There was nary a time growing up in my house when you could not find a jar of pickled something in our refrigerator. Bland grilled cheese could not be eaten without a tart, sour green tomato to add some punch to the mild flavor. Pastrami and salami sandwiches looked so lonely without a little bit of sauerkraut or slices of pickled red peppers beside them on the plate. A sour pickle could be bought in the neighborhood from the “appetizing store,” where the man behind the counter would grab a long metal scoop, dip it into a wide-mouthed wooden barrel, and pull the pear-shaped prize. The pickle would then be wrapped in waxed paper, with its end sticking out, and the salty, somewhat rubbery treat would last all the way home.
Back then, very little was thought about “probiotics,” ”gut bacteria,” and “superfoods.” We just ate those things because they tasted good, and fermentation was not even part of our vocabulary.
More recently, studies have shown that fermented foods are the key to keeping your “microbiome,” the vast community of bacteria that lives within us, in balance. And having a balanced microbiome is good thing. According to mindbodygreen.com, “A balanced microbiome regulates the immune system, metabolism, sustains the gastrointestinal tract, supports mood and brain function, produces crucial vitamins and nutrients, and helps us maintain a healthy weight.
Most nationalities have their own favorite variety of fermented foods—probably because they’re so good for you. I recently discovered “Kimchi,” a fermented vegetable salad that can be found in every Korean restaurant. The little Korean place in my neighborhood will sell you a jar of theirs, if you ask them. I’ve purchased it a few times and it has become my go-to side dish. I eat it with everything I would normally eat pickles with…even eggs. Last week, I decided to try my hand at making some myself, and the results were very good! The recipe is not very complicated, but once it is prepared, it must sit and “ferment” for at least three days. It is a bit smelly, but if you like highly seasoned, very pungent condiments, Kimchi is your gal, or guy, whatever the case may be. While doing my kimchi research, I found that there are over 188 varieties fermenting out there somewhere. Mine is just one of them.
How to Make Cabbage Kimchi
(recipe adapted from thekitchn.com)
Makes 1 quart
What You Need
1 medium head (2 pounds) napa cabbage
1/4 cup sea salt or kosher salt (see Recipe Notes)
Water (see Recipe Notes)
1 tablespoon grated garlic (5 to 6 cloves)
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons fish sauce or water (optional)
1 to 5 tablespoons Korean red pepper flakes—gochgaru (I substituted Aleppo pepper flakes)
8 ounces Korean radish or daikon, peeled and cut into matchsticks
4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
Cutting board and knife
Gloves (optional but highly recommended)
Plate and something to weigh the kimchi down, like a jar or can of beans
Clean 1-quart jar with canning lid or plastic lid
Bowl or plate to place under jar during fermentation
Slice the cabbage: Cut the cabbage lengthwise into quarters and remove the cores. Cut each quarter crosswise into 2-inch-wide strips.
Salt the cabbage: Place the cabbage and salt in a large bowl. Using your hands (gloves optional), massage the salt into the cabbage until it starts to soften a bit, then add water to cover the cabbage. Put a plate on top and weigh it down with something heavy, like a jar or can of beans. Let stand for 1 to 2 hours.
Rinse and drain the cabbage: Rinse the cabbage under cold water 3 times and drain in a colander for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse and dry the bowl you used for salting, and set it aside to use in step 5.
Make the paste: Meanwhile, combine the garlic, ginger, sugar, and fish sauce (or 3 tablespoons water) in a small bowl and mix to form a smooth paste. Mix in the pepper flakes, using 1 tablespoon for mild and up to 5 tablespoons for spicy (I like about 3 tablespoons).
Combine the vegetables and paste: Gently squeeze any remaining water from the cabbage and return it to the bowl along with the radish, scallions, and seasoning paste.
Mix thoroughly: Using your hands, gently work the paste into the vegetables until they are thoroughly coated. The gloves are optional here but highly recommended to protect your hands from stings, stains, and smells!
Pack the kimchi into the jar: Pack the kimchi into the jar, pressing down on it until the brine rises to cover the vegetables. Leave at least 1 inch of headspace. Seal the jar with the lid.
Let it ferment: Let the jar stand at room temperature for 1 to 5 days. You may see bubbles inside the jar and brine may seep out of the lid; place a bowl or plate under the jar to help catch any overflow.
Check it daily and refrigerate when ready: Check the kimchi once a day, pressing down on the vegetables with a clean finger or spoon to keep them submerged under the brine. (This also releases gases produced during fermentation.) Taste a little at this point, too! When the kimchi tastes ripe enough for your liking, transfer the jar to the refrigerator. You may eat it right away, but it’s best after another week or two.
Salt: Use salt that is free of iodine and anti-caking agents, which can inhibit fermentation.
Water: Chlorinated water can inhibit fermentation, so use spring, distilled, or filtered water if you can.