How to Make Kimchi
While there's so much more to Korean food than kimchi, it's impossible to deny that the dish is a cornerstone of the cuisine. In Korea, a meal without kimchi is unimaginable. Not only is it the most common banchan (side dish) on Korean tables, but it's also an invaluable ingredient in its own right. When most people hear the word kimchi, they think of the Napa cabbage version known as baechu kimchi or poggi kimchi (poggi is a unit used to count cabbage), but kimchi is really just a pickling technique. There are more than 100 distinct types of kimchi encompassing all kinds of vegetables, from Korean radish and cucumbers to mustard greens and perilla leaves.
Making kimchi is a centuries-old ritual that has been recognized on UNESCO's list of "intangible cultural heritage of humanity." Traditionally, families, neighbors, or even entire villages would come together during kimjang, the kimchi making that follows the annual fall cabbage harvest, and prepare stockpiles of kimchi to eat during the winter. Even with the rise of commercial kimchi, kimjang still thrives in many parts of the country and has been adapted in many Korean diaspora communities. "When I was growing up my mom would have her friends over, and they'd spend all day making these huge batches of kimchi," says Christina Park, our senior social media manager. "We'd have four to five big jars of kimchi that would last our family for the next several months."
While kimchi recipes vary from region to region and family to family, they generally have three processes in common: brining, seasoning, and fermenting. Christina and her mom recently shared their approach in a brilliant video tutorial for our Homeschool with Martha series, above.
Kimchi typically calls for either a wet brine of salt and water or a dry salt brine that is applied directly to the Napa cabbage. Both methods break down the vegetable, causing it to lose about 25 percent of its volume during the process, and this is what allows the seasoning to penetrate. Christina and her mother take a hybrid approach: They cut the cabbage into quarters lengthwise, sprinkle salt in the folds of all the leaves, and soak the cabbage in a solution of salt and water. Some recipes call for adding a weight, such as a plate or bowl topped with a heavy pot or a bag of flour or rice, in order to keep the cabbage submerged. Once the leaves are tender and softened, the cabbage is rinsed to remove any excess salt and drained.
The most critical component of kimchi seasoning is the earthy, fruity Korean red chile flakes known as gochugaru. The spice is usually bolstered with some combination of garlic, ginger, onion, scallions, Korean pear, Korean radish, and seafood such as salted shrimp, fish sauce, or raw oysters or squid. "The Korean radish is optional but adds an extra texture and a nice bite to your kimchi," says Christina. The ingredients are thickened with a slurry of glutinous rice flour and water, which speeds up the fermentation and helps the gochugaru bloom and evenly color the cabbage. The seasoning paste is then slathered onto the cabbage by hand (wear disposable gloves to protect your hands), and the kimchi is transferred to glass jars, airtight containers, or Korean earthenware crocks called hangari. "Make sure you're not packing the jars to the brim," advises Christina. "Leave a little bit of space at the top so the kimchi doesn't overflow during the fermentation process." While a full-leaf baechu kimchi is more traditional, you can also chop your cabbage into bite-size pieces as a shortcut. Your kimchi will ferment a lot faster, and it will be easier to serve since you can simply take out how much you want to eat.
The kimchi fermentation process is completely natural: It produces lactic acid, a good-for-you bacteria that activates the yeast already present in vegetables and preserves their color and texture. Christina and her mom recommend leaving your kimchi out at room temperature for a day or two to kick-start fermentation before placing it in the fridge for long-term storage. Look for tiny bubbles forming inside the jars—that means your kimchi is fermenting properly. You can also put your kimchi in the fridge immediately; just know that it will take much longer to ferment. Keep in mind that your kimchi is always changing: It will start out fresh and crisp, deepen in flavor as it ripens, and become increasingly tangy and soft as it ages further. The best part? It's delicious at every stage. Whether it's served alongside rice and grilled meats or starring in a comforting stew, savory pancakes, or fried rice, homemade kimchi is the gift that keeps on giving.