Today I will reveal to you the three secrets for preparing a perfect Kimchi, a Korean preparation and tradition based on the ancient technique of lactic fermentation. With this article you will enter the magical world of kimchi; only after the complete reading will you be ready to make your own kimchi at home and delight your guests.
KIMCHI AND LACTIC FERMENTATION: TWO ANCIENT TRADITIONS
Korean Kimchi is neither a dish, nor a meal, nor a recipe. It is a task to be carried out over time. Kimchi is not even a single flavor; rather layers of flavors. These flavors change, not only based on the product you use to prepare the specific batch, Kimchi taste changes every time you open the lid of the jar containing it.
Kimchi has a bold, spicy and very salty flavor, with a strong acidity, a completely umami flavor from the fish sauce, and that special bittersweet fermentation experience. Kimchi creates a clear division between those who taste it, it’s a love or hate, but if you like its taste, you simply will never have enough of it.
Despite the modernization of homes with refrigerators, freezers and the development of chemical preservatives, Koreans have kept their traditional preservation methods, including the lactic fermentation technique used to make kimchi.
Fermenting, letting bacteria act on food, may seem a bit banal in the big world of cooking. But fermentation is actually so common that we almost stop thinking about it: bread, wine, yogurt, chocolate, cheese, tea. In all these very ordinary products, a bacterial process is often a prerequisite. Kimchi is unique to Korea, but the lactic fermentation process of vegetables has appeared in many cultures around the world for centuries. Similarly, the benefits for our immune system due to the probiotic content in fermented foods are well known.
Food preservation has historically been the crucial factor for human survival. Fermentation consists in grasping the vegetable in the best possible way and making the resulting degradation process controlled and slow, in order to create a prolonged period of use and enjoyment for us humans.
Are you ready to embark on your journey in the wonderful world of fermentation?
WHAT IS KIMCHI?
The most common kimchi recipe, Baechu Kimchi, is made with Chinese cabbage (or napa cabbage), but a similar method is used for many different vegetables: daikon or Chinese radish, courgette, cucumber, just to name a few. There are said to be over 200 different variations. Each family in Korea has its own specific recipe that is passed down from generation to generation.
Kimchi is sometimes called Asian sauerkraut, and on a bacterial level, the comparison isn’t completely wrong. Both kimchi and sauerkraut are fermented with the help of lactobacilli. Unlike sauerkraut, however, kimchi cabbage is left in a brine for a day before fermentation begins. In terms of flavor, the similarities are few and far between, as kimchi is loaded with ginger, garlic, leek, and chili powder. Also, for the kimchi you add not only salt, but also sugar as extra nutrition for the bacteria.
Over the years, science has managed to identify a number of different lactobacilli in kimchi, and recently a variety has been recognized that has never been found anywhere else: Lactobacillus kimchicus.
Lactobacilli are interesting for several reasons: they slow down the degradation process in the vegetable, kill off other potentially harmful bacteria and make the raw vegetable more digestible. The fact that kimchi also contains vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, calcium and iron (but very few calories) makes it a good serving for those looking for nutritious and healthy food.
3 TIPS FOR A PERFECT KIMCHI
Regardless of which vegetable you use, kimchi is all about creating the right environment for bacteria to thrive and multiply. The first step in the process is to soak the vegetables in a brine. There are also variations in which the vegetables are salted dry, but if the kimchi is to be stored for a longer period of time, a brine is usually recommended. Do not use salt with added iodine, as this will kill the bacteria, which in this case is counterproductive. It is recommended to use only coarse sea salt; if you use fine salt the final result will be too salty.
The reason for salting vegetables is to start breaking down the cellular structure of the leaves. If you handle the leaves after salting you will feel that they are softer and more flexible, ready for fermentation and to absorb the flavors from the spices. The leaves dipped in the brine are then rinsed, otherwise the kimchi will become too salty
The second step is to make the paste that will flavor the kimchi. Mix a garlic purée with grated ginger, chopped leek and daikon (Chinese turnip) and a pinch of fish sauce. You can replace fish sauce with soy sauce or even with anchovies in brine or in oil.
The idea is to give the whole thing a real kick in terms of flavors. As for the chili powder you can use the variety you prefer, preferably use plenty of a not too spicy one, rather than the other way around, or choose not to use it at all. Chili can also be replaced with paprika if you prefer, you can use what is readily available to you. The spice paste must be seasoned with a little salt and sugar.
When spreading the paste on the vegetables you should use your hands. However, my advice is to use plastic gloves as chili peppers can be irritating for the skin. For clear reasons, avoid touching your eyes while handling it.
Make sure all surfaces of the vegetables are covered with the paste. The vegetables must then be packaged in a suitable container without pressing the vegetables excessively. Use a glass jar or plastic container with an airtight lid; it is important to keep out the oxygen so that doesn’t come in contact with your preparation during the fermentation process. For some kimchi, you may need a weight to keep the vegetables submerged. For this you can use a stone (cleaned and boiled) or any weight that suit your need. Do not fill the jar completely.
The third step is to begin fermentation. This is done completely naturally, by letting the lactobacilli reproduce at room temperature for the first 24 hours.Transfer then your kimchi in the refrigerator and let the fermentation proceed. The lower the temperature in the refrigerator, the longer it will take.
After a day or two you will probably be very curious to find out what is going on in the container, but I ask you to resist the temptation to open the lid. The less oxygen enters during fermentation, the greater the chances for a perfect result. If you are using a thinner plastic container, you can feel it swelling slightly after a couple of days once the pressure has built up inside it. In a glass jar, you are likely to see bubbles. All these are signs that are good news!
When it’s finally time to open the container, start sniffing. It should smell fresh, sour and aromatic. The flavor is also tarty, with a distinct hint of spice, salt and fish sauce. The longer you store kimchi, the more complex the flavors become. If you happen to ask your Korean friend how long kimchi will last in the fridge, they may probably answer that “Kimchi lasts until it’s finished“.
Obviously it should be thrown away if mold forms and the taste becomes unpleasant. In the context of fermentation, where something is by definition “rotten” is a very subjective consideration. So, follow your palate and instinct, do not ingest anything when in doubt. Some molds are more dangerous than others, white molds are usually less, and you may simply remove the affected part and consume the rest. Get familiar with fermentation, with experience you will know exactly what happens and why. In the beginning be cautious and try to enjoy the experience to the fullest.
Don’t forget the kimchi in the fridge just because you’re not cooking anything Asian. If you make your own Kimchi you will realize how versatile it can be in the kitchen. Many dishes can be made more interesting with kimchi: a seared steak, some rolls, fish and seafood dishes. Your creativity is the limit!
Now that I have revealed the 3 secrets for a perfect Kimchi, you are ready to move on to the actual recipe for making kimchi.