Fermented Traditional Kimchi Recipe

This fermented traditional kimchi recipe is not only delicious but is really good for you. It naturally contains probiotics that aid in a healthy digestive system. Kimchi (pictured on the right above, next to sauerkraut, another fermented vegetable) is a traditional Korean dish that can be eaten on its own as a snack or is often served as a side to other Korean specialties such as with bi bim bap, bulgogi or other marinated, grilled meats, rice, noodles, other pickled, marinated or fermented vegetables, you name it.

Kimchi can be an acquired taste for some if you haven’t been exposed to it before. While there are many different styles and versions of kimchi recipes, most call for fish sauce and some source of spicy heat, although you can alter the spiciness to your taste in this kimchi recipe. In combination with the zesty tang that the fermentation produces, this is one intensely flavored food! But for those of you who are foodies, ready to expand your horizons and discover new things, this is a classic dish that gets quite addictive once you fall for it!

As with all fermented vegetables, it is important to work cleanly. However, not a lot can go wrong in fermenting this kimchi recipe. But it is important to use your eyes and nose to tell you if things are going well or not. If obvious fungus or mold starts to form on top or if your fermenting kimchi develops very off unappetizing aromas, it is best to get rid of it and start again. Please note though, that this kimchi recipe does include fish sauce, which to those of you who haven’t experienced it before may smell bad (it is fermented fish after all). So your pantry or wherever you ferment the kimchi will develop a bit of that smell. Even though that may sound unappetizing, once you have experience with fish sauce and kimchi you may just come to crave it! The salty umami flavor is unique and delicious in many different types of Asian food. One whiff of that stinky stuff and my taste buds start to tingle in anticipation! In practice though, I’ve made dozens of batches and never had any problems with my fermentations and they have all turned out great. If you follow the instructions closely, you are unlikely to have issues. When starting to experiment with home fermentation of veggies, it is a good idea to educate yourself a bit on basic fermentation food safety. I find the article in the Food Safety News to be a good general primer with excellent information.

Fermented Traditional Kimchi Recipe Ingredients:

  • 2 large heads of napa cabbage (sometimes referred to as nappa as well): It is best to use very fresh, crisp cabbage without any signs of softening or rotten areas. Peal off any wilted or dirty outer leaves and give the whole heads a nice rinse under running cold water.
  • 2/3 cup kosher salt
  • 10 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
  • 1/2 of a small to medium onion, chopped
  • A 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup plus 3 additional tbsp fish sauce: There are many different brands of fish sauce and you can use whichever you want for this kimchi recipe. However, right now I find one brand to be far better than the best. Red Boat fish sauce is made from only fermented premium anchovies from one of the best parts of Vietnam’s seas. It is gluten-free and its flavor is very intense and rich. Three Crabs is another commonly found brand in the US which is pretty good. Watch out for some of the lesser versions, they are often either lacking in intensity or can have very off aromas and some incorporate other ingredients that really aren’t needed or actually detract from the fish.
  • 1/2 lb daikon radish, peeled and cut into matchsticks or into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 bunch of green onions, the white and tender green parts cut into approximately 2-inch lengths
  • 3/4 cup spicy red chili sauce: First of all, you can vary the amount here to taste. I like to use a chili and garlic sauce (such as the Lee Kum Kee brand) or sambal oelek, but alternatively you can use other Asian red chili sauces, pastes or powders such as gochugaru or even sriracha.
  • You will need clean glass mason jars for fermenting and storage. I prefer to do the whole big batch of this kimchi recipe in one large glass jar to make it easy but if you prefer you can divide it amongst a few 1 quart mason jars.

Fermented Traditional Kimchi Recipe Instructions

  1. After rinsing the cabbage, cut each head in half, lengthwise. Cut out the hard core at the bottom and discard (or compost). Cut the remainder into approximately 2-inch pieces.
  2. In 2 or 3 very large bowls, layer the cabbage with the salt. I basically lay out a layer of cabbage pieces, sprinkle on some salt generously, then add another layer, then more salt, and so on until the bowl is filled or you run out of cabbage. By the end you should have used the full 2/3 cups of kosher salt. Don’t worry, this may seem like a huge amount of salt but it gets rinsed off later in this kimchi recipe before fermentation.
  3. Let the cabbage and salt sit for 45 minutes. Then toss the cabbage well to redistribute the salt and let stand for 45 minutes longer.
  4. Clean out your sink well and fill it up with cold water. Dump the cabbage into the water to remove the salt and swirl the pieces around with clean hands to remove all the salt. Drain the water and then repeat with fresh water.
  5. Drain the cabbage well and lightly pat dry with paper towels. Then transfer all the cabbage to a large bowl or other clean container (for big batches I often use a large stockpot). Add the daikon radish and green onions to the cabbage and toss together.
  6. While the cabbage is being prepared combine the garlic, onion, ginger, sugar, fish sauce in a food processor or blender and process until puréed and well blended. There should be no more large chunks of garlic, ginger or onion, they should be well puréed. Add the red chili pepper sauce or paste and very briefly process just to mix thoroughly with the other ingredients.
  7. Add this mixture to the vegetables and toss thoroughly to coat all the pieces of cabbage, daikon and green onion.
  8. Using clean hands or tongs, pack the cabbage into clean glass jars. Again, I like to use one large jar to keep it simple but you can divide it amongst a few quart jars as well.
  9. Now, an important point is that as the veggies start to ferment, you want the top of them to be under the fluid level or right at it. If you have too much veggies above the fluid level, those top veggies can start to develop mold. To avoid this, when filling the jars pack everything down tight, trying to squeeze out any air pockets or unfilled areas. You will already have a fair amount of fluid from the fish sauce mixture you added but the cabbage will rapidly start to throw off more of its own fluid as well. In fact, if you fill each jar too far too the top, the fluid created, plus the bubbling that occurs with fermentation, can cause the fluid to rise up and spill out the top of the jar if you aren’t careful. This isn’t a big problem but it makes a mess in your pantry and makes it stinky like fish sauce! So do not over fill the jars, leave an ample space at the top of each. Just in case you can put the jar in a bowl or other container to catch overflow. Also, it is helpful to add something to help hold down the vegetables down so they don’t rise up as the fermentation gets going. You can press a piece of plastic wrap down on the top of the veggies (but not completely covering the top, you don’t want to make it air tight). Alternatively, I usually just use an extra cabbage leaf, laid across the top of the kimchi. I also like to weigh the kimchi down a bit to keep the veggies in the fluid. As in the picture above, I use a smaller glass jar that fits within the mouth of the bigger jar, filled with marbles or rocks, to weigh things down slightly. However, be sure to check back often in the first few days, because this also tends to make the fluid level rise and again you can get overflow if the fluid level gets too high. If it starts to get too high, you can reduce the weight in the jar or get rid of the jar entirely and just loosely close the top (again, you don’t want it air tight, just rest the jar lid on top or turn it on only very slightly).
  10. Leave the jar(s) to ferment at room temperature. Check back often over the first few days. It should start to gently bubble periodically as the fermentation starts. It is also safe at this point to taste the kimchi recipe periodically. Initially, it will be well seasoned but it will not have much acidity and the vegetables will be very crunchy. As it ferments further, it will get tangy from the production of lactic acid, the result of the fermentation, and the kimchi will get more tender. The time that you leave it to ferment is up to you. It is healthy to eat at any point but ideally you want it to go long enough to develop those probiotics and produce some of that tangy acid which really adds to the flavor and helps preserve the kimchi. Generally, at average room temperature (fermentation will proceed at different rates depending on the temperature) 3 days is the minimum you want to let it ferment. However, once you develop a taste for good kimchi, you will likely want to ferment longer. In fact, I hear that many very traditional Korean kimchi recipes call for fermentations that last several weeks if not longer. I generally like to let it ferment about a week, I think 2 weeks is about the longest I’ve let it go. As I mentioned already, the longer it goes the more the flavors develop and it develops an increasingly intense tanginess. If you like very intensely tangy pickled foods, you will probably prefer to leave it a bit longer as well.
  11. Once it has fermented to the level you like, simply close the jars securely and store them in the refrigerator. Once fermented, this kimchi recipe can be refrigerated for up to about 6 months or so.

That’s it! You can then serve some up either alone or as a side whenever the craving hits you. You can either eat as is or sprinkle over a bit more salt to taste if you prefer things very salty.

Yes, this kimchi recipe takes quite a bit of work and time. But when done right I think you’ll find it to be better than anything you buy in the market. And like I said before, kimchi can become quite addicting once you acquire a taste for it. But that’s ok, because it’s also really good for you!


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