My first time fermenting … Kimchi = rad

Ever since learning about fermenting and kimchi at a pickling class this summer, I have been wanting to try to make my own kimchi. I wanted to research what sorts of flavors and spices most people use, and then I realized … people don’t add tons of spices to kimchi. The best kimchi I ever had was a simple cabbage and broccoli mix with carrots and crisp, fresh-tasting herbs. The best chefs use fresh herbs, fresh ginger and garlic, wholesome vegetables like cucumber, cabbage, radish and green onions, and lots of peppers, both fresh and dried, both spicy and mild. Most recipes also incorporate something sweet like fruit, or even sweeter vegetables like carrots or beets, to balance out the heat of the peppers.

This pot of kimchi has a variety of delicious herbs and vegetables.

Kimchi is also very simple to make, and requires no fancy tools or expensive equipment. Knives to chop the veggies, a food processor to blend the paste, bowls to mix it, and a crock or jars to ferment the mixture. Although traditionally, Koreans put the kimchi in clay pots and bury them underground, sometimes for months or even years, and as you can see by the above photo, it’s made just as well in any non-reactive pot. I adapted Kate’s recipe for kimchi on Recipe for Disaster, because it looked pretty insanely easy, by using a storebought Thai curry paste I love instead of making my own chili paste from ginger and chili flakes…

Feel free to use any of the many kinds of premade paste, or make your own!

…  and I added a red and a yellow bell pepper to the fruit blend, and some shredded carrots to the whole mix. Please don’t be shy about changing or adapting this recipe; there are as many kimchi recipes as there are kimchi eaters. This recipe is also comparatively mild … many Westerners probably couldn’t hand the most traditional Korean kimchis. Personally, I can’t handle a whole lot of heat and spice, although I am getting better at it; but Koreans never met a hot pepper they didn’t like.

Hillary’s Sweet ‘n’ Easy Kimchi

  • – 1 head of cabbage
  • – 2 onions, one white one red
  • – 2 cloves fresh garlic and 1 small fresh ginger root, diced
  • – 2 bell peppers, one yellow, one red
  • – 2 medium carrots
  • – 1 apple
  • – 1 pear
  • – 2-3 tablespoons Thai curry paste, dissolved in about 1/2 cup warm water
  • – 1 bunch fresh cilantro or other fresh herbs
  • – Sea salt
  • – Water

I chopped the cabbage and placed into a large bowl filled with warm water and kosher salt. Then I drained out most of the water and let it rest for a few hours, then rinsed off the salt and drained all the water out.  I chopped the pears, onions, bell peppers, ginger, garlic and herbs, put it all into the food processor, and pureed it into a paste, and I shredded two carrots into the cabbage.

I just shredded the carrots with a vegetable peeler.

After adding warm water to the Thai curry paste and dissolving it (and looking away so it didn’t burn my eyes … whew!), I added it with the fruit mixture and — after donning some plastic gloves — tossed the whole mixture with my hands to make sure every piece of cabbage and carrot was covered in the chili/fruit paste. Make sure it’s coated thoroughly.

It looks like this after all the cabbage is coated.

Then I packed the mixture into a few jars, making sure to pack the mixture very tightly and pack the cabbage firmly inside the jars.

Let it sit at room temperature (in a cool place) for at least 24 hours. Don’t process the jars ever, and don’t refrigerate them until you want the fermentation process to stop. After coating the cabbage completely, there’s a little liquid at the bottom of the bowl, so it just gets transferred to the jars, and even after just a couple of hours, a lot more liquid has accumulated. Since the cabbage leaves have been so totally well-coated with flavor, the more the cabbage ferments, the stronger the flavor of the kimchi will get.

Note: I cannot stress enough — be sure to wear gloves when you mix it up and when you cram it into the jars! You want to make sure it’s coated completely with the paste and packed very firmly into the jars, and the only way to do that is with your hands. But you DO NOT want to get this in your eyes!

I have to admit, I am a little nervous about this experiment. Most Americans like myself have a genuine fear of fermenting anything (that’s just a fancy word for “spoiling” or “rotting”) and the idea of putting a jar full of vegetables on a shelf somewhere and leaving it there until all of the natural chemicals in the foods make the whole mixture start to ferment and pickle itself … well, let’s just say it doesn’t come easy. But millions of Koreans can’t be wrong. It’s incredibly healthy and full of vitamins and all of the good natural acids your body and spirit needs. On the plus side, this is a quick-fermenting mix, so the vegetables will stay crisp and tasty, and I love the idea of a sweet and natural additive. Nothing in this recipe is processed or storebought except the chili paste, and only slightly, and you can adapt this recipe to suit your own tastes.

So, the jars are filled and in a dark spot. Let the experiment commence.

After 24 hours ….

… the mixture doesn’t look any different, although more liquid has accumulated in all of the jars — even the very small one.

After 48 hours …

… Dang. The largest jar has burst. I opened the cupboard where I was storing the jars (in the dark) and saw a shard of glass. It straight popped out by itself. I must have closed the lids too tight. So, please, when you store these, be sure to keep them in a dark place, and keep the lids as loose as possible. Although I understand that the process of fermentation means the release of gasses, somehow I didn’t put two and two together and realize that a closed mason jar would mean the gasses have nowhere to escape. Learn from my mistakes, kids. This could have been a giant mess.

I transferred the kimchi from the broken jar (it did pop out, not in) into a tupperware container and refrigerated it — this will be good for my experiment regardless, because when I eat this, I will be able to tell the difference between this batch and the remaining three jars that will keep fermenting. I am interested to find out the flavor difference between 2-day kimchi and others that ferment for a longer time. I am experimenting, after all.

So this is the 2-day batch. It’s been sitting long enough to ferment (24 hours is the minimum) but lots of Koreans won’t touch a kimchi that has been fermenting for less than a week. I aim to find out the difference. There are four jars with an identical mixture. The first fermented for 48 hours before it was refrigerated, thus stopping the fermentation process.

By the way, when that jar burst at 48 hours, I also noticed that the lids on the other jars were sticking up, and when I loosened the lids on them, they each emitted a little noise. And a FANTASTIC smell. Oh, this will be so yummy.

After 5 days …

… I loosened the rings on the jars again and each one was still fermenting away, as evidenced by the pffftt noise that squeaked out. And honestly, I was still a little wigged out about the breaking glass a couple of days before, so I loosened each ring even more and wrapped each in a brown paper bag. This way the lid could stay loose and nothing will fall into the kimchi, and it would stay dark around the jars. I also put one more jar in the fridge, stopping the fermentation process. Now I have a 2-day jar and a 5-day jar.

After one week …

… Took one more jar out of the cupboard and stuck it in the fridge. I have the 2-day batch, a 5-day batch and a 7-day batch. I also have a tiny, 4-oz. jar that I will keep for as long as I can. Just to see what happens. Maybe one-month kimchi will be the best-tasting of them all.

Kimchi is generally used as a side dish with delicious Korean dishes like barbeque pork or chicken and marinated seafood, or in kimchi soup and kimchi fried rice. The natural fermenting process is very healthy and earthy, and it has a flavor you can’t duplicate anywhere else. I paired mine with an easy and slow-cooked Korean spicy BBQ pork and marinated grilled chicken.

I based the BBQ pork recipe on another ridiculously easy one – my favorite crock-pot recipe for wicked easy pork carnitas. Essentially I just changed the spices; instead of onions, cumin, ancho chiles, paprika, and oregano, I added to a couple of pounds of cut-up pork some good sesame oil, rice vinegar, sambal oelek (red chile pepper paste), fish sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic powder, ginger (you can use fresh or ground), and a nice squirt of sriracha sauce.

I used this recipe for about 2 lbs of pork. I placed the pork in a big freezer bags and mixed this marinade, then let it rest overnight. This is just as good with chicken, although I would recommend using a chicken thigh (with the skin and bone attached) if you’re going to cook it in the crock pot. If you’re using skinless and boneless chicken breasts, marinate them overnight and toss them on the grill or fry them.

Spicy Korean Pork (and/ or Chicken) Marinade

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tbsp. garlic powder
  • 2 tbsp. sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 2-3 tbsp. sambal oelek
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 generous squirt of sriracha

Blend all of the ingredients together and place in a freezer bag with the pork or chicken. Refrigerate and let it marinate overnight.

I started the marinade the night before I planned to have people over to taste my attempts at recreating Korean specialties. The next morning, before I left for work, I put the pork and all the marinade into my crock pot and set it on “low.” I freaking love my crock pot – when I got home 9 hours later, my pork was perfectly cooked and ready. Picture me lifting the lid on the crock pot and shouting “Ooooh yeah” in my Kool-Aid guy voice.

This is so fragrant and awesome.

The kimchi is usually only one of many side dishes in Korean cuisine. Luckily, Koreans dig anything that has been fermented, pickled, or generously spiced. My kitchen never has a lack of delicious and spicy pickled things, so I included rice and a few different pickled sides, like my own pickled carrots and asparagus, my friend the Neighborhood Foodie’s beet-pickled eggs, sliced water chestnuts and bamboo shoots, and some sliced cucumbers.

As far as the taste of the kimchi, I think the batch that fermented the longest (7 days) was the spiciest, but all of them had deep and pungent flavors. If you’ve ever bought kimchi in a store, you literally can’t compare the two. The store-bought jar (at least in my experience) was the polar opposite of this homemade goodness — storebought tastes rancid and spoiled where this is naturally fermented and tastes crisp and fresh.