The hero of this story is tiny. Imperceptible to the naked eye. And always around. He aids in the production of yogurt, sauerkraut, beer, cheese, pickles, sourdough starters, and various other tasty treats.
Our hero is Lactobacillus. And he and I are pretty much best friends right now.
For those of you who haven’t heard of lactobacillus (his friends call him Lacto), the term itself actually refers to a family of bacteria that have their hands in a wide array of fermented foods (you’ve undoubtedly heard of some of his relatives, like L. acidophilus – guess what the L stands for!).
What makes lacto even better is the fact that you don’t need any special tools to employ his help. He’s literally all around you, hanging out in the air, waiting for you to request his assistance. That’s why when you make sauerkraut, or sour pickles, or even a beer like a Berliner Weisse, you just leave the container open. Lacto does all the work behind the scenes, with little help from you.
Lacto and I have been tight for a while – he’s the key ingredient in my favorite style of beer to make (Berliner Weisse). It’s low alcohol, requires relatively little help, and comes out tart and refreshing. But after our most recent adventure together, we have a newfound respect for one another.
For the first time, I made kimchi. Kimchi is similar to sauerkraut – it typically involves fermenting cabbage and/or other veggies in a spicy mix of hot peppers, ginger, and garlic. I’ve always loved kimchi, a staple in Korean food, but homemade kimchi is amazingly simple, and absolutely delicious.
The base recipe I worked off of was from Sandor Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation. It’s a great introduction to fermentation for those of you who are interested in the topic. It’s fairly simple. You take cabbage, or other vegetables, and soak them in a brine for several hours. Then, you rinse them off until they taste mildly salty, and mix them up with the spice mixture. Pack them into a crock, food bucket, mason jar, or other fermentation vessel, and let that beauty sit out on your counter for a week. As always, you want to have some sort of weight on top to keep the veggies under the juices. In a week or so, you’ll have the most delicious side dish ever. Slather it on hot dogs or burgers, eat it as a side dish with asian stir fry, or just eat it straight out of the jar. It’s amazingly simple, and if you have cabbage around, it’s a nice alternative to a more traditional sauerkraut.
Below, I’ve attached the base recipe, and them some notes on how to vary things up and take your kimchi to new levels. Also, feel free to scale back the spices and the ratios if you want something a bit milder, but traditional kimchi should have a fiery kick to it.
- 1 lb cabbage (about half of a large head, I used savoy, any firm cabbage works), sliced thin
- Brine: 1 tablespoon of salt for every cup of water; use enough to cover the cabbage
- 4-5 Long red hot peppers (I just chose any long red-hot from my local asian market; definitely use fresh peppers if you have a choice)
- A hearty helping of milder onions (shallots; scallions; leeks; whatever – just something oniony)
- 2 inches of ginger root, peeled
- 4-5 cloves of garlic
- generous splash of a good fish sauce (also from my local asian market, if you cant find it you can probably do without, but I love fish sauce)
If you want more heat, add more peppers, or even some sriracha. If you want less heat, seed some of the peppers, or use fewer peppers or less spicy peppers – find a balance that works for you. But definitely try and make sure you have some red peppers in there, it helps give it that red appearance that goes with traditional kimchi.
- First, soak your cabbage in the brine. Put it in a non-reactive (in other words, non-metal) bowl, and put some sort of a weight on top. I used a pyrex bowl and a plate that fit inside. I threw a big jug of water on top of the plate just to make sure everything stayed submerged. You want to make sure all your cabbage stays under the brine.
- Leave this alone for several hours, or overnight. You want your cabbage to still be crispy, but it should have noticeably softened. Don’t worry about refrigerating this – leaving it out actually lets lacto start getting in on the action a bit.
- Rinse off the cabbage, tasting it here and there to make sure its noticeably salty, but certainly not as salty as your brine. If you rinse it off too much, just sprinkle a little more salt on them. *SAVE SOME OF THE BRINE* just in case you need some more later on.
- Get your spice paste ready (you could also do this the night before if you want to let all those flavors mingle together too). I just zapped everything with a hand wand until it was one delicious heap of spicy goodness, and then i topped it off with some green scallion slices. Play with the amounts of ingredients until it tastes good to you.
- Mix the cabbage with your paste, and then pack it into your fermentation vessel. Really cram it in there – I fit all of this into a widemouth quart jar.
- Make sure there’s some sort of weighted lid going on. In my case, I just used a 1/2 pint jar inside the widemouth quart, and filled the smaller jar with some water. This worked great, and it kept the veggies under the juice. If you don’t have enough brine, add a little of the brine you reserved from earlier.
- Set this all up on a counter, or a place where you can leave it undisturbed for the next week or so. It’s a good idea to stick a plate under it in case the brine spills over.
- Throw a clean towel over the top to keep bugs out.
- Check it at least once a day to keep the veggies under the brine.
- After about a week, taste it. It may take longer in cooler environments, while things go much quicker in a warmer environment. When it tastes good to you, just toss it in the fridge. It will keep for quite a while. And it’s full of all sorts of probiotic goodies!
Now for the variations:
For me, the star of the kimchi show is the spice mixture. That means you can literally throw in any other veggies with the cabbage and brine. Hell, you can use nothing but other veggies and leave out the cabbage. I made a radish kimchi (quartered radishes plus the green tops; shown above) that is awesome and insanely spicy.
For the spice mix, again, feel free to make it to your liking. The key ingredients are ginger, milder onions, red peppers, and garlic. How you mix them is up to you. Horseradish is also an awesome addition to the mix. Use fresh grated horseradish if you can find the root, but be forwarned, grating horseradish is..um………challenging.. It will literally bring you to tears.
Also, if you see some moldy-lookin stuff on the top of your ferment, that’s entirely normal. As long as your veggies are under the juices, they’re safe. Just skim off the bloom and let it continue to ferment away.