I think it's time that we talked about fermentation, and specifically, kimchi. Kimchi is a spicy and tangy fermented Korean food. In Korea it is typically eaten with each meal and making it is a day-long family affair. I really enjoy it as a digestive aid before dinner and it's great in fried rice. If you have never tried fermented foods before, this is the perfect time to start.
Fermented foods are a really important part of our diet and have been used in many cultures as a way to preserve foods and make them more digestible. Why are fermented foods important? Here's the deal. We all have microflora (bacteria) in our intestine which is absolutely necessary to keep us healthy. In the body, there is "good" bacteria and "bad" bacteria and it's important to keep the "good" bacteria thriving. Fermented foods contain populations of the "good" bacteria that help to keep the microflora balanced. This is necessary because antibiotics are so prevalent in our world (especially in modern agriculture production) and they kill the bacteria in your body, regardless of whether it is "good" or "bad."
You still with me? Good. I think it's also important to note here that fermented foods (e.g. kimchi, sauerkraut) are slightly different from cultured foods because they ferment with the bacteria that are naturally present in the food, rather than adding bacteria. Cultured foods (e.g. yogurt, tempeh) add certain bacteria and require a starter to make. Both fermented and cultured foods add "good" bacteria to your digestive system; they simply are made using different processes.
For a long time, I was very wary of making my own kimchi because I was convinced that I was going to do something wrong and poison myself. If you have this same fear I completely understand. However, making fermented vegetables is completely safe - as long as you follow the proper procedures. Over the past year, I've done a ton of research on fermentation, attended two classes on vegetable fermenting, and have made quite a few batches of kimchi and sauerkraut on my own. If you are new to the process of fermentation, I highly recommend that you take a class because it will help you to learn the proper methods and dispel any fears about hurting yourself.
If you are unable to attend a class, then I definitely recommend reading Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz
This book is a wealth of information about the fermentation process and the basics of vegetable ferments. The following method that I demonstrate is based on Katz's book. Once you get the hang of making fermented foods, you'll realize how easy and fun it is.
Adapted from Wild Fermentation
Yields: 40 oz
4 Tablespoons of sea salt or kosher salt
4 cups of water
1.5 pounds Napa cabbage
1 daikon radish, thinly sliced in half moons
1 medium yellow onion
4 garlic cloves
2-inch knob of ginger
1 - 2 Tablespoons gochugaru (Korean red chili pepper flakes)
4 green onions, chopped
Mix a brine from the sea salt and water. Stir well to thoroughly dissolve salt.
Coarsely chop cabbage, slice radish and carrots and let vegetables soak in brine, covered by a plate or other weight to keep the vegetables submerged. Soak for at least 5 hours, and up to 24 hours.
Prepare spices: dice the onion and garlic. Use a food processor to process onion, garlic, and ginger into a paste. Mix in the gochugaru and green onions.
Drain brine off of vegetables, reserving brine. Taste vegetables for saltiness. You want them to taste decidedly salt, but not surprisingly so. If they are too salty, rinse them with water. If you cannot taste salt, sprinkle the vegetables with a couple of teaspoons of salt and mix.
Mix the vegetables throughly with the spice paste. Pack them tightly into a clean jar, pressing down until the brine rises. If necessary, add a little of the reserved vegetable-soaking brine to submerge the vegetables. Weight the vegetables down with a smaller jar if necessary (fill the smaller jar with liquid to keep everything weighted down). Cover the jar with a towel to keep flies and dust out.
Ferment in your kitchen or other warm place. Taste the kimchi every day and check it to make sure it is still submerged under the brine. Depending on your tastes and the temperature of where it is stored, the kimchi can be ready in as soon as a few days or a few weeks. The fermentation process generally takes longer in cool weather and shorter in warm weather. When your kimchi tastes ripe (sour and tangy), move it to the refrigerator. It can last for several months, if not longer, in the fridge as long as it still has some brine in the jar.
Some important notes:
- Be sure to ferment your kimchi in a glass jar or glazed ceramic crock. Since the brine and vegetables are heavily salted, it is important to avoid using metal or plastic.
- Do not use iodized salt or any product with preservatives in your kimchi. Iodine is antimicrobial and will prevent the kimchi from fermenting.
- You do not want air touching your vegetables. It is vital to keep everything submerged under the brine. As long as everything is submerged under liquid, mold will not develop.
- After your vegetables have soaked in the brine, they will lose a lot of moisture and will decrease in volume.
- Gochugaru (Korean red chili pepper flakes) can be found at any Asian grocery store or ordered online