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Hot and Healthy: How to Make Better Kimchi at Home

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Kimchi

Kimchi (also spelled “kimchee”) is a traditional Korean dish that uses the process of fermentation to pickle and preserve fresh vegetables. The spicy, crunchy, cabbage-based vegetable mixture has a texture similar to sauerkraut but boasts much bolder flavors thanks to garlic and spicy seasonings. Originally developed in 7th Century Korea as a means of storing vegetables during cold winters, the dish has been steadily — if slowly — gaining recognition beyond the boundaries of its native country.

While Chinese, Japanese, and Thai cuisine have long been popular in the U.S., it’s taken Korean food significantly longer to work its way into American mouths. But its Asian-food forbearers helped popularize spicy flavor profiles (think rooster-red Sriracha), which no doubt paved the way for Korean food’s entrée into American markets. Today (thanks also in part to marketing funded by the South Korean government), many American chefs have adopted Korean food and cooking styles — and Kimchi has finally made it onto center stage. To understand the extent of this coup, one need only check either the Asian or health food section of most grocery stores — odds are, Kimchi will be there.

Kimchi aficionados swear by the dish’s health benefits, and this may not just be the Kool-Aid (or the cabbage juice) talking: Fermentation in general has been shown to increase the nutritional properties of food [1]. Kimchi specifically has been linked to anti-obesity effects, and might help treat atopic dermatitis and even lower cholesterol [2] [3] [4]. (That said, one study suggests that consuming Kimchi might actually increase the risk of gastric cancer, at least in Koreans — so maybe don’t down a bucket of the stuff each day) [5].

The dish’s health benefits are in large part attributable to its high probiotic content (i.e., good-for-you bacteria); it’s also loaded with fiber and vitamins A, B, and C. Spicier varieties also get a boost from capsaicin, a component of hot peppers that’s been shown to improve metabolism.

Recipe: DIY Kimchi

There are now more than 200 varieties of Kimchi, but we’ve chosen one of the simplest (and fairly traditional) recipes we could find.

Photos by Perry Santanachote

What You’ll Need

  • 1 head (1.5 to 2 pounds) napa cabbage or green cabbage, cut into 2 by 1-inch pieces (reserve 2-3 large leaves, uncut). Note: You can also substitute bok choy in place of cabbage.
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2-3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (alternatively, use 1 apple or pear, thinly sliced)
  • 3 tablespoons Korean chile pepper flakes or paste (gochugaru). Note: If you don’t live near a Korean market and can’t find this at your regular grocery store, substitute Aleppo pepper or 1 tablespoon of Sriracha, in a pinch. (Do not substitute red pepper flakes; they are much spicier than gochugaru.)
  • 4 green onions, green parts only, cut into 2-inch pieces (optional)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced (about ¼ cup) (optional)
  • Optional: a few large carrots, thinly sliced
  • For extra hotness: add 1 chili pepper (doesn’t need to be gochugaru)

Equipment

  • A few quart-size, sterilized mason jars
  • 1 large bowl
  • Knife + cutting board
  • 1 wooden spoon
  • Food processor, blender, or mortar and pestle

Yield: several quart-size jars (the exact number depends on how tightly the jars are packed, how finely the veggies are sliced, etc., so it’s best to have several jars on hand in case the recipe yields more than anticipated)

What to Do

  1. Wash all vegetables and pre-measure all of your ingredients so you have them ready to go. Set aside a few large cabbage leaves (to be used at the end of the process).
  2. Place the rest of the cabbage in the large bowl and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Toss to combine. Cover the large bowl and allow its contents to sit at room temperature until the cabbage has wilted (expect this to take a minimum of one hour and as many as 12). As it wilts, the cabbage will release around a ¼ cup of liquid.
  3. While the cabbage is wilting, combine the garlic, ginger, chili pepper, carrots (if you’re using them), and sugar (or the apple or pear, if using) in the food processor, blender, or mortar and pestle.
  4. Process the mixture until it forms a rough paste (around 30 seconds if using a food processor or blender; longer (as needed) if using a mortar and pestle). Be sure to scrape the container’s sides as needed.
  5. Now it’s time to check on the cabbage — it should be wilted, and there should be lquid in the bottom of the bowl. Remember this could take as many as 12 hours, so give it time if it needs it!
  6. Once the cabbage has wilted, drain it, set the liquid aside, and pat the leaves dry.
  7. Thoroughly mix the cabbage with the paste. This is your basic kimchi mixture.
  8. Pack the kimchi into the mason jars (try to avoid air pockets). Add equal amounts of the liquid to each jar, making sure that each jar has at least an inch of headspace (If needed, add some water to the jars to make sure the kimchi is completely covered by liquid.). Press the mixture down firmly using the wooden spoon, so that the brine covers the top.
  9. Cover the top of each jar with one of the reserved large cabbage leaves.
  10. Seal the jars loosely. Let them sit at room temperature (65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit) for three to five days. Taste the kimchi every few days; it will be ready when it has developed a sour, spicy taste and a texture resembling that of sauerkraut.
  11. When the kimchi is ready, remove the big cabbage leaves from the top of each jar and store the jars (tightly sealed) in the fridge. The kimchi should keep for several months.

Ingredients, equipment, and instructions adapted slightly from food52mynewroots, and Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen.

Are you a fan of Kimchi? Have you ever made your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @lauranewc

I'm a Senior Editor at Greatist. I'm particularly interested in the ways our mental and physical health intersect, as well as how to build... Read More »

Works Cited

  1. Fermented foods: patented approaches and formulations for nutritional supplementation and health promotion. Borresen, EC, Henderson, AJ, Kumar, A., et al. Department of Clinical Sciences, Colorado State University. Recent patents on food, nutrition, and agriculture. 2012 Aug;4(2):134-40
  2. Anti-obesity effect of kimchi fermented with Weisella koreensis OK1-6 as starter in high-fat diet-induced obese C57BL/6J mice. Park, JA, Tirupathi Pichiah, PB, Yu, JJ, et al. Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Chonbuk National University, Jeonju, Korea. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 2012 Dec;113(6):1507-16.
  3. Oral administration of Lactobacillus strains from Kimchi inhibits atopic dermatitis in NC/Nga mice. Won, TJ, Kim, B., Lim, YT, et al. College of Pharmacy, Chung-Ang University, South Korea. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 2011 May;110(5):1195-202
  4. Functional properties of Lactobacillus strains isolated from kimchi. Lee, H., Yoon, H., Ji, Y., et al. School of Life Sciences, Handong Global University, Korea. International Journal of Food Microbiology, 2011 Jan 31;145(1):155-61
  5. Kimchi and soybean pastes are risk factors of gastric cancer. Nan, HM, Park, JW, Song, YJ, et al. Department of Preventive Medicine, College of Medicine, Chungbuk National University, Korea. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 2005 Jun 7;11(21):3175-81