By Katherine Selberg, UMass Sustainable Food and Farming student
A study in kimchi seemed like a simple enough project when I started. A brief history, some food science, and a killer recipe with pictures would do. And that is, mostly, what I have done. What I did not plan for the hidden lessons to be learned through fermentation. It was not totally new to me; it turns out most of my favorite foods are fermented: cheese, wine, pickles, kimchi, yogurt. But a little background reading on kimchi turned into a fascination with fermentation as an approach to food.
But first, the basics. Kimchi is a traditional Korean food, so ubiquitous that a 2010 shortage of the main ingredient, Napa cabbage, was declared a national crisis. There is not an equivalent food in American cuisine. Perhaps if you accounted for all of the different condiments you use in a day it would equal the amount of kimchi present in the average Korean diet. There is not, however, a single definition of kimchi. Some options would be: spicy fermented cabbage, not spicy fermented cabbage, not fermented cabbage, fermented vegetables other than cabbage, and so on.
The different versions of kimchi have evolved in different regions, different seasons, and different communities, yielding infinite variations on kimchi. However, the most mainstream iteration of kimchi today is fermented Napa cabbage spiced with hot pepper, garlic, ginger, and something fishy. The simple procedure is:
- Chop vegetables.
- Salt vegetables and bruise until liquid accumulates.
- Smear with spice paste.
- Pack tightly into a container.
The details of these steps are highly variable and subjective, as are the ingredients in one’s kimchi. My first task in developing my recipe for kimchi was to determine how I wanted to interpret these steps and what exactly I wanted with my cabbage. So I prepared to make my first batch of kimchi. I scoured the internet for all the kimchi recipes to be found. I zeroed in on a core recipe of Napa cabbage, carrots, daikon radish, onion, scallions, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and gochugaru, a Korean chili powder. I planned to do test batches to see the effects of adding sugar, shrimp paste, or a flour paste, all common amendments to kimchi recipes. I also wanted to test to see whether I preferred rolling quarter segments of cabbage the traditional way or chopping the cabbage into 1 inch strips, and whether I preferred salting in a brine or dry salting. It was a good plan, with a 3×4 grid to record the results from well-labeled Ball jars. But we all know what happens to the best laid plans.
The crucial mistake came while trying to find the ingredients. First I went to the World Food store, where I found none of the things I was looking for and left a bit flustered. So I decided my recipe would only include ingredients that could easily be found at a health food store, my store of choice being Whole Foods. It seemed like a noble goal. Most things were easy to find. But gochugaru, the all-important flavoring in a traditional Korean kimchi was nowhere to be found. I substituted with a big bag of regular chili powder, and went happily on my way not knowing the heartache I had just signed up for.
The actual assembly of the kimchi went reasonably well. I managed to pack 12 jars with dark red, spicy kimchi. I left them out on the counter overnight, to allow for 12 hours of unhindered fermentation. The next morning, I opened each jar just enough to vent the CO2 that had built up as the bacteria had started to devour the sugars in mix. Then I put all of the jars into the fridge to slowly ferment for the next week.
And what a disgusting mess I found when I came back in a week. Not an actual mess; this was not a fermentation horror story ending with exploding jars. Instead, this was just a case of mistaken spice identity. The kimchi had a heavy taste to it, not the light, refreshing, effervescent taste one hopes to find in a kimchi. It was dense and almost gelatinous. Wholly unappealing. An ironically simple Google searched confirmed my fear that chili powder is widely regarded as the worst thing anyone could ever do to a batch of kimchi. So much for those 12 jars.
To be fair, I did learn a lot of useful things from that batch. I learned that I prefer dry salting vegetables as opposed to brining. I felt like I had more control and could more easily gauge how much water had come out of the cabbage. I decided that the shrimp was not worth having a jar of stinky paste in the fridge, and I could see no difference in the kimchi that had a flour paste in it compared to the kimchi that didn’t. I decided chopped cabbage was much easier to stuff into jars than rolls of cabbage segments. Sometimes tradition must be sacrificed for convenience. Mostly, this first batch told me that my initial, super scientific testing approach to the perfect kimchi recipe was maybe the wrong way to go. I had some ingredients left over, so that same weekend I threw together a much more relaxed batch of kimchi. One head of cabbage, some carrot, daikon, ginger, garlic, onion, an apple, some fish sauce, and a couple hot red peppers fresh from the garden all packed into a jar with 2 inches left at the top for the CO2, so no venting was required. What a delightfully fresh and simple counterpoint to my original operation.
A week later, I came home to that light, fresh vegetable, fizzy taste I was hoping for. The apple was a nice dose of sweetness that also fueled the bacteria in its fermentation. The fresh peppers were a perfect source of heat and color. Better management of the salt content allowed for better fermentation and for a more even experience of all of the flavors. I decided I could probably do without the daikon; I’m not a huge fan of radishes. I am, I learned, a fan of putting kimchi on a beef hot dog or on chips instead of salsa. All in all, this was a success.
Since then, I’ve been sure to keep a batch of kimchi in the fridge. The peppers, now out of season, have been replaced with crushed red pepper. But the core of my recipe is about the same as that second batch. Even more importantly, the calm, resourceful, no-worries approach has fully permeated my fermenting life. Taking the stress out of the kimchi making process made the kimchi itself taste more light and carefree.
This relaxed approach, it turns out, is pretty central to all fermentation. Sure, there are recipes and careful instructions; vintners and brewers probably consider their fermentation to be a careful, scientific process. But the world of home fermenters—a world that is much larger than I had realized—is much less rigid. The first step to becoming an amateur fermenter is to forget everything you have ever been taught about bacteria, sanitation, and decomposition. After all, fermentation is, simply put, rotted food. The bacteria naturally present—which in the case of kimchi are lactobacilli—eat away at the ingredients and create acids and CO2. Different bacterial strains follow one another as the environment becomes more acid, creating a domino effect of rot for as long as the ferment is allowed to do its thing. Bad bacteria and molds are unable to survive in the anaerobic, acidic mix. Eventually, a ferment will be far too acidic to be eaten, but until that point, it becomes a means of preservation that takes advantage of the hostile environment created by the bacilli. In a world of antibacterial soaps and pasteurization, fermentation embraces the natural processes that most people fear.
Along this journey, I found two books that soon became my guides in the kitchen. The first was The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. This tome is a truly daunting account of all fermented food to be found around the world and throughout history. Kimchi was but a scant few pages, but the credos of fermentation are woven throughout the book. A love and longing for experimentation and health benefits combined with reverence for tradition make for an interesting read. My second reference book was Cooked by Michael Pollan. The book is divided into four sections, each devoted to an element and its corresponding type of cooking. Kimchi is earth in Pollan’s eyes. It connects the forces of nature—bacteria and decay—with the people eating its product. The consumer of fermented food becomes closer to his own mortality and the world in which he lives with every bite.
These overwhelming feelings of tradition and connectedness are repeated in all of the writings I have found on fermentation. It is a hobby that, once found, inspires. However, for me, perhaps the biggest lesson of fermenting thus far, has been to accept failure. After my first, disastrous batch of kimchi came an horrifically salty sauerkraut, some foul smelling fermented peppers, and an iffy attempt at mead. There have been more than a few moments in recent months when my foray into fermenting has seemed like fruitless folly, and as my experimentation continues so shall the mistakes. Yet, as with so many things in life, a sense of humor and humility are just enough to move past the pitfalls and arrive at a delicious success.
This essay is the final product of Kat Selberg’s one credit practicum in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. You may send questions or comments to Kat at: firstname.lastname@example.org.