cabbage and reserve some of the brine to use later.
Rinse the cabbage three times in cold water and drain in colander while you make the seasoning paste and prep the veggies. Rinse and dry bowl to use again later.
Mix garlic, ginger, sugar, fish sauce, and hot pepper powder into a paste and set aside.
Cut daikon radish into matchstick-sized pieces and green onions into 1" segments.
Combine cabbage, green onion, and radish pieces with spice paste in large bowl. Mix well with hands. Wear gloves if you're using a lot of hot pepper.
Pack tightly into jar or fermentation vessel. If you have a crock with weights, insert them now; if you're using a jar or other food-grade container, use a smaller jar or a saucer to weigh down your kimchi and pour some of the reserved brine over it so it's fully submerged. Another technique for weighing down the kimchi while it ferments is to use a clean plastic bag filled with brine (rather than plain water, which would dilute the salinity of the kimchi if it leaked).
If you have a crock with an airlock rim, remember to fill it with water. If you're using a mason jar, we recommend a reCap lid and airlock combo that works great for keeping out contaminants. It's also perfectly acceptable to ferment without any kind of airlock, as long as you check regularly that the kimchi solids aren't floating up to the surface of the brine. As long as the veggies stay submerged, they won't be in contact with air or air-borne contaminants. Cover the fermentation vessel with clean cheesecloth held in place with a rubber band.
Allow to ferment for 3 days to a week (or more depending on the temperature and how sour you like your kimchi). The microorganisms involved in fermentation are more active at higher temperatures, so fermentation proceeds quicker in warmer weather, and vice versa. Taste your kimchi (with a clean fork and don't double-dip!) after a few days and every other day after. When it's to your liking, move it to the refrigerator where fermentation will slow waaaaay down. Kimchi will store in the refrigerator for several months.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Can I make a vegetarian kimchi?
Absolutely! Just replace the fish sauce with an equal amount of water to make the spice paste. Try using kelp powder for a vegetarian seafood-y umami flavor.
What kind of hot pepper flakes should I use?
The hot pepper powder typically used in Korean cooking is called Gochugaru and can be found in Asian food markets. The pepper itself is fairly mild, as peppers go, and isn't usually smoked, so cayenne and the Mexican hot peppers more common in North American stores aren't great substitutes. If you can't find Gochugaru in a store in your area, it may be worth purchasing it online.
What if I see white scum or mold on the surface of my kimchi?
If you monitor your kimchi every day, you should be able to catch something like this at an early stage. If it's an isolated spot just on the surface, then go head and skim it off. Molds form on the surface where they have access to air, so if your kimchi is well below the surface of the brine, it may not be affected at all. A white scum on the surface of fermented foods is also common: it's just residue from naturally-occurring yeasts (like the lees in unfiltered beer). Though harmless, white scum isn't exactly appetizing, so just skim it off with a clean spoon whenever you see it. Fermented food should taste and smell pleasantly tangy; if yours smells "off," trust your nose and don't eat it.
Can I alter this recipe to customize my kimchi?
Of course! The recipe presented here is only a starting point for making a basic kimchi. There are literally hundreds of recipes for kimchi and their ingredients can change seasonally and from region to region. Some are seafood-heavy, incorporating minced dry shrimp, fish, or octopus. Some are really spicy or not spicy at all, such as "white" kimchi, which contains no hot pepper. You can try different vegetables: carrots, beets, garlic scapes, seaweed, a different type of cabbage, whatever you have an abundance of!
Resources for Going Further:
Katz, Sandor Ellix. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes From Around the World. 2012. See pages 112-114 for an overview of the qualities of kimchi in all its variety.
http://www.maangchi.com/recipe/tongbaechu-kimchi An excellent guide to making kimchi, which differs from the recipe presented here in two major ways: the spice paste is rubbed into the cabbage leaves whole and rice flour is used to make a starchy porridge to bind everything together. Both techniques will add to the work involved, but result in a much more authentic kimchi.