Meet sauerkraut's fiery cousin.

By Laura Fisher
July 24, 2019
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Over the last decade, fermented foods have gained massively in popularity in the United States. The restaurant management platform Upserve found that in 2018 alone, fermented foods in menu items were up 149 percent from previous years. Fermentation is not a new trend, however. Since the invention of cooking, people have been preserving foods with microorganisms, leading to some of the best foods: yogurt, blue cheese, wine, pickles, and more. One of the lesser-known fermented foods, kimchi, is one of the oldest culinary traditions that exists, with origins stretching back thousands of years.

I recently got interested in the health benefits of fermented foods and started buying jars of kimchi at my local health food store. Tired of shelling out $10 for what is essentially cabbage, I decided to make my own. After talking to a few experts, making a few mistakes, and chopping a LOT of cabbage, I feel ready to share what I discovered. Read on to learn more about what kimchi is, and how you can make it at home.

What is Kimchi?

Kimchi is a fermented vegetable dish with a spicy kick that is the most iconic element in Korean cuisine. Similarly to sauerkraut, kimchi is usually made with cabbage (the napa variety, preferably), but there are over 100 varieties of kimchi that include ingredients from cucumber to pumpkin. Like other fermented foods such as kombucha and pickles, kimchi is rich in probiotics and may help with digestion, inflammation, and overall gut health.

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How to Make Kimchi at Home

There are thousands of kimchi recipes out there, all claiming to be the most authentic, but the truth is, there is no “best” version of kimchi. Once you get the basic formula down, your kimchi recipe will evolve to meet your taste buds. I like mine extra spicy with a touch of sweetness, others might prefer a more mild version with extra salt. Traditional kimchi calls for napa cabbage, daikon radish and green scallions, but you can also use regular green cabbage and carrots or another vegetable. I even came across one recipe that included an asian pear. Each batch of kimchi has its own unique flavor, so don’t be scared to experiment—it’s half the fun!

Even though kimchi comes in a diversity of styles and flavors, the basic pattern of the kimchi recipe remains consistent:

Step 1: Brine

I asked Sandor Katz, the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Art of Fermentation,” what his top tip was for making kimchi at home. He said, “Absolutely soaking the cabbage first in a water brine. Even if your recipe doesn’t call for it, it completely changes the texture and makes a big difference in the finished product.”

To brine, chop your cabbage into 1 inch cubes and pre-soak in a heavily salted bath for at least 6 hours, and up to 24. Give it a stir a few times throughout the process to make sure that they are getting evenly brined. The salting allows the cabbage to gradually absorb the kimchi seasoning, allowing for a deeper flavor. Weigh the cabbage down during soaking with a plate covered by something heavy, like a jar or can, to keep the pieces submerged. I used a large fermentation pot throughout my process, similar to this one, which has a weight included.

Step 2: Paste

This is where the iconic flavor of kimchi comes from and what differentiates it from other fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut. The basic ingredients for the spice paste are garlic, ginger, gochujang (korean chilli paste), and fish sauce (substitute miso for a vegetarian version). Some kimchi aficionados swear by a bit of sugar, others are horrified by the idea of adding sweetener. I chose to include a teaspoon of granulated sugar in my batch and was pleased with the way it balanced out the savory dish. Combine everything in a food processor with a bit of water, just a tablespoon or two, and pulse until a paste is formed.

Some recipes call for mixing in a starchy base, either a grated potato or a mixture of rice flour and water, into the paste. I didn’t take this step and my kimchi turned out fine, albeit a little watery. If you want a thicker kimchi, try simmering 1 cup of water with 2 tablespoons of flour until it begins to thicken, cooling, and then adding to the rest of the paste ingredients.

RELATED: What Is Kombucha, Exactly?

Step 3: Combine and ferment

Drain the cabbage and rinse under cold water, squeezing out as much liquid as possible. Using your tongs or hands (I recommend using gloves, or at least not rubbing your eyes during this process as I painfully learned), massage the paste into the cabbage until evenly coated. I recommend doing a taste test at this point to see if you’d like to add more heat, salt, or sweetness.

If using a fermentation pot, you can put the kimchi mixture back in at this point, adding just a few tablespoons of the leftover brine and pressing the kimchi down. If you don’t have a pot, you can pack the kimchi tightly into mason jars and make sure that there is enough liquid to cover the mixture. Put the lids on the jars but leave them loose so that air can flow. Katz says, “Don’t freak out if your kimchi develops a thin layer of mold or scum on top; that’s completely normal. Just scrape it off and keep fermenting!”

After 2-3 days sitting on the counter, put your kimchi in the fridge in a container with a tight lid. It’s ready to eat now, but the longer it sits, the more it will ferment and develop in flavor. Just make sure to keep packing it down to keep all the veggie pieces submerged. I personally find that after 3 months in the fridge, kimchi is a little too funky tasting for my liking. With uses in everything from lettuce wraps to chicken noodle soup, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble getting through the batch!

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