If you are paying even a little attention to what you are eating in the last five years, you have probably heard of probiotics. These are the good (pro-) bacteria (-biotics) that humans have been eating for the past several thousand years.
Since the age of refrigeration and sanitation, we have consumed fewer probiotics. Our food producers are focused on killing the harmful bacteria in our food system (which is still a good thing), but they also kill the good bacteria at the same time.
It’s like the pesticide that kills the aphids and the ladybugs at the same time.
Working at a vegetable farm for ten years has brought my frugality out, to an extreme, with a desire to save as much produce as possible from going into the compost pile. I have learned the best ways to preserve the flavors of each season as it comes to an end.
There isn’t a fruit or vegetable that I haven’t tried to ferment, freeze, pickle, or can.
Fermenting food came easy to me. I have been so successful at fermentation that I can’t provide much advice about what to do if you think something went wrong. So, if it doesn’t smell and taste good, please don’t eat it.
The reason for my success and that of human civilization for the past thousands of years is that the good bacteria is all around us. It’s not that hard. And, most of them didn’t even have internet access.
I started out fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut and then graduated to making kimchi later. With kimchi, I was bothered by the need for unique ingredients, and my experience with prepared kimchi was off-putting, being too pungent for even my adventurous American taste buds.
If you haven’t eaten kimchi before or you’ve had a bad experience, are you sure you want to start a microbiology experiment in your kitchen?
Here are some reasons to give fermentation a try.
I started making kimchi after reading an article from thekitchn.com. Emily Han’s procedure demystified the process and allowed me to realize that I could create my own recipe.
Once I was free from the pressures of the recipe and a special trip to the Asian grocery store (which I love, but I hate shopping in general), it opened up my mind to create what I wanted Kimchi to be.
If I have five kinds of dried peppers in my house, I don’t need to go out and buy the Korean gochugaru. My recipe never has the “right” color, but it is still spicy.
And the fish sauce, which I own (it never goes bad), is a good stand-in for shrimp paste.
The quantities of the signature ingredients ginger, garlic, and chili powder, vary from house to house in Korea. Some like more and some less. I recommend starting with a base recipe and then adjusting it to your tastes.
And the addition of other vegetables, usually daikon radish, is optional too. Daikon might not even be an option if you don’t know someone growing it. Other radishes could be used instead. In my kimchi, I add carrots, it gives color and sweetness. The carrots or daikon add flavor and texture differences in the final product.
Even the use of cabbage itself is optional, kimchi refers to fermented vegetables, not specifically cabbage.
Let’s talk about why you would want to make it yourself.
Kimchi gives an Asian flavor boost to any dish that I make. This is convenient if you might be cooking for others that don’t like spicy food or intense flavors.
Adding a quarter cup of kimchi to a bowl of white rice, ramen noodles, or chicken soup transforms the dish into something gourmet. Serve it like salsa on top of fish or chicken or as a side dish. Kimchi is the ketchup of Korea, and it can enhance your cooking too.
Salting the Cabbage
Start with a tried and true recipe.
Don’t change the amount of salt. The salt is the most critical part of the recipe. The proportion of salt to the weight of vegetables will determine your success in the final product.
The purpose of the salt is to preserve the vegetables at room temperature until the lactic acid builds up and acts as a preservative.
You want to soak two pounds of cabbage in a salt brine comprised of ¼ cup of non-iodized salt and water to just cover the cabbage. Once the cabbage soaks for 1–2 hours, drain and rinse the cabbage. Save a bit of the brine to cover the cabbage in the fermentation step.
Then you just mix it with the seasonings and pack it tightly into jars. Leave room at the top for some overflow, the production of gas by the bacteria will cause the vegetables and liquid to rise. In my picture, you can see, I ended up with more cabbage that would fit into one jar, so I separated it into two.
Once the cabbage is packed, add back a few tablespoons of reserved brine, just to cover the cabbage. I pack the vegetables into a wide mouth mason jar and then use a small mouth jelly jar filled with water as my weight, pushing to submerge the cabbage under the level of the liquid. I covered the jars in plastic wrap, just as extra insurance that unknown bacteria will find its way into the kimchi.
The fermentation takes from 3–7 days when making kimchi one quart at a time.
The temperature in the room will change the fermentation rate. A warmer place will take less time and more time in a cold room. In the spring, my kitchen is about 72–75 degrees, and it took five days to complete the process.
Finished Kimchi, you can tell it’s done because the acidic environment has discolored the green cabbage. See the picture below.
Once your kimchi is fermented, store it in the refrigerator. It will keep for several months. Fermentation will continue in the fridge at a prolonged rate, creating carbon dioxide, so don’t put the lid on too tight.
I recently learned that there are optimum times and temperatures that will achieve better flavors, but I don’t need to optimize everything.
I want to enjoy what I eat and not think so hard about it.
Fermenting vegetables is a preservation method that doesn’t take that much effort.
Throughout history, the purpose of fermentation was to preserve the harvest before the invention of refrigeration and provide food to eat in times when it wasn’t around. We use these techniques today because they make food taste good, and if it makes you feel better, because they are good for us.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard