Kimchi – My Fermenting Nemesis

I’m struggling to get a good batch of Kimchi. If you don’t know what Kimchi is but you do know what sauerkraut is, then you are more acquainted with German food than Korean food. Typically, both are fermented cabbage although Koreans call any fermented vegetable kimchi. For my part, I’m talking about cabbage. Many moons ago (summer of 2014?) I made a batch of kimchi using green cabbage from the garden. It turned out fine but was really sauerkraut with hints of pepper and radish. A couple months ago, I decided to make “real” kimchi and ended up with a rotten pile of mush – I had a failure to ferment. Who just heard the movie quote “what we have here is a failure to communicate” run through their mind? Anyway… back to the Kimchi.

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Vegetables for the ferment: napa and bok choy cabbages, daikon and carrot

Sauerkraut as I know it is shredded green cabbage while kimchi is chopped bok choy and/or napa cabbage. Napa comes from nappa which is a colloquial Japanese term for leaves of a vegetable used for food – not from our grapey California valley.

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Cabbage cut into squares for kimchi as opposed to shredded for sauerkraut

I suspect the difference in cutting styles is tied to the fork vs chopstick utensil preference.

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Daikon and carrots cut into matchsticks

The carrots and daikon are tougher vegetables compared to the leafy cabbage and are meant as accents rather than the main focus, so it is cut up smaller.

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A few scallions get cut into 1″ pieces and added in to the mix. I thought they looked better whole and figured there’s nothing photo worthy about cutting 1″ pieces of a green onion…

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Garlic and ginger in stages

Garlic and ginger provide part of the flavor to kimchi. Neither go into sauerkraut. You can see the top to bottom garlic clove smash-peel-mince sequence Craig taught me. It’s the little things… Ginger is a funny shaped root. Just thought I’d throw that in for posterity.

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Seasoning mix

My sauerkraut gets salt, caraway and juniper. Here you can see the garlic and ginger along with the salt, sugar, and a wee bit of crushed red pepper. The seasoning mix then gets combined with fish sauce. That stuff smells vile. That is all.

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Packing the crock for the ferment

Now for a discussion on method… I have had great success with sauerkraut ¬†when i add cabbage and salt and seasoning to the crock and let it do it’s thing. I usually add a little bit of brine (aka salt water) after a day or two in order to ensure everything stays submerged (I spend very little effort stomping or smashing). My first pseudo-kimchi with shredded green cabbage was made this way and fermented just fine. My most recent attempt at kimchi used a different technique that I read as the traditional method.

Using this traditional method, the cabbage is cut and soaked in brine for a period of time and then rinsed and combined with the rest of the ingredients to coat the leaves with the seasoning for the ferment. The theory is that the cabbage quickly absorbs the salt during the brine soak and everything gets going a bit quicker. Mine didn’t ferment – it rotted. So, either the brine wasn’t strong enough or it didn’t soak long enough. Too much extra work to figure out how to fix it, so I’m sticking with the German technique for this next batch. The cabbage and seasoning got mixed in as I filled the crock. I added a bit of brine to keep everything submerged.

We are on day 8 of the ferment now. I’ll taste it today to see if it is fermenting as expected. If not, you may read about an eccentric that died suddenly from eating some strange rotten food concoction. Wish me luck!

UPDATE 1/16/16

Tasted the kimchi today. MUCH better! A touch too salty for my liking but perfectly edible and great flavor and crunch. A little less salt in the added brine will probably do the trick. I might try the “traditional” salt and rinse method again someday, but for now my “sauerkraut” method works for me. The batch yielded 2 packed quarts.


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