Traditionally, kimchi is napa cabbage that has gone through four stages – brining, seasoning, fermenting, and storing. Although cabbage is the most common vessel for kimchi many other vegetables can be used instead like radishes, cucumbers, carrots, celery, and chives. Here is a quick overview of each of these steps. For a more detailed explanation, definitely check out Lauryn Chun’s book, The Kimchi Cookbook: 60 Traditional and Modern Ways to Make and Eat Kimchi.
First, the vegetable is dry salted for several hours. This seasons the vegetable and allows it to sweat. More importantly, it begins to create a place where lactic acid bacteria, the good guys, will want to live and thrive.
Every Korean has their own special recipe for kimchi. The creativity and special ingredients are tucked away in the paste. However, no matter how unique, kimchi seasoning requires Korean red chili pepper flakes (Hong-gochu peppers) which gives kimchi its distinct heat and color. In addition, people add apples and pears for sweetness while others add oysters and brine-y baby shrimp for salty savoriness. No matter what, the final product is crunchy, spicy, bright, and tangy.
The unique flavor and pungent smell is a result of a chemical process called fermentation. Lactic acid bacteria (the good kind) are the workhorse of fermentation. These bacteria change the sugars to acids and CO2. Little bubbles forming and rising means that fermentation is at its peak! This process is constantly evolving which changes the flavor and texture of kimchi over time.
Kimchi is then stored and refrigerated for several months ( although some Koreans will argue kimchi is good for years and years! ). The cool temperature slows down the fermentation process. It’s in this stage where you might notice more tanginess as time goes on. This is never a bad thing!
Ok, so now that we know what kimchi is all about, let’s make it!!!