My family has deep ties to South Korea. My Uncle PJ lived there for over 20 years, becoming as Korean as anyone. His Korean name was, “Kim Mi-nam,” meaning: American man who loves kimchi. (To read more about this hilarious human, go here!) He created a successful international business, while bringing the culture of SK to our family.
For as long as I can remember, we’ve been eating kimchi, Bulgogi, galbi, japchae, and plenty of other dishes I can’t name or pronounce. We had a family rule: You don’t have to like it, but you have to try at least one bite. This rule frustrated eight year old Mallory, but as a result, adult Mallory has an affinity for a wide range of cuisine.
When I spent a summer in SK, I ate live squid, fish heads, and much more. I did draw the line at bugs…but I have a pretty legitimate phobia of things that have more than four legs.
Also as a result of my exposure to SK culture, came a deep and long-lasting need for kimchi. I crave kimchi. Regardless of what I’m eating, I want to smother it in the spicy fermented cabbage of my childhood.
The problem? I don’t like packaged kimchi available in stores. There’s only one traditional Korean restaurant near me, and I can’t make it there as much as I’d like. Clearly, the only solution was to make my own kimchi.
First, I needed a pot.
My potter-friend Betsy Croft makes the most beautiful hand-thrown fermenting pots. I knew it was a sign for me to finally itch my kimchi scratch. I commissioned one that could hold two quarts. Perfect…a month supply of kimchi.
Second, I needed a recipe.
Not just any recipe. An authentic, tried and true recipe. I contacted my uncle, but he’s a busy professor/business owner and I was in a hurry to shovel kimchi into my mouth. I searched the internet, and found some pretty great sources, specifically this blog.
Third, I needed ingredients.
To make truly authentic food from another culture, you generally can’t find what you need at your local grocery store. I’m familiar with Asian and Mexican marts, but I generally stick to rice and meat when I go. This recipe required me to write ingredients down in Korean and just hope someone would be able to help me.
Lucky for me, the owner of my local Asian market happens to be Korean! After three trips, lots of Google translate, and my attempt to say “rice paste” with charades, she is very invested in the success of my kimchi. God Bless her.
I’m not going to go over the recipe, because the lovely Hyosun created it, and describes it so well on her blog. If you want the recipe, please visit her website here. I will, however, explain the process and give you some helpful hints.
Tip #1 While incredibly simple, kimchi is very time consuming to make. Plan on a 10-hour period of time to make a batch at home. It’s not an active 10 hours, but the cabbage takes about eight hours to soak–I did it overnight!
Tip #2 Since these ingredients are not what you probably use on a daily basis in your kitchen, take the time to research some other uses for spices like Gochujang and Doenjang. These ingredients will strengthen your meat dishes and soups, giving you a new take on flavor.
Step 1: Halve, Wash, Salt, and Brine the Cabbage
This is the step that makes kimchi ferment. Salt permeates the vegetable, breaking down enzymes, allowing the fermenting process to start.
After cutting each head of cabbage in half, sprinkle coarse sea salt (or any salt, really…) in between each leaf. Then, leave it to soak in a large container of salt water for 6-8 hours.
I left my cabbage to brine for eight hours, because I wanted to be certain it was long enough. Rotate the pieces every few hours to make sure all of them are equally exposed to the brine.
Step 2: Cut & Season the Cabbage
Disclaimer: I haven’t actually seen a recipe that tells you to cut the cabbage FIRST. Most recipes have you season each cabbage half and let it ferment that way. I wanted to put mine in a medium sized fermenting pot, and I knew the large halves wouldn’t fit. So, I decided to cut the cabbage and place it in a big bowl to season it.
Mix all the seasonings together into a paste, be sure to wear gloves when rubbing it on the cabbage. Korean red chili powder is incredibly spicy and irritating to skin.
Step 3: Ferment the Kimchi
There are two phases of fermentation: room temperature and chilled. Please note that there are literally hundreds of methods of kimchi making, so this is not gospel here, only the general consensus I’ve read.
First: ferment at room temperature for 48 hours, second: ferment in a refrigerated environment for two weeks. After 48 hours the kimchi is technically ready to eat, but the flavors will not have developed fully. In order to ensure the best flavored kimchi, have patience.
I chose to ferment in a fermenting pot, putting my finished product into glass jars. However, most people choose to ferment in glass Mason jars to skip the extra step.
Tip #3 On day 3, open your fermenting container to release the gas created during the fermenting process. If it’s a large pot, you can just go ahead and open it. I took a long knife to shake the gas pockets loose. If it’s a glass jar with a tightened lid, open slowly and over the sink, doing the same with a knife. Some people like to use these nifty fermenting lids from Amazon.
The recipe I listed above makes about three quarts of kimchi. I’d have four jars ready, just in case. Kimchi will keep for up to two months in the fridge, but, if you know how to can, you can pressure seal your jars and keep them for years. In my case, three quarts of kimchi will go fast!
Now you have yourself some Authentic Kimchi. Cook up some rice and enjoy.
My favorite way to enjoy kimchi is with Bulgogi and rice. The best Bulgogi recipe I’ve tried can be found here. The blend of seasonings suggested in this recipe makes for incredibly authentic tasting Bulgogi.
For some reason, Bon Appetit suggests you can use chicken for Bulgogi. I’m sure it would be delicious, but it wouldn’t be Bulgogi. I used flank steak like one might use for carne asada. Additionally, I substituted peach preserves for the pear, as that is what I had on hand. Apple would probably suffice too.
Tip #4 Ginger goes bad fast. I keep mine in the freezer, as frozen ginger can be grated just like fresh ginger. This means I’m never without fresh ginger, and never stuck with rotten ginger either.