The color got a little muted when I uploaded this picture. Trust me, in real life, it is BRIGHT red.
Looking up recipes for kimchi can be intimidating because everyone has their own way of doing it. Some recipes make it sound easy, some get mystical and cult-like about the benefits of kimchi making, and some are just completely intimidating ("People who say they got it down after the first couple of attempts are either a) lying, b) geniuses, c) don't really know what good kimchi tastes like or d) have low standards and expectations."). After getting rather overwhelmed, I finally decided to just do it, which is a strategy that I should probably employ more often in life.
All of the recipes had certain ingredients in common: napa cabbage, uniodized salt, water, gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), garlic, green onions, ginger, and almost always fish sauce. Many of them also used onion and Korean radish, and some used dried salted shrimp. Some of the recipes called for a paste made of mochiko (rice flour), water, and sugar (or Asian pear); the sugar is supposed to help start the fermentation, and I think the mochiko is for texture. A couple called for an acidic ingredient, like vinegar or lemon juice.
The methods were more straightforward. First, you need to cut the cabbage into pieces and salt it, either by brining it or by coating it with dry salt, to inhibit the bad microbes and encourage the right kind of bacteria (Lactobacillus) to grow. Then you blend up everything else into a paste, usually using a food processor, and coat the cabbage leaves with the paste. Sometimes the cabbage sections are left intact (in which case they're sliced into bite-size pieces before serving) and sometimes they are chopped into pieces. You pack the whole mixture into a jar, leave it at room temperature for 24 hours, then put it in the refrigerator. And that's it.
Ultimately, I picked the intimidating recipe (from Eat, Drink, Man) because it was very specific, and I halved it so that I would only use one cabbage. I also tweaked the ingredients a little, mainly to avoid the fish sauce, since the point was to make vegetarian kimchi. I used gochujang (red pepper paste) instead of fish sauce, since I think it's more interesting than soy sauce (a substitute that I saw in a couple of places).
Kimchi, trial 1
1 napa cabbage (about 1300 g)
a lot of sea salt
1/4 cup mochiko (sweet rice flour)
3/4 cup gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes)
1/2 bulb garlic
1.5 oz ginger
2 tablespoons gochujang (Korean red pepper paste)
1 bunch green onions, white parts whole, green parts sliced into 2-inch pieces
1/2 cup water
1/8 cup sugar
I cut the cabbage in quarters lengthwise, rinsed it briefly, and thoroughly sprinkled it with salt.
I let it sit for about 4 hours, turning it over after 2 hours, then rinsed it three times. After doing this, it was way too salty, possibly because I used fine sea salt instead of coarse sea salt. Obviously, kimchi is supposed to be salty, but it shouldn't taste like eating a salt lick. So I soaked it in clean water for about an hour, changing the water periodically, which made it a lot more palatable.
I cooked the mochiko and water over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until it bubbled, then stirred in the sugar. In the food processor, I blended the garlic, ginger, and the white parts of the green onions into a paste. I combined this with the mochiko mixture, then mixed in the green parts of the onions, the gochugaru, and the gochujang. I also added a bit of the liquid from the purchased kimchi to make sure there were some good bacteria in there, but I don't think this is strictly necessary. I let this mixture cool. I was still trying to un-salt the cabbage, so there was plenty of time.
I cut the cabbage into strips and mixed it with the mochiko-garlic-gochugaru paste so that the cabbage was completely coated, then put everything in a big glass container.
|(Sorry about the somewhat funky picture. It was the middle of the night.)|
I put the jar into a plastic bag, then put the bag into a tupperware container, which I left in the garage for 24 hours. I checked it periodically and right around the 24-hour mark, I finally saw some bubbles. Then I put it in the fridge and went away for the weekend. When I came back about four days later, it was noticeably bubbly and starting to get sour. Today, about two weeks later, more than half has been eaten and the remaining kimchi is definitely sour.
So what did I learn from this experience?
First of all, there was the salty cabbage problem, which was probably my fault for using too much salt and the wrong kind of salt. I read that the cabbage stays crunchier if you use dry salt instead of brining it, and my kimchi does indeed have a good texture. But I think brining would give you more control over the salt level, so that's what I'll try next time. In any case, it showed that a) it's a good idea to taste the salted cabbage, and b) overly salty cabbage is not a dealbreaker if you soak it in plain water for a while.
Second, I thought the kimchi tasted pretty good even before the fermentation got started, which surprised me because I'm not a big fan of raw cabbage.
Third, this stuff has a powerful smell to it, more so than kimchi from a store. It's like driving through Gilroy during garlic season. There's a reason why my kimchi is stored in a tightly sealed jar wrapped in two plastic bags.
(Also, speaking of learning things: if I were a teacher, I would totally have my students make kimchi. The process of making kimchi, even more so than most cooking, is full of examples of scientific concepts that I learned in much less interesting and tasty ways: osmosis, diffusion, pH, lactic acid fermentation, gas laws, symbiosis... Yes, I'm kind of nerdy.)
Overall, this was a really satisfying project that I'd like to do again. It's possible that I don't know what good kimchi tastes like, or that I have low standards and expectations, but I really liked this kimchi. Also, I gave some to my Korean friend and he didn't laugh at me (very much) when he tried it, so I'll count that as a win.
Eat, Drink, Man's kimchi page
Kimchi and Kaktugi from maangchi.com
Heidi's Kimchi Recipe
Closet Cooking's kimchi
The Paupered Chef's kimchi contest results