I make a lot of kimchi. I ferment other pickles–kosher dill pickles, giardinera, sauerkraut, green tea, and more–but kimchi is far and away my favorite. Other people love it, too; at a dinner party a while back I gave two friends each a pint to take home and they ate it all with forks right out of the jars as we talked. I do not pretend for a second to have any cultural attachment to this food, and I know that there are countless recipes and techniques for it. But I thought I’d share my method, since it’s easy and very good.
For kimchi, napa cabbage is really the key I think, though you can use any cabbagey thing from pak choi to round Western-type heads. The stalks stay crunchy and the lacy, wrinkled leaves become supple and tender. It’s a glorious contrast of textures before you even add anything else like carrots and radishes. After dissecting the heads of cabbage, I slice them in half or quarters lengthwise. Then I like to cut the stalk ends into thinnish slices and widen the cuts as I move up the leaf so that the delicate ends are larger squares that allow for more enjoyment of their drapey tenderness when they’re ready to eat. I slice carrots on the mandoline, and I like to include at least one more member of the mustard family in the form of radishes or turnips (as you can see, this version had turnips and chioggia beets). I like lots of scallions, too.
After the vegetables are all prepped and mixed in my biggest bowl, I mix the paste. This is a combination of about a head’s worth of garlic cloves (for my 5-liter crock, which gives me about 3 liters of kimchi) plus Korean pepper powder, minced dried shrimp, and grated ginger. The pepper is to taste; this stuff is not that hot so I add a bit of cayenne to boost the heat now that the kid has finally succumbed to my stealthy three-year plot to slowly and steadily raise the heat in everything I make. Vegetarians can omit the shrimp, but it does impart a wonderful umami to the result that makes it even more addictive.
I like to grind it all up in the suribachi with a little water, but you can use a mortar and pestle or food processor. Doing it by hand leaves nice little shards of garlic that make for a more pleasing result.
Then I sprinkle a little salt on the big bowl of raw vegetables and begin gently kneading them. Just a little; there are recipes that call for only adding salt and no brine but I like the brine. We’ll get to that in a minute. I do this kneading step for a very pedestrian reason: as the salt softens the vegetables, wilting them gently, one is then able to cram more of the mixture into a given volume. I got three whole heads of cabbage into this batch, and it would have been more like two if I hadn’t kneaded it first.
Then I use my hands to mix all that luscious red paste into it, kneading a bit more for good measure, and then pack it into my big ceramic crock, using tongs and my fist to tamp it down firmly to fit as much as possible. I cover the top with a few whole cabbage leaves (torn or bug-bitten outermost ones work well) and then put in the weights. My crock has two semicircular weights that hold the food under the surface of the brine, since things that float or stick up can get moldy. If you’re using a half-gallon or gallon jar, boil a rock to sterilize it or fill a ziptop bag with some brine and use them as weights. Remember, if you are using a jar, do not screw the lid on tightly. Fermentation produces gases which need to escape.
Mixing vegetables with salt or brine encourages the growth of beneficial lactobacilli while inhibiting the growth of harmful microbes. Lactobacilli metabolize sugars in the food into lactic acid, which makes your food taste sour and pickled. To make the brine, I get out the scale and measure 120 grams of sea salt into a bowl. I use a four percent brine, so 120 grams is enough for 3 liters of water, which I know will be enough from experience given how well I pack the crock. 40 grams per liter = 4%. The metric system is your friend. Many people just eyeball it or make it ocean-salty, since the sea is about three percent salt. Listen to your heart. It’s hard to mess this up. I take the salt and pour it into a saucepan with a small amount (about half a liter, roughly a pint) of the water and heat it up on the stove, stirring to dissolve it. Salt dissolves easily in hot water, and slowly in cold. Once the crystals are gone, I pour this water back into the bigger bowl with the cold (unchlorinated; chlorine is poison to good microbes and bad) water, stir it once, and then pour it into the crock until the level clears the weights by an inch or more. Then I put on the lid, fill the little moat that acts as a fermentation lock, and put it in the corner overnight. Room temperature is good to begin with, since it helps jumpstart the bacterial processes. I put it in the crawlspace under the house the next morning and leave it for at least a week in summer and at least two in winter.
Here’s something to get you in a kimchi-making mood. James Brown may not have known kimchi, but he knew ca-ra-zee (and check out a teenage Bootsy Collins crushing the bass like it’s a dried shrimp in a suribachi):
This is not as dark red as many examples, but that’s because I keep it at medium heat so it’s kid-friendly. It goes with everything from barbecue to vegan lentil salad. And don’t pour out the brine; it makes truly insane gravy when used in place of stock, as well as excellent vinaigrettes and sauces. It can also be used to ferment other things like grains or beans or to give your next batch of pickles a jump start. I try to never be without this stuff. It’s that good. Make some.