A Simplified Kimchi

My love for kimchi is deep and evolving. Funky, crunchy, salty, tangy, bright, hot; I find it energizing and refreshing.

Just as there are thousands of grape-based wines out there made from myriad varietals of grapes, grown in numerous regions and fermented and aged in all sorts of different ways, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands (or more?!) of types of kimchi being made in the Korean peninsula and around the world. Napa cabbage-based kimchis are my favorite, but I’ve yet to run into a kimchi I didn’t enjoy.

There is no shortage of books about kimchi, but the simply titled Book of Kimchi by Chun Lee is worth seeking out for its framing of kimchi in a cultural, historical, and seasonal context, along with a wide range of recipes. I’ve never seen the book online for much under $100, but I’ve borrowed it from my local library more times than I can remember.

The recipe below is the kimchi that I most commonly make. I don’t claim that this is an “authentic” kimchi. Rather, it’s simply a streamlined version of one of the napa cabbage kimchis from the Book of Kimchi, using ingredients and tools that are generally easy to come by. Use it as a basic framework for experimenting and making the kimchis that you love; all of the vegetable and spice ingredients can be adapted to your liking.

 

Ingredients

  • 1-2 lbs napa cabbage
  • 1-3T salt
  • Radishes (optional) any type: red, white, daikon: a few small ones or a few inches worth of the larger ones
  • A few scallions
  • Red chili pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, hot paprika, hot peppers, or any preservative-free hot sauce, to taste
  • 1-4 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 inch to 1 inch piece of ginger
  • 1-2 small apples or asian pears, grated, minced or coarsely chopped

Equipment

  • A glass, ceramic or plastic mixing bowl or jar (to pack the kimchi in as it ages)
  • A glass, ceramic or plastic plate that fits inside bowl
  • A smaller jar, drinking glass or bottle (to use as a weight)
  • A clean towel or cloth large enough to cover the bowl
  • A rubber band or string to secure the cloth around the bowl/jar


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Some of the kimchi ingredients at the ready.

1. Start by removing any browned or damaged cabbage leaves from the head. Maybe they’re good to eat, but they’re probably not great in the kimchi.

2. Chop the cabbage. I enjoy larger chunks, but any size or shape will work. Use the core or don’t; it’s good either way.

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I tend to like my cabbage chopped like this, but chop it as coarse or as fine as you like.

3. Chop the radishes. I like half discs, but just like the cabbage, any shape or size will do.

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Daikon radish in half discs.

4. As you chop the cabbage and radishes, toss them with about half the salt in a large bowl. The vegetables will start to release their juices and soften, making it easier to pack them into a jar or crock later.

5. Mix up the spice paste: chop the scallions, ginger and garlic. I love to finely grate the garlic so it blends in evenly and cut the ginger into slightly larger pieces so that I get a burst of ginger in every bite, but any size or shape works. Toss them all together with the whatever hot pepper you’re using and mix well.

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Chopped apple (bottom left), pureed garlic (top right) and mini matchstick pieces of ginger (bottom right)

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The spice paste mix of hot pepper, garlic and ginger.

6. Mix everything together: the cabbage, radish, spice paste and apple/pear. Taste for salt and other flavors and add more of anything that you want. It should be distinctly salty, but not overwhelmingly so. Using less salt allows the kimchi to ferment faster, while more salt slows it down.

7. Pack the kimchi into a jar, crock or bowl just as you would with sauerkraut. Napa cabbage tends to be softer and have a lot more water in it, so there’s less of a need to pack it into the fermenting vessel as firmly as you would with green or red cabbage, but do try and push out the air pockets.

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All the ingredients mixed together and packed into a jar. In this batch I used a mix of red chili flakes and a pale orange hot sauce, so the color is quite light. Using a lot of red chili flakes (or powder) can give your kimchi a beautiful, striking red hue.

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I forgot to take a photo of the jar and weight setup with the kimchi, but this is an example of what it looks like with a different ferment (in this case, kimchi-style carrot relish): a drinking glass tumbler used as a weight on top of the veggies in their brine, packed in a quart-sized mason jar.

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The jar and weight covered with a cloth and secured with a rubber band, ready to ferment away.

8. The next day, check on the kimchi. Taste it. Make sure that the brine has risen enough to cover the vegetables and push the weight down to expel air pockets. If there isn’t enough brine to cover the vegetables, add brine to cover them. Brine can be mixed up in a ratio of approximately 1 tablespoon salt dissolved in 1 cup of water. Let it continue to ferment for a day or two or let it go for weeks. Enjoy it as it ages or throw it in the fridge to hold it at the flavor you like. Fridge temperatures will allow the kimchi to continue to ferment, but very slowly.

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