I have to confess – I’ve always been intimidated by kimchi. Not by eating it, oh no, I’ll gladly eat plenty. No, my intimidation is in making it. Kimchi has held a long-standing reputation for me as something that is both quite difficult to make and something to be revered. Friends have shared that kimchi can be a rite of passage for some, and for many, can represent a lifetime pursuit in perfecting their personal recipe and making it truly their own. I think that’s what has always intimidated me… the gravitas of it all. Kimchi deserves respect. So recently, I decided to respectfully try my hand at it and since then, I’ve been making it non-stop. So much so that I’m probably at risk of becoming the subject matter in Portlandia’s infamous “We can pickle that” skit. I digress.
The great news is that kimchi is actually simpler to make than you may think. The most important step is really the fermentation and for that, the good bacteria does all the work. (We just need to make sure we do everything to help create the right kind of environment for it to do its job.) Still, I can see how a person can spend a lifetime perfecting their recipe. The one I’m including here is a basic one that’s good to start with, which you can add to as you make more. There are plenty of more robust and complex kimchi recipes out there that include things like rice flour and an assortment of herbs and vegetables to add different flavours, but I’m going to keep it simple – since that’s what worked for me.
What will make it unique to you are the ingredients and quantity of ingredients you choose to put into it, along with how long you choose to ferment it for. The longer the time you let the kimchi ferment, the softer the cabbage and more sour the flavour. The moment you finish “dressing” the cabbage, you can already eat it fresh.
One last thing to note before we get started. Kimchi takes a long time to make not because it’s complicated, but because of the brining that needs to take place initially. What I recommend is salting the cabbage the night before you want to make the kimchee. This way, the actual process of making it will only take around 30-90 minutes (based on how fast you are at chopping everything up). Brining takes a minimum of 4 hours – but like I said, it’s best if you leave it overnight.
Ingredients: (makes about 3-4 L of kimchi depending on size of cabbage)
- Initial salt soak
- 1 nappa cabbage (the larger the cabbage, the more kimchi you’ll have)
- 1/2 cup of sea salt
- water (approximately 3 litres)
- Kimchi sauce
- 1 daikon or Korean radish about a third to half the size of your cabbage, chopped into thin 3 inch strips
- 3 to 4 scallions (also called spring or green onions), chopped into 1 inch pieces
- 6 to 7 cloves of garlic (adjust according to how much you love garlic), finely chopped
- 1 3-inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped into thin strips
- 3 to 7 heaping tablespoons of Korean chilli flakes (gochugaru). I recommend getting the coarse kind, although the powder will work too. I’ve included a picture below of the kind I get. There are two types of heat these chilli flakes come in. Add as much or as little as you want, depending on how spicy you’d like your kimchi. I like using 4-1/2 tablespoons.
- 1/3 cup of sugar (to taste)
- 1/2 tablespoon of fish sauce
- 1 to 1-1/2 tablespoon of fermented salty shrimp paste (saewujeot). In case you’re wondering what the fermented salty shrimp paste looks like, I’ve included a picture below. It’s really not a “paste” at all – the shrimp are still intact.
- Vegan or vegetarian substitution for the fish sauce and salty shrimp paste:
- 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of red miso to taste. You can also opt out of adding this altogether, it just rounds out the flavour a little more. Without it, I find the kimchi tastes a little flat. Also, only add this as a substitution for the fish products if you want a vegetarian or vegan friendly kimchi – don’t put this in if you’re doing the fish sauce/salty shrimp. It’ll be overkill on the salt.
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of seaweed, soaked so it’s soft, but squeezed so as much water is removed from it as possible.
- Optional: 1 large carrot, chopped into thin strips
1. First, you need to quarter your cabbage. I like to cut an “+” formation into the base of the cabbage about 2 inches deep, then pull the cabbage apart from where I cut with my fingers. The cabbage will just naturally come apart – I like quartering it this way rather than just cutting it all the way mainly because it helps all the leaves to stay intact. Plus, it feels cool. (It’s the small things.) You can also opt to pre-chop all of your cabbage into about 3-inch chunks. Totally up to you.
2. Sprinkle salt evenly over each leaf (or if you pre-chopped your cabbage, mix the salt in through all the leaves) and place the cabbage in a large bowl big enough to contain all the cabbage below the rim. I usually need to use 2 large bowls to accomplish this. Avoid using metal or plastic bowls as the high salt concentration can impact these types of bowls. You should be using up all of your 1/2 cup of salt to do this. Next, you can add water. I say can because there are a couple different methods here. Again, it’s up to you and what you prefer what you decide to do. One is that you can just leave your cabbage without water if you did a thorough job getting salt on each leaf (some also like to rub it in) or you can add the water until the cabbage is covered. I have to confess – I’m a touch lazy, so I like adding the water so I’m sure it gets in between all the leaves. Whatever you decide, leave your cabbage for at least 4 hours. The best is overnight. If you put water in yours, put a plate over it to keep the cabbage submerged. You don’t need to do this if you did the dry salting method. The purpose is to pre-brine the cabbage, which kills off the bad bacteria for good fermentation, and to remove a lot of the water content in advance.
3. When your cabbage is ready, throw it into a strainer and start to rinse it. You’ll know it’s ready because the texture of the cabbage will feel a little rubbery and they’ll be rather soft. Rinse all the salt out of the leaves. It’s good to give your cabbage a good rinse 3 times over. Then let the water strain out of the cabbage.
4. While your cabbage is in the strainer, you can prepare the kimchi sauce. Mix up your Korean chilli, ginger, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, and fermented shrimp paste – or miso substitute. Blend the mixture with your food processor or hand blender. Taste your sauce and see if you like the flavour. An important thing to note is that you’ll want your sauce to be a touch less salty than what you’d normally like as the longer the cabbage ferments, the saltier your kimchi will become (special tip from a good Korean friend of mine – thanks Ashley!).
4. Mix your kimchi sauce with your radish strips, scallions, and if you have them, carrot strips.
5. Get your cabbage and squeeze as much of the water out of it as you can. (Some people don’t squeeze, but I like squeezing since the kimchi will produce a lot more water as it ferments anyway.) Then, take the first quarter and start smearing your saucy kimchi mixture evenly on each cabbage leaf like a lasagna, working your way from the outer most leaf to the inner leaf. Do a good once over around the outside of the cabbage as well. Squish this cabbage into your jar. Press it in there hard. Keep adding the cabbage until you have about 1 to 2 inches of room from the top of the jar so that as the cabbage ferments and expands, it doesn’t spill over. I use a combination of a 2L canning jar and 500mL mason jars.
If you pre-chopped your kimchi, the process is the same, just mix all your kimchi sauce in with your cabbage and mix it through all the leaves thoroughly. Then put the leaves into your jars. Whichever method you used, make sure to really squish and pack in the cabbage into the bottom of the jar and between each layer hard. Get as much of the air out as possible.
6. Seal your jars. I put a layer of saran wrap over the mouth of the jars and wrap it with an elastic first to keep the oxygen from getting in, before I put the lids on. If you’re using mason jars, be sure to either leave the lids on a little loose or untwist the lids daily to avoid a kimchi explosion. Masons are so airtight the gas produced by the fermentation can’t get out and have been known to actually blow up the jar.
7. If you’d like your kimchi to ferment quickly, place your jars in a bowl or dish (to catch any stray leakage if it happens) on your countertop where there’s sun (kimchi ferments faster in warmer conditions). Leave it there for between 1-5 days, depending on how ripe you’d like your kimchi. After only a day, you’ll already notice your kimchi will have more water content in your jars and bubbles forming. This is good and supposed to happen. If you want your kimchi to ferment slower, you can put it in a cool dark place. Some put their kimchi in the fridge – which also prolongs the time it takes for kimchi to ferment.
Good luck, enjoy and let me know how it goes!