Gimjang: how I make kimchi…and why

One of these days, I’ll finish my series of posts about my time in Korea but not today. Instead, this is sort of a tangent to those posts: how I got into making kimchi.

Okay, so there is a bit about my time in Korea. I don’t think I’d ever had Korean food before boarding the plane to Seoul. So I decided that would be a good time to try kimchi. After that initial taste, I decided I would never eat kimchi again.

Haahahaahaaha. Oh, my sides.

Over my first few months, I did try kimchi again. And again. At first, it was more ‘I’m in Korea, I should eat this’, but eventually I grew to love this spicy fermented cabbage.

So when you say kimchi…?

Kimchi in a Fido jar
baechu kimchi

A note about kimchi. Kimchi has become a darling of modern gastronomy, the Korean version of fermented vegetables. It’s sometimes called Korean sauerkraut. That’s a bit reductionist, but gives you an idea. Koreans credit it with all sorts of health benefits, and with recent papers about the importance of a person’s gut biome, they might be on to something.

When I say ‘kimchi’ without qualifier, I mean baechu kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage version pictured here, which is likely what you think of if you’re familiar with kimchi (unless maybe if you’re Korean). But there are so many other varieties. There is baek kimchi, cabbage without the spice, and a slew of types made without cabbage at all. One of my favourites when I lived in Korea was young radish kimchi. Hmm, I grow radishes….

An aside: Instead of saying ‘cheese’ when taking pictures, try ‘kimchi’. It gives your mouth the same smile shape.

Why don’t you buy kimchi like a normal person?

The only reason I started making my own kimchi is that I resumed a vegetarian diet a few years after coming back from Korea (for reasons), and in the city I live in, at that time, the only kimchi options were made with fish sauce and shrimp paste or squid bits. So I went to the YouTubes and the Googles and figured out how to make my own.

And I’m so glad I did. I think my foray into kimchi making lead to sauerkraut making which lead to fermented hot sauce making which made me comfortable with making my own miso and homemade tempeh (which so much better than the store-bought stuff).

How I make kimchi

Making kimchi requires both ingredients and a process. My method – the one laid out below – is adapted from videos by Korean YouTubers and what little bits I remember from living in Korea, but there are hundreds of different recipes and methods.

But first the basic ingredients:

  • A couple of medium heads of Sui choy (Napa) cabbage (or one large one)
  • A couple of cloves of garlic, grated
  • A thumb or so of ginger, grated
  • A few green onions, sliced
  • A half cup-ish of gojugaru
  • Salt (about 3/4 cup divided)
  • Water
Kimchi ingredients: cabbage, gojugaru, salt, green onion, garlic, ginger and carrot
Kimchi ingredients

The quantities of the ingredients vary depending on the size of the cabbages, and if I go a little wild and get the biggest, heaviest “medium” heads of cabbage I can find. Gojugaru is Korean red pepper powder, and no, you cannot substitute anything else. But I saw this recipe online —. No. Find the gojugaru.

A lot of recipes call for a paste of glutinous rice flour (which has no gluten) and water. I’ve tried that and found it didn’t make a big difference. Some also call for grated pear, which I think I’ve tried but don’t recall how that turned out.

I often add carrot. I added daikon once…I’ve never added it again. The smell was so strong while it was fermenting.

And the equipment:

  • A cutting board
  • A chef’s knife
  • Muscle
  • A brining container
  • A crock
  • A dimchae

A what? A dimchae is a kimchi fridge meant to replicate the traditional underground fermentation vessels used in kimchi making. Okay, you don’t need one. I don’t have one, but I really want one…imagine all the ferments I could store).

The brining container is just a container — probably plastic since it’s not corrosive and we’re dealing with salt here — that’s big enough to fit your heads of cabbage during the salting phase. I’m sure there’s a technical term, but the phase where you sprinkle it with salt to draw out the liquid in the cabbage.

The crock doesn’t have to be a crock. This is where you ferment the kimchi. As you can see, I use a great, big Fido jar.

And the method:

Salted cabbage

Like I mentioned, there are probably as many methods of making kimchi as there are recipes.

I cut into the root end of the head of cabbage. Once I do that, I can tease the two halves apart. I then cut each half in half, so I end up with quarters, which I then drop in a colander and rinse. You can start abusing the cabbage at this point – it’s okay to be a little rough with it.

Next, I take each quarter, tease the leaves apart and sprinkle a bit of salt between them and lay them in the brining container. You don’t need a lot for each leaf; you’re just trying to get salt interspersed through the head. For this phase, I use about 1/2 cup of the salt.

Once that’s done, I wait. There’s a lot of waiting involved.

Later that day…

Usually it’s later that day, but it could be the next day…I make the paste, which involves mixing the remaining ingredients in a bowl and adding a bit of water to form a paste.

I take the quarters out of the salty water that’s formed. Over a colander (to catch all the bits of leaves that fall), I rinse the quarters. I squeeze and rinse again. And maybe again. This is where the real abuse of the cabbage starts.

kimchi seasoning paste
The good stuff

Laying the brined, squeezed quarters on the cutting board, I cut out the root bit then chop the quarter into bit-sized pieces. I throw these back into the brining container (after dumping out the salty water) and then add the paste. I then none-too-gently massage the cabbage to get the juices flowing.

Finally I pack it into the crock, making sure to push everything down well. I clean the crock walls above the cabbage – these are the bits that are more likely to mould – and then add the follower and weight.

Oh, I didn’t mentioned the following and weight up above. These are common pieces of equipment in ‘kraut making as well. The follower is something that lays over the fermenting ingredients to hold them down and the weight, well, weighs everything down to keep it under the brine. I usually use those silicone bowl covers as the follower then a bag filled with marbles or water as a weight.

Bubbles during fermentation
The lactobacilli farts

Now I wait as the lactobacilli magic happens, though if I’m fermenting in a Fido jar, I tend to ‘burp’ it every day. I usually let my kimchi ferment for 4-7 days. I start tasting – with a clean fork – after day 3 and let it go until it has a nice bite. Then it gets shared with friends and the rest goes into the fridge.

But what do you do with kimchi?

Besides eat it straight from the jar? Most of mine goes to my own version of kimchi chigae (kimchi soup – this is not my recipe but it actually sounds really good). I also make japchae and have kimchi on top. I’ll add it to a lazy woman’s version of bibimbap and use it in kimchi fried rice. Friends who eat cheese make kimchi grilled cheese sandwiches. Given that I used to slice pickles and slide them into ‘grouchy sandwiches’, I think that would be pretty tasty.

Okay, I think I’m done. This ended up being way longer than I anticipated. If you’re new to fermenting but interested in trying it, I’d suggest checking out some of the resources online to learn the basics – and how to tell when things have gone wrong. I have all of the books by these folks (I just realized, looking at their website), and recommend them. Cultures for Health also has some great resources.

I almost forgot. What does this have to do with writing? I don’t suppose I can say nothing. Absolutely nothing? I do have a short story that centres around making kimchi hanging out on my computer.

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