Chef Esther Choi, of Mŏkbar, explains why it's easier to make your own kimchi than you might think.
The first day of spring has come and gone (though the weather in some parts of the country tells a different story) which means fresh spring produce — leeks, asparagus, rhubarb and ramps — will soon hit farmers markets and grocery store shelves. But comfort food season hasn't quite ended yet, either, which makes this a magical time of year, when it's just as appropriate to start whipping up light, spring-forward dishes as it is to churn out warming produce-driven dishes. Enter kimchi.
While it's admittedly always a good time for this Korean staple, a recent conversation with Mŏkbar chef Esther Choi made us eager to start fermenting.
Choi calls kimchi one of the most versatile dishes out there, and it's easy to see why. She serves it with almost every type of ramen on her menu—from the spam and pork belly ramen to the pulled chicken ramen, and even tops her sliders with the stuff. Though she typically sees people using kimchi as a condiment these days, she says that the sky's the limit. She’s even eaten it alongside pizza and steak.
Versatility aside, Choi thinks that more people should be eating kimchi because of its health benefits: Kimchi is naturally probiotic (like most fermented foods), and packed with Vitamin D. And, she encourages anyone who's not already making it at home to give it a try. It’s so much easier than you might think, she reassures.
Here are Choi's top five tips for making your own kimchi. Once you’ve internalized her advice, check out six of our favorite kimchi recipes and get cracking.
No special tools needed
Choi says you don’t need fancy tools or kits to make your own kimchi. At most, you’ll need an airtight mason jar. The most important thing you need when making kimchi is time. Other than that, “ It's not hard at all,” she says. Once you do your research on the fermentation process (the book Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond might be a good place to start; the book’s co-author Alex Lewin explained how anyone can ferment their own food to Food & Wine), commit to spending at least five days waiting for the kimchi to pickle.
12 Ball 16-ounce Mason Jars with Lids, $24 on amazon.com
Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond, $17 on amazon.com
Don’t skimp on the produce
You’ll want to use the freshest produce that you can find. And you don't have to use Napa cabbage, although that’s the most popular vegetable to use when making kimchi. (Here’s our recipe for a kimchi using Napa cabbage, if you prefer to take a more traditional route.)
Choi likes to use seasonal vegetables in her kimchi: In the spring, one of her favorite recipes uses ramps; in the summer, she uses cucumber; and in the winter, beets or radishes.
The use of fresh produce doesn't stop there, however. In place of regular granulated sugar, Choi prefers juiced apples and pears (not slices), which add the necessary sweetness to the mixture, while the acidity of the fruit assists in the fermentation process.
You'll need a few essential ingredients
Salt is crucial to the flavor of your kimchi. According to Choi, you must use rock salt—which is thicker and coarser than regular kosher salt—to salt your vegetable of choice, which “helps wilt the vegetables the right way.”
You’ll also need to make a kimchi paste, which you can feel free to customize according to your tolerance for spiciness. Choi uses real peppers if she’s in the mood for an extra spicy flavor, as well as Korean pepper flakes, onions, and garlic. Fish sauce is another necessary ingredient if you hope to match the flavors of traditional kimchi (although she says that it can be left out if you want to make a vegan version).
The one ingredient you should be careful with using is ginger—too much can completely overwhelm the kimchi’s flavor, Choi warns.
Red Boat Vietnamese Extra Virgin Fish Sauce, $10 on amazon.com
Tae-kyung Korean Red Chili Pepper Flake Powder, $9 on amazon.com
Tidman’s Rock Salt, $20 on amazon.com
Mix up the fermentation temperatures
First, you’ll want to let your kimchi ferment at room temperature. You’ll be able to see the process happen as the mixture begins to bubble. One of Choi’s most important pieces of advice is that you should not fill your mason jars all the way to the top, because as the vegetables ferment, the mixture rises. A too-full jar could explode or bubble over, leaving your entire kitchen and everything in it smelling like partially fermented vegetables.
Once it’s fermented at room temperature, place the jar in the refrigerator, where the cooler temperature will slow down the fermentation process.
How long you leave the kimchi at room temperature also depends on where you live. For instance, a home cook in Texas may want to place the kimchi in a cooler place sooner than someone who lives in a cooler climate.
Give the mixture a few days to ferment
Choi typically leaves the kimchi out at room temperature for two to three days, before placing it in the refrigerator. From there, there’s no exact science to how long you should let it rest. Choi tastes her kimchi every day, using her palate to decide when it’s ready to serve.
And that's the beauty of making kimchi at home. There’s no way to really mess it up. In fact, Choi says she would never recommend that someone throw out a batch. Kimchi can last for as many as three months, and even then, it doesn’t go bad, so much as it gets more sour.
Even if you think you may have left your kimchi out at room temperature for too long, don’t stress—your ingredients and your time won’t go to waste. If the flavor is too sour for you to eat the kimchi alone, you can easily repurpose it as a marinade or in a stew. And remember the first lesson Choi shared? It pairs well with just about anything, from meat and chicken to pork, beef and all those spring vegetables.