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Fermented Vegetables: Make Your Own Kimchi

Fermented, cultured veggies, as YU may know, are so much more than simply preserved vegetables. The process of fermentation enhances the digestibility and nutritional value of the vegetables, and when consumed, populates our intestinal flora with beneficial bacteria.

Bacteria?

Yes. Stay with me. There is such a thing as good bacteria and instead of wiping them out with the bad (via antibiotics, sanitizers), we need to create a non-clinical place for the good guys to rule instead. It’s all about balance in this life, and that also applies to your gut and its microscopic inhabitants.

YU can start in your own kitchen. It’s a fact that our society is a smidge germ-phobic, sanitizing after every handshake, scrubbing, spraying and antibacterializing everything in sight (hey, for the companies that create/market/sell these products, fear brings in a lot of dough). Doing a clean sweep of all microorganisms in our lives leaves us vulnerable to illnesses of all kinds. Processed foods, stress (emotional, physical and nutritional), chemical cleansers and medication have destroyed our digestion, and in turn our immune systems. THIS is the primary reason why we can’t fight off colds, flu and other illness (IBS, Interstitial Cystitis, allergies, skin disorders, etc.).

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Fermenting foods means that you have to make friends with the natural bacteria in your home environment. You will have to leave food out on your counter, or in your pantry.

I know how hard it is the first time you purposefully leave food out on the counter—it is built into our brains at a young age to be afraid of any food that isn’t refrigerated, packaged or canned. You shiver at the thought of disease and poisons getting into your vulnerable bowl of soaking beans, or shredded veggies, but nature has it covered, and by bringing back long-standing cultural traditions like fermenting, you can safely preserve foods at home. Fermentation practices at “home” were working just fine until factories and industries started to process (to death from a bacterial standpoint) food-like substances for our consumption.

Make Kimchi! Veggies

Trust that each new step and kitchen adventure will empower you to count on your instincts again. Turn what is unknown into habit, simply by putting mysterious (yet super easy) techniques into practice. Experience the benefits personally. Build faith that traditions like fermentation, which are as old as agriculture itself (traced back as far at 1500 BC), are ones that we need to reclaim to find the healthful longevity we are capable of.

I’d like to start with kimchi. And I choose this recipe because for the skeptics, it will blow your mind how delicious it is—and I say that with confidence, because I am a former skeptic.

“I don’t like cabbage,” is something that I hear often from folks, and used to say plenty myself. I used to equate fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi with memories of Thanksgiving, and the odor of wet gym socks (a.k.a. lifeless, beige sauerkraut simmering on the stove). Real, homemade kimchi is beyond what I ever imagined it could be. Colorful, crisp, tangy and full of life and flavor. If you are one of the cabbage haters out there, do yourself a favor (split this batch if you aren’t brave enough, but I officially am triple-dog-daring you) and try this recipe.

Kimchi is a traditional Korean recipe that can be adapted many ways, with a variety of vegetables. What I list below is a starting point only, so feel free to change quantities and ingredients. Start with cabbage (always a great base) and change the veggies to what YU like. Try adding chili peppers, Jerusalem artichokes, burdock root, even apples to the mix.

Make Kimchi! Pack Veggies

Tools:
Two large glass bowls
Chef’s knife
Grater (or food processor)
Food processor or
Mortar and pestle
Two to three 24-34 oz. bail jars (like this) or
Large 50-60 oz. glass jar (like this)*

*Containers to use:
Glass or ceramic jars with a lid (bail jars work well)

Containers to avoid:
Metal: salt and acid corrode metal
Plastic (even food grade plastic): has chemicals that can leech out of it, into your food over time

Ingredients:
Try to buy everything organic. Here’s why.
Vegetables:
1 small head cabbage
1 red pepper
4-5 radishes
4 carrots
4-5 green onions
1 yellow onion

Seasoning Spice:
2 tbsp ginger
1/4-1 tsp crushed red pepper  (less or more depending on your taste for spicy)**
1-4 chili peppers (less or more depending on your taste for spicy)**
5-6 cloves garlic

Brine:
2 cups water
2 tbsp sea salt

**You can use a spicy hot sauce like Sriracha, just make sure there are no chemical preservatives in it and all ingredients are clean and organic.

Prepare the veggies by shredding and chopping them—this creates more surface area for the beneficial bacteria to romp around and work their magic. You can use a mandoline slicer to shave certain vegetables thin (like the radishes, which look especially pretty in paper-thin rounds) or a food processor or grater to shave carrots.

Make Kimchi! Shred Carrots

The food processor or a Chef’s knife works well to slice cabbage…

Make Kimchi! Cabbage

… or roughly chop it. It’s all a matter of preference.

Make Kimchi! Cabbage

Be sure to save the core of your cabbage—preferably chopped into a dense block—you will use this later to help pack the vegetables in the jar.

Make Kimchi! Core

Now, mix all veggies in a large glass bowl.

Make Kimchi! Veggies

In another bowl, mix the brine until clear and pour over vegetables. using clean hands, squeeze and bruise the vegetables for a few minutes until they start to soften and release more water (this release of water happens because the massaging is breaking down cell walls). Place your veggies in a glass jar(s) covered entirely with brine, cover with a lid or cheesecloth (if you use a rock weight, see below) and set on the counter to soften for anywhere from 4 hours to one day. Make sure the brine completely covers your veggies—pack down your veggies with clean hands.

There are a few ways to pack up your veg.

If using a super large jar, or ceramic crock, pack veggies down with clean hands, cover with brine and place a glass plate (a cute one always adds extra mojo, I think) on top of your veggies. Then place a weight of some kind on top. My fermentation hero, Sandor Katz recommends a cleaned and boiled stone—I am currently on the lookout for the perfect one. Until I find it, I used a mug and the cabbage “block” I told you to set aside earlier, to create a pressure weight. I stacked the mug and topped it with the cabbage block to create a “totem” that went above the brim of the jar, so when I placed the lid on top, and secured it with a rubber band, the lid pressed my totem down, which pressed the plate down to pack the veggies under the brine.

Kitchen MacGyver-style around here, huh?

Make Kimchi! Pack Veggies

If you are using bail jar, you can rig some other kind of totem, or pack the jar enough that simply placing your cabbage block on top of your veggies will push them under the brine, once the jar is sealed.

If you are using a rock weight, you can simply cover the jar with a cheesecloth if you like—fermentation will happen whether sealed air tight or not.

Let veggies soak and soften like this for a few hours, or overnight. Whatever you have time for.
Once softened, drain brine from your veggies (save it in a glass bowl) and place veggies in a large glass bowl. We are going to add some “kick.”

Using a mortar and pestle, or a food processor, mix up your seasoning spice ingredients until you form a paste.

Make Kimchi: Paste

Toss with your veggies until thoroughly coated.

Repack your veggies into individual jars (now is a good time to create a bunch of mini jars for gifting), again, making sure brine covers your veggies.

Pack veggies

Once pressed tightly, if you need to add a little extra brine to make sure veggies are covered, do that.

Again, you can use your block of cabbage to press veggies down by filling jar enough with veggies and leaving the jar, about 1/2 of the height of your cabbage block, unfilled. Pack ’em tight!

Seal the jar and leave to ferment on the counter in a warm spot in the kitchen (out of direct sunlight).

Don’t freak out. Keep the vegetables submerged in liquid and molds won’t grow—mold needs air to grow.

If surface molds develop, scrape them away and removed any discolored veggies, the rest is still fine to eat. Fermented vegetables are intrinsically safe, because acidic environments are inhospitable to food poisoning organisms.

How long should you ferment?
It’s up to YU. Try some kimchi (with clean utensils or hands, and for insurance, don’t double-dip) after two days. Then 4 days, or a week (the longer at room temp, the stronger the taste/smell). Whatever tastes the best to you is how long you ferment. Smell doesn’t equal taste on this one, use your tastebuds to determine yumminess. Once the flavor is to your liking, place in the fridge. Kimchi will continue to ferment in the fridge, but the process will slow quite a bit.

Trust Mother Nature’s expiration detectors—your nose/tastebuds—to tell you if all is a-ok. The mildly funky smell will be new to most folks—but you will become familiar with it and equate it with fermentation/bacterial goodness after some practice. You WILL know if food is rotten—your body will tell you. Your kimchi should taste strong, but pleasantly sour (even with a hint of sweetness). If “foul” is the word you would use to describe the smell/taste—discard and start over. I doubt you’ll experience this though, it’s almost impossible to mess it up.

Benefits of fermented vegetables:
• Improves digestion: fermenting pre-digests the food before we consume it and directly supplies our digestive tract with living cultures that are key to breaking down what we eat and making sure it assimilates into our system.

• Balances gut flora: say “goodbye” to constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, yeast infections, allergies and ailments like asthma (linked to a lack of good bacteria in the gut)—fermented foods are loaded with the good flora our systems need to thrive.

• Rich in enzymes: properly digest and assimilate the food/nutrients you eat with enzyme-rich fermented foods—don’t just ingest your food, absorb it.

• Preserve your food: make sure the food you buy and grow doesn’t go to waste—fermented foods keep for months thanks to “bio-preservatives” that are created through the fermentation process (alcohol, lactic acid and acetic acid). By nature’s design, they retain nutrients and prevent spoilage.

• Save money: fermenting foods is inexpensive, for a few dollars you have powerhouse foods that last and nourish.

• Shed extra lbs: most of the time, extra fat on our body is stress and toxins—improve digestion and assimilation and watch the excess go “bye bye.”

• Increased energy: consuming live, pre-digested foods adds zip to the body instead of depleting it (no labored digestion).

• Boost immunity: when bad bacteria dominates, poorly digested food (and fungus) spread around the body and can lead to ailments like leaky gut syndrome. This increases inflammation, which manifests in numerous autoimmune disorders like arthritis and diabetes. Reset the important friendly bacteria balance, and in turn charge up your immunity.

• Clear skin: friendly bacteria decrease the toxic load on our bodies—since our skin is one of the greatest outlets for toxins, you’ll see your skin repair and glow.

• Improve liver function: rid the body of toxins and help assist the liver in its cleansing functions.

• Detoxify: our beneficial bacteria pals grab hold of toxins like mercury, lead, aluminum and arsenate and makes sure they are removed from our bodies in the form of productive #2s.

• Sharp thinking/memory: it is known that our guts are our second brain (ie: “what does your gut say?”), heal the gut and say goodbye to mental fog, depression and anxiety.

Learn more:
I cannot recommend the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz enough—I think I may have dog-eared every page of my copy.

(See?)

Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz

If fermenting is a topic that you find fascinating (and empowering), like I do, pick up a copy, visit his website and start making everything from homemade sourdough breads to honey wine with his easy, clear instruction and enthusiasm.

Sandor is on a mission to help folks “reclaim the food that we eat” and says that “fermentation has always been part of the fabric of human communities. As industrial food production has ramped up the past few generations, this important and heathful cultural practice has all but disappeared” being replaced with germ-phobe tendencies, and an awful lot of hand sanitizer. I’ll hop off the soap box now, but I encourage you to research this important part of human heritage, because it will empower (and heal YU) in ways you never imagined. YU can do it.

“The parameters for fermenting success are ancient—this is not rocket science”—Sandor Katz

Can I get food poisoning from fermented foods?
Most folks are terrified that aging food outside of refrigeration will give them poisoning like botulism. Botulism is known to us thanks to canning. Our pal Sandor says, “Fermentation is the diametrical opposite of canning. Canning is usually a process of sterilizing foods so that no microorganisms can grow. Heat is used to kill bacteria, Botulism has the distinction of having the highest tolerance to heat, so in a canning situation it is possible to kill all bacteria except the bacteria that produces botulism.” He further explains that canning leaves this bacteria in the ideal anaerobic environment it requires to flourish and reproduce. Fermented foods encourage and cultivate large native populations of beneficial bacteria—this process produces acids, which is basically nature’s “brilliant strategy for food preservation and safety.” This environment is inhospitable to botulism and other food poisoning organisms.

Things that can go “wrong”:
Surface molds, slimy or mushy textures are all things that may happen, and you will be able to see—they are not things that will harm you. Simply remove them and enjoy the veggies underneath. They form when veggies are not covered enough (protected from air) by the brine.

If you find the taste of your kimchi too strong, simply shred up more veggies and “dilute” it with new vegetables, to taste.

Good to know:
For maximum nutritional benefits, don’t heat or cook your kimchi—high temperatures will kill beneficial bacterial friends. A little heat would be okay, just know that some power will be diminished.

If you don’t enjoy spicy foods, you can skip the step for adding the spice—you are basically making a sauerkraut instead. Just ferment for anywhere from 2 days to a week. Just taste every few days, jar it up and place in the fridge to slow fermentation when it tastes perfect to you.

While fermenting, your kitchen may get a tad ripe—your kimchi shouldn’t taste like the smell of garbage—it should be crisp, tangy and slightly sour. Be brave and try it, even if your kitchen smells unusual.

One of the most delicious meals I’ve ever enjoyed was this pad thai recipe topped with homemade kimchi (I added a red pepper to the pad thai recipe and used the 100% buckwheat noodles I had on hand instead of black bean noodles). Please. Try. This. Heaven!

Black Bean Noodle Pad Thai

How to eat/enjoy kimchi:
• Anytime you cook up veggies, rice, quinoa, noodles or pseudograins like buckwheat, top it with some kimchi—delish.
• Eat it plain before and after meals for digestive boostin’.
• Mix it into a salad and use this sauce for dressing. Oh my.

I believe I can make kimchi fans out of YU yet.

Are fermented foods new to YU? Share your fears and successes with a comment below, I want to hear from YU.

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  1. Mary Nielsen

    I am so excited to try this!! I love kimchee and love the idea of getting more fermented foods into my diet. Since cutting out gluten and dairy my two main sources of fermented foods (sourdough bread and yogurt) are no longer in my diet. I haven’t yet tried your yogurt recipes using coconut milk, etc., but have been meaning to do that, so this post might just be the push I need to get into experimenting with some fermented foods. I’ve also looked for some recipes for home made kombucha as I love it, but it’s so expensive to buy and I’m sure if I can get a good recipe it will be easy to make. Thanks, as always, for all the inspiration and brilliance!

  2. Susan Farrington

    Have experimented and trie this before but got scared and threw it away! Thanks for explaining the difference between canned and fermented foods, I needed that understanding. I’m anxious to try it again. There was fantastic article in the NY Times magazine 3-4 weeks ago about the bacteria that we live withand the scientists who are studying the complexity of it all….fascinating!!
    One question: is there a reason I cannot mix my ingredients in a stainless steel bowl before storing it in the glass containers?
    Many thanks

    • Heather Crosby

      I say give it another try! You can mix your ingredients in a stainless steel bowl and then transfer to glass, but don’t ferment in any metal—the acids in the ferment will etch/eat the metal over time. Have fun!

  3. I’m so excited that you posted this! I googled how to make kimchi a couple of days ago and it just looked too complex so I gave up and bought some from the asian store (which is probably pastuerised and loaded with MSG)

    Perhaps it would be nice in a kimchi noodle soup with rice noodles, miso paste and some asian greens.

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