Simple Kimchi

How important is kimchi to Korean cuisine? Well, Koreans eat 1.5 million pounds of it every year, the Korean stock market’s “kimchi index” tracks the prices of kimchi ingredients and when Korea sent its first astronaut to the International Space Station, it sent kimchi along with him too—after spending millions researching and developing a recipe suitable for space.

If you’ve tasted kimchi, you understand why Koreans love it. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. Although recipes and ingredients vary wildly, this staple consists of fermented vegetables—cabbage and radish and possibly others, salt and spices—hot pepper, ginger, garlic—and fish sauce. Spicy, salty and sour, kimchi tastes delicious on its own and goes well on the side of savory dishes—both east and west. You can cook with it also but heat will kill off the beneficial microbes teeming in the jar. 

Thanks to the microbes that ferment this, kimchi both thrills your taste buds and benefits your health:

  • The process of fermentation predigests food, making it easier for us to digest. Think of fermentation as an exterior stomach (or not if that sounds gross).
  • Fermented vegetables contain higher levels of B vitamins, such as thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. Because fermentation slows down vitamin C loss in foods, Captain James Cook stocked barrels of sauerkraut on his ships to stave off scurvy in his crew.
  • Eating fermented food helps maintain a healthy gut. Good microbes improve your gut flora and boost your immunity. Your gut health is responsible for, well, everything, it turns out. Get your hands on the copy of the book The Good Gut by researchers Erica and Justin Sonnenburg for a fascinating read on the importance of gut health. You can read my review of the book here.

A simple version

When I posted a picture of my kimchi on Instagram earlier this week, someone commented that most of the recipes she had seen look very complicated. Many are. But I specialize in easy. The kimchi I make requires one more step than easy-to-make sauerkraut. And that step—soaking the vegetables in a brine for at least a couple of hours—gives you a little break. You finish your kimchi up when you get to it.

But I have to admit you will face one challenge, tracking down the gochugaru spice—a smoky blend of red pepper flakes. If you can’t find it, use MUCH LESS crushed red pepper—about one sixth as much as the recipe calls for. It won’t taste exactly the same but you’ll have the heat.

My simple, possibly heretical version also omits fermented fish sauce, a traditional kimchi ingredient. But I am feeding a strict vegetarian. And when I hand out samples in workshops, I’d rather just keep everything vegan for simplicity. So far, no one has said to me, “I can’t eat this. It contains no animal products.” If you want a fishy flavor without the fish sauce, try adding some dried kelp powder.

Kimchi ingredients—I forgot to buy green onions…
Napa cabbages for kimchi
Choose Napa cabbage for more authentic kimchi
large slices napa cabbage for kimchi
Chop the Napa cabbage into larger pieces than you would for sauerkraut
Daikon radish chopped into wide matchsticks
gochugaru spice mix
Kimchi spice mix—yes I can buy kimchi spice in bulk :O

Simple Kimchi

Simple Kimchi

Ingredients

  • 1 two-pound Napa cabbage, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 daikon radish, peeled and cut into 2-inch matchsticks about 1/8-inch thick
  • 4 green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • Water to cover vegetables
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced or grated
  • 1/4 cup gochugaru or 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried kelp granules (optional but recommended)

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, toss the vegetables. Sprinkle on the salt and combine everything with your hands. Pour water over the vegetables until almost covered. Place a plate over the vegetables and place a weight on the plate (I use a jug filled with water). If the vegetables and not completely submerged in water, add more. Cover the bowl with a towel and let the vegetables sit for a couple of hours or overnight to allow them to soften. (I started this batch at night, was tired and went to bed and continued the recipe in the morning.)
  2. In a separate bowl, combine the garlic, ginger, gochugaru and kelp powder if using.
  3. Drain the salt water brine and reserve it. Taste the vegetables. If they taste too salty, rinse them. If they don't taste salty enough, sprinkle on more salt, mix and taste. Add more salt if necessary.
  4. Sprinkle the spice mixture onto the vegetables and mix together until combined.
  5. Pack the vegetables into a clean quart-size jar. I use my bare hands for this but, depending on the spices and how much you put in, you may want to use a large wooden spoon, pestle or, if you have one, a wooden pounder.
  6. To ensure the vegetables remain submerged in liquid—they will not ferment properly if exposed to the air—weigh them down. I do this by placing a small jar within the quart jar and closing the lid. The small jar will push down the vegetables in the larger jar, submerging them in liquid. If you need to add more liquid, pour some of the reserved brine over the vegetables.
  7. Place the jar on a plate on the counter to catch liquid that will soon begin to bubble and escape from the jar. Taste daily. Depending on your kitchen, your kimchi will be ready in about three days. Kimchi tastes best when young, unlike sauerkraut, which can ferment for many weeks or even months.
  8. Refrigerate and eat your kimchi within a couple of weeks.

Notes

1. Chlorine can kill the microbes necessary to ferment food. If your water contains high amounts of it, pour some into an open vessel the night before you make this. The chlorine will dissipate.

2. I buy organic ingredients but fermentation will work with non-organic ingredients with the exception of ginger-based recipes. Non-organic ginger may be irradiated, which kills the naturally occurring microbes necessary for the fermentation. For pickled ginger or ginger beer, choose organic ginger. The small amount of ginger in this recipe may be organic or non-organic.

3. Kelp powder adds some of the fishy flavor that kimchi calls for. Some recipes also call for a bit of sugar. I've had kimchi with shredded apple and that was delicious.

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14 Replies to “Simple Kimchi”

  1. This looks great, thank you for making it without the fish!

    That’s really lucky that you have access to korean pepper powder in bulk, did you have to request your co-op start carrying it or did they already do so?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      You’re welcome. Thanks for checking it out. No kidding it’s lucky! I didn’t request the spice, the co-op just had it. It has just about everything. I love the place. Enjoy!

  2. Hi, what a great blog. Just wondering if and how you cover the jar when leaving it to ferment? Thank you

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Chan 🙂 Yes, I cover the jar but you don’t have to. I prefer to. I put a small jar inside the large jar and when I close the large jar, that pushes the vegetables down and the liquid up, submerging everything so it can ferment properly. You can use an open crock or open jars if you have sufficient weights to push down the vegetables. Also, cover open jars with a thin cloth to prevent stuff from falling in. I hope that helps. ~ Anne Marie

      1. Got it, thanks for that. I hope to try this kimchi soon.

  3. At the Korean market where I have been buying kimchi for years, they always tell me I should make my own because it’s better. But all the recipes I’ve seen sound too complicated, and I didn’t want fish sauce with MSG in it. Your recipe is just what I’ve been looking for. I made my first batch ever and it came out great.

  4. I’m in a CSA and have a lot of napa cabbage so I’ve been thinking I should try making kimchi. We also have a lot of shunkyo radishesv(I think they are basically a regular radish that is oblong instead of round) – do you think that’s okay to sub for the daikon radish? Or should I perhaps do a mix?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Carrie,

      :O I’m so jealous. I’ve had trouble lately finding napa cabbage. Yes, make kimchi! I think those radishes might be stronger than daikon but I’m not sure. I might go easy on them. Or maybe a mix like you suggested. You could buy a daikon and do a taste test. Enjoy! ~ Anne Marie

  5. Followed the recipe ta a T but mine is incredibly salty!!! It’s been three days.. . Is this normal??
    Thanks!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Amanda.

      Oh no! It is pretty salty but it shoudn’t taste overly salty. You can try adding water to it to dilute the salt. Or you could rinse off some of it, but then you’ll also rinse away some of the delicious spices. Did you taste it after you drained off the brine and if so, was the saltiness okay then? ~ Anne Marie

  6. This looks great! If I were to use fish sauce how much would suffice. Never made kimchi before and I think this is going to be my first!

  7. Hi ! You inspired me so much from your Instagram account that I decided it was time for me to try out fermentation and I went for it ! I have a question. I don’t have small jars to submerge but I pressed down as much as I could and closed the jars with screw leads. Some of the lighter bits from the spice mix float on the surface but I can’t add more brine. Is it OK or will that be a problem ? Thank you !

  8. Casey Amato says: Reply

    How long will the kimchi last after it is done fermenting? If eaten after a few weeks, will it make you sick? How does this compare with the lifespan of store bought kimchi?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Casey,
      Fermented foods last for months in the refrigerator (or cold cellar), even a year or longer. I made my last batch of kimchi a couple of months ago and have been eating it. It’s fine. I don’t put fish sauce in mine and wonder if that would affect it’s lifespan…I will have to look that up…the fish sauce is fermented so I would think it would be fine for months also…). The store-bought stuff will also last a long time if it’s truly fermented. If you buy it from the shelf (not the refrigerator section), it’s not fermented but pasteurized. Fermented foods aren’t shelf-stable like canned food. They eventually rot, but not for a long time. I don’t put fish sauce into my kimchi.
      ~ Anne Marie

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