Sauerkraut’s spicier cousin, kimchi, was developed in ancient Korea thousands of years ago as a way to preserve home-grown crops through the long winter months.
Today, kimchi is commonly sold at grocery stores or served at restaurants. But if you have a penchant for food preservation, you can also make kimchi at home and enjoy its bold flavors in tons of dishes.
Traditional baechu-style kimchi is made with fermented napa cabbage that’s been fired up with zingy flavors, like ginger, garlic and gochugaru chili flakes.
But there are more than 200 types of kimchi, which make use of an assortment of other vegetables, including carrots, daikons and cucumbers.
Yet despite all the variety inherent in kimchi, all types have one thing in common: they’re produced with lacto-fermentation.
If you’ve ever preserved foods before, you know that’s the same food preservation process that’s behind deli pickles, sourdough, yogurt and sauerkraut.
Lacto-fermentation uses a salt water brine and “good guy” lactobacillus bacteria to suppress the growth of harmful microbes in a fermentation crock. Once fermentation begins, the natural sugars in veggies are transformed into lactic acid, which preserves foods and creates a tangy flavor.
It’s important to always follow proper food safety and fermentation protocols when making kimchi or other fermented foods.
To make kimchi at home, you’ll need a fermentation crock or a half-gallon canning jar. Rinse a two-pound head of napa cabbage and discard the outer leaves. Quarter the cabbage, remove the core and then slice the cabbage into two-inch pieces.
Add the cabbage and a ¼ cup of non-iodized salt to a large bowl. Mix well, then weigh the cabbage down with a plate and fill the bowl with non-chlorinated water. Refrigerate and let the cabbage marinate in the salty brine for two hours.
Once the cabbage leaves have softened, pour off the brine. Rinse the cabbage well and allow it to drip dry in a colander.
While the cabbage is drying, give the following ingredients a whir in your blender to create a paste: four scallions, a thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger, three garlic cloves, a tablespoon each of soy sauce and fish sauce, a teaspoon of sugar and from one to five tablespoons of gochugaru chili flakes, depending on your heat preferences.
Peel and slice one daikon radish into matchsticks and add them to the drained cabbage and homemade chili paste in a large bowl. Mix well and squeeze the cabbage leaves to release moisture, aka kimchi brine. You may want to wear gloves for this.
Finally, pack the mixture into a clean fermentation jar and press everything down to release air bubbles. Pour in the kimchi brine leaving an inch of headspace and weigh the veggies down with a fermentation weight.
If the cabbage isn’t completely submerged in brine, make extra brine by dissolving a teaspoon of salt in a cup of water.
Loosely close the jar with a lid (don’t seal it up tight!) and place the container on top of a plate to catch overflow. Allow the kimchi to ferment from one to five days, tasting daily until it’s as tangy as you like. Once the flavors develop, move the crock into your fridge where kimchi will stay fresh for several months.
To serve, plate up kimchi as a side dish or eat it as a snack or with noodles. Elena Bourakovsky, one of the creators of Moxie lacto-fermented foods at Backstage Farm in Blue Hill, notes that kimchi is particularly tasty “as a condiment and especially in soups and with rice.”
Lauren Landers is a gardening and homesteading writer and Master Gardener volunteer living in Ellsworth. She has written for a variety of publications including Better Homes and Gardens and Reader’s Digest and runs her own sustainability and gardening blog zerowastehomestead.com.