Best Kim Chi Yet!

I continue to go through kim chi at an alarming rate, so it was time for another batch. Something about having a ready-to-go savory vegetable snack calling my name every time I open the refrigerator makes it disappear quickly — funny thing. I seem to have learned a thing or two from the first time and second time I made kim chi recently, because this batch was definitely the best yet. I made a day of it with a friend, and we came away with a boatload of fermented cabbage. Here’s the blow-by-blow of how it all got done.

Kim Chi Ingredients

We started with a big trip to the store, where we picked up the following ingredients. (In parentheses are weights and where relevant, measurements used in the recipe.)

  • 4 large heads Napa Cabbage (18 lbs)
  • 5 Large Carrots (3.5 lbs)
  • 4 heads garlic
  • 6 bunches scallions
  • 2 large daikons (3.15 lbs)
  • 2 bags baby bok choy (1.75 lbs)
  • 1 big ginger (1.5 lbs)
  • Korean Hot Pepper Powder (2.5 cups)
  • Fish Sauce (approx 3/4 cup)
  • Shrimp Paste (approx 4 tsp)
  • Arame Seaweed (1/2 cup dried)
  • 3 c salt

We got it all home and got to washing, peeling, and chopping. We started with the cabbage, because the first step is to brine it. We were lucky enough to have a very large recepticle for that — an old sauerkraut crock that my friend’s German grandmother used on her farm in Michigan. We needed the space for all that cabbage, which we covered with water and mixed with salt, at the ratio of 1/3 c salt to 1 quart water. We let it sit while we chopped all the other veggies and the ginger into bite-sized pieces and rehydrated the seaweed in warm water.

Brining Cabbage in the Crock

The next step was to make chili paste. We did that in a food processor, and I divided mine into two kinds. I decided to make one “Ocean” kim chi, with seaweed in it and with shrimp paste in the chili paste, and one standard, without seaweed or shrimp paste. Both had fish sauce, garlic, and chili powder.

We let the cabbage brine for about 40 minutes before draining it and mixing it together with the chopped veggies and chili paste. This was done by hand in batches, using the largest bowl we could find.

Mixing in the Chili Paste

The next step was to get the kim chi into two quart mason jars and make sure that all the vegetables were covered by their brine — the fermentation magic only happens in the brine, and veggies exposed to air can mold. This was a fairly messy process of putting kimchi in the jar and then tamping it down with a long, handle-less rolling pin in a plastic bag. (The plastic bag was just to keep the chili paste from turning my nice wooden rolling pin red.) As we tamped it down, the veggies compacted, the brine rose, and we were able to fit all of our goodies into six two quart jars and one one quart jar.

Tamping down the cabbage in jars

To keep the veggies below brine level in the jars, I mushed a small silicone baking bowl into the top of each jar to provide downward pressure. We then closed up the jars and admired our good-looking handiwork.

Beginning to Ferment

The hard part for us was done, but the fermentation process was just beginning. Here’s what happened next:

Day 1 – I shut jars and left them on the counter.

Day 3 AM – They’re leaking all over the counter! When opening the jars, there’s some semi-explosive pressure release. Oops! Clean-up required.  Put the jars in a baking dish in a cupboard in case of future leaks and re-tightened the lids

Day 3 PM – Oops! Some further leaks, some pressure release. Loosely re-tightened jar caps to prevent further pressure build-up.

Day 4 – Phew! No leaks observed, no further pressure build-up.

Day 7 –  No further leaks or pressure, but the liquid level had receded too far to cover all the cabbage. I added a bit of water in some of the jars and smushed down on the little bowls to get everything below brine level. Tasted it, but it doesn’t taste done.

Day 9 – The veggies have compacted enough that the little bowls aren’t keeping things under the brine, so I added half-pint jars to the mix. These pictures may or may not help this make sense:

The little red bowl under the jar lid was enough to keep everything under the brine at first.

The little red bowl under the jar lid was enough to keep everything under the brine at first.

Later in the fermentation process, I put a half-pint jar in the bowl to push things down further.

Later in the fermentation process, I put a half-pint jar in the bowl to push things down further.

 Day 10 — Taste test says….done! To my taste, at least. Some people might have thought it was done on day three, others might want to let it go longer. The veggies are smaller and more compact, so I was able to consolidate the jars before refrigerating.

It was actually only most of the way through the process that I looked up kimchi and fermentation in On Food and Cooking, my new reference book, and made a very interesting discovery.

Harold McGee makes some distinctions between sauerkraut and kim chi, and one of them is the temperature at which they ferment. Kim chi traditionally ferments underground at temperatures between 41 and 57 degrees, which provides ideal conditions for a different set of friendly fermenting bacteria than are found in sauerkraut, which traditionally ferments above ground between 64 and 76 degrees.. So even if I did everything in the most authentic way possible, I would still essentially be making Korean-style sauerkraut as long as I wasn’t fermenting at these lower temperatures. Fascinating! I’m thinking about future experimental batches to test this on. Maybe I could make one in late September, and keep some of it in the fridge until November, when I could make another batch and ferment it outside at a lower temperature, and then compare? I’ll have to think more about this, but it’s an exciting prospect.

So now the important part: how was it? I had two varieties to sample. I also couldn’t help comparing my handiwork with some mass market kim chi, as shown here.

Canned Kim Chi

In an honest comparison, the mass market stuff was both sweeter and spicier, and the cabbage inside was rolled up rather than mish-mashed in like mine. But I easily liked both of my varieties better. (Thank goodness! This would have been a lot of wasted time.) Of my two varieties, I preferred my “ocean” kim chi, with the shrimp paste and seaweed, to the standard version that had neither. I liked it’s fuller, fishier taste, but can easily imagine that some would have preferred the plain one for the same reason.

Notes for Next Time:

  • I will fill the jars with less cabbage, experiment with different ways of weighting it down, and not close the jars so tightly to let pressure build up so that I don’t lose any brine in the early, active fermentation days that I’ll need to keep it all covered later.
  • I used arame seaweed this time, because it’s what my friend had around, but I think I’ll use wakame next time — I like the shape and texture better.
  • I was nervous about the shrimp paste, but I liked the result. Again, not everyone making this at home might agree, but I’m the only one eating it.
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