Experienced Kimchi-makers, please help me!
June 24, 2019 2:42 AM   Subscribe

Please help me, experienced kimchi-makers. Two-part question: 1) I have a store-bought Kimchi paste -- am I doing this right? 2) Do you have a super-simple kimchi recipe OR any suggestions how I can modify above paste to make an adequate kimchi? Not looking for culinary greatness, just looking for easy, convenient, using as few prep bowls as possible.

I bought this Waitrose kimchi paste the other day. I was inspired by one of the reviews on the product below: "I love this kimchi paste. It's so simple to make with this paste. Please don't ever stop stocking it, Ocado. One jar will marinade 3 large Chinese leaf lettuces - don't forget to soak them in salted water for a few hours first. This will fill about 2 largish kilner jars. I usually add finely chopped carrot and spring onion to mine. Wait 5 days and hey presto - delicious authentic tasting kimchi for a fraction of the price of a shop-bought pre-prepared version."

Sounds great. I use kimchi a lot, because I love kimchi jjigae. I don't tend to eat kimchi other anything else other than kimchi jjigae, maybe fried rice. I have heard that kimchi is not that hard to make, but the initial hurdle of learning something new and practising has put me off. I do have most of the ingredients that kimchi would probably need (the bean paste, red paste, etc) , but that's some brain energy that I don't have at the moment.

So this paste and recipe seemed like a great starter pack i.e. gateway to actual kimchi-making. I l looked at two actual kimchi recipes to see how to do this salting. Obviously, as I looked at different recipes, I'm getting different opinions on how to do things, so argghhhhh.

My first question: Can I use that kimchi paste (as linked above) to make kimchi? I have salted the lettuce and added the kimchi paste. Do I ferment for a few hours or do I put it straight into the fridge to avoid food poisoning? I am worried that since the kimchi paste is not made from fresh ingredients, I don't have a good "starter culture" for kimchi to ferment.
(My brain: Who knows what bacteria is growing in there???? It could be anything!! It could be the bacteria from my hands as I was salting the lettuce. After all, it's not sterilized or boiled to kill bacteria?)

My second question: Do you have a super simple kimchi recipe you would like to share? Doesn't have to be the World's Best Kimchi, it just has to involve as little prep and steps as possible. Also, please help me avoid food poisoning!

It's like if someone asked me how to make a quick fried rice: 1) Cook rice with minimal water, then cool it 2) Fry the rice in oil 3) Add soy sauce, and "toppings" (veg, meat, egg, or whatever). There a lot of extra steps that could make the fried rice tastier, but literally this is it.
posted by moiraine to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have used Maanchi's recipes for kimchi to great success.

Kimchi is a fermented dish. It takes days to ferment, and that fermentation kills any bad bacteria, same as in sauerkraut and traditional (non-vinegar) pickles.
posted by kdar at 3:01 AM on June 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

It takes days to ferment, and that fermentation kills any bad bacteria,

Ok, I get this, but why does it ferment, and where does the active "starter culture" come from ala yoghurt? If I use a store-bought paste, is it different from using fresh garlic and other ingredients?

Are there any conditions in which this goes wrong (i.e. bad bacteria multiplies and causes food poisoning). I need stories of any sub-100% sanitary kimchi preparation methods which have or have not caused food poisoning.
posted by moiraine at 3:44 AM on June 24, 2019

Also take a look at Maangchi's Easy-to-make kimchi recipe, using chopped Napa cabbage, which might be easier for a beginner than the whole Napa cabbage version linked above. Most store-bought kimchi is the chopped version. Please note her recipes use U.S. measurements so you might need to adjust accordingly.

The jarred kimchi paste you bought just seems to be a pre-made version of the kimchi paste in her recipe, minus the seafood (optional) and vegetables.

(I found it interesting that the paste was made in Malaysia. I haven't seen similar products in Korea, but it may be because pre-made paste wouldn't be considered to provide much of a savings in time and effort with respect to the entire process. The trend in cities is to order kimchi from one of various outfits that make kimchi to order and then deliver it to your house. Convenience stores also sell individual portion packets of kimchi.)

Upon preview - the salting process, where cabbage is soaked in brine and absorbs salt in the process, is the main line of defense against the bad bacteria. I haven't heard of any cases of bad bacteria multiplying and causing food poisoning, but depending on storage conditions some mold may form on top. That's why Maangchi's instructions include pressing down the kimchi into the liquid to avoid exposure to air. The same principle of fermentation as with sauerkraut applies, which also does not use a starter culture.
posted by needled at 4:03 AM on June 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have also used Maangchi's kimchi recipes! They are very solid. Her videos are great at clearly explaining things like how to salt the cabbage and how to spread the paste into all the nooks and crannies and things like that. The paste itself is a good recipe too, although I've switched it around the past few times to suit my own tastes better. The technique is still the same, and if you watch her other videos for different kinds of kimchi, you can see that it's really adjustable for different kinds of vegetables and preparations.

Looking at the kimchi paste you linked, it seems like it should do the trick, especially if you're not super caring about flavor at first. It has the important ingredients - the secret is some sugar (for the fermentation to use) and it has that, as well as fish sauce and the requisite chilis. I think that you should definitely add some fresh scallion into the mix, and something else crunchy like some radish or carrot, which will help with texture and flavor.

I leave kimchi in a dark cupboard at room temperature for about 24 hours before refrigerating it. Some folks leave it at room temperature for a long time, others only overnight. It's not really that tasty until at least a week or so, or for a very different taste experience I'll have some fresh when I make a batch. That kind of in between stage is really flat tasting. So there's no really good fast way to get homemade kimchi - the store bought paste is a convenience, sure, but you won't have something good and funky for jjigae for a while anyway.

When a batch goes bad you can absolutely tell. It will get scary dark spots, and instead of fizzing gently or having a sort of sour salty smell it will be like rotten eggs or old socks or something else that provokes a "no!!" reaction from your lizard brain. The trick is to keep the cabbage well submerged and away from air, so when you're packing it into its container be sure to press out any air bubbles, and give it some firm taps to settle it down as you go. If it's fermenting right, the good bacteria you're cultivating will be so numerous that it will out compete any bad bacteria - this is why pickling preserves things! But also, by keeping it in the fridge after that first chunk of time at room temperature, you're keeping it in a controlled environment that isn't friendly to a lot of more dangerous molds and things.

Anyway here's basically what I do, pared down for your simplicity request:

Head of nappa cabbage, score a cross deep into the base and pull apart into quarters so the core is still holding the leaves together at the bottom of each quarter. Rinse, getting between the leaves. In a big bowl, place wet cabbage quarters and rub liberally with handfuls of kosher salt, getting in between the leaves again. and let it chill for an hour.

Meanwhile, prepare kimchi paste. For you this step doesn't matter since you'll be using a jarred product. But also, julienne some mu radish (those are the cute big fat ones that have a gentle green gradient, if you can't find them use daikon) and carrot, slice a lot of scallions on the bias, probably smash some garlic in there too. Mix that together with your paste. You need a bunch? Maybe a cup per head of cabbage, depending on the size of your cabbage. Set it aside. If julienne sounds tiresome, use a box grater on your vegetables.

Check your cabbage. It should have released liquid. Rinse it off in the sink and let it drip in a colander. Take an outer leaf and if it can gently bend all the way back in half without snapping, it's good. But it probably will begin to snap. So shake off the excess water and salt it a second time! Let that continue to sit. This salting process will not only get a lot of the extra moisture out of the end kimchi product but it will also thoroughly clean the cabbage so you don't need to worry about gross bits in your pickles, as well as prime it for the delicious type of bacteria to move in.

You might need to repeat the salting process a few times. When the leaves are bendy but still have some body to them, they're done. Rinse them off and taste a piece, it shouldn't taste outrageously salty - if it does, rinse it better. Give each quarter a good squeeze in your hands, more water should squeeze out. Don't crush it or anything but do apply some pressure, it will get out even more water. Then shake and pat them dry.

Coat each cabbage quarter in the kimchi paste mixture. Grabbing more of it with all the veggies, stuff a little in between each cabbage leaf. Squeeze the leaves together to smush the paste all over as much as you can. You want every inch coated, and cabbage is very frilly, so it can be a little difficult, but if you've salted it right it should be flexible without tearing. For this step it is very helpful to be wearing gloves!

Once you've got all your cabbage rubbed with the paste and stuffed with the strips of vegetables, pack them into a clean container. Pack them down really tightly so there's no air bubbles. Put the extra kimchi paste on top, and whack the container on the counter to get out any more air bubbles. Put on the lid and set it onto a pie plate or sheet tray - something that has an edge all around - and tuck it into a dark cupboard for overnight fermenting. The pie plate is just in case it gets real crazy and decides to explode a bit, to catch any liquid. You can also keep the lid cracked a little bit to let out excess gasses.

The next day I like to open the lid and burp out any gas that's happening, and then I'll cover the top with plastic wrap to really keep things out of the air. Then it's fridge time for a couple weeks, with occasional eyeballing and sniff tests. But it's up to you and how you want to do it. Since you use it in jjigae you'll probably want a longer fermentation for stronger flavor.

There are wild kimchi making gadgets out there that I've not looked into but which might interest you, which keep things at optimal fermenting temperature and whatnot.

On preview, the "starter culture" comes from the air! It's everywhere, man. Kimchi is just like sour dough bread, it will taste a little different depending on where you make it.
posted by Mizu at 4:09 AM on June 24, 2019 [11 favorites]

You want 2 things when fermenting to ensure safety:
1. Salt concentration at least 2.5% by weight (prevents bad microbes). Salt 2.5% to 5% is the ideal range.
2. Don't expose food solids to oxygen (prevents molds).

You don't need a starter because there are enough yeasts in the air and on the raw vegetables to start things growing. The bad bacteria, including contamination from your hands, will die out due to the salt content. It's not a matter of starting the culture that you want, it's more that you make the environment inhospitable to everything else.

Pickling takes long enough that you don't need to kick-start it with a starter culture. You're not going to add a starter and get pickles in the amount of time it takes to proof a loaf of bread or to make yogurt. That's why you don't need a starter. (This is also why I also agree that your flavoring paste claiming a 2 hour recipe is crazy, you will never get a fermented result in 2 hours.)

I have had pickles go bad.

I've had mold when vegetables are exposed to air. I usually use a glass jar lid to press vegetables below the brine. If my pickles get around the lid, and are exposed to air, they will mold quickly. I will toss anything moldy above the brine, and anything that vegetable is attached to, but not the entire jar. (Like if a corner of 1/4 slice of a napa cabbage molds, I toss the entire 1/4 slice). I realize this is slightly more ambitious than most, but it's been fine for me. Anyway, it's easy to recognize because the mold and vegetables are above the water level.

I've had a bad bacterial colony once. It was obvious because it smelled entirely unlike pickles or brine. It did not smell sour. It smelled rotten, like bad meat. It would have been a struggle to eat it. My partner and I make a lot of pickles, and I assume that we just got too risky and/or lazy in measuring salt content. If you inhale deeply from the pickle jar and it smells a bit musty, a bit not fresh, it's fine. If it makes you want to puke, that's bad. In my experience the difference was obvious.
posted by cotterpin at 4:20 AM on June 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I basically follow Mizu’s rundown. But here are some additional tips
- I cut my cabbage into 3 inch pieces. I personally cannot be bothered with cutting at time of serving so I chop them before. My mom says uncut kimchee ferments better but I’ve been happy enough with my batches to keep to this method.
- The kimchi paste is where everyone keeps their secret ingredient for their personal spin. I have used: grated onion, grated apple, fermented micro shrimp paste, green onions. A secret combo of these is my secret but feel free to use these items to develop your own.
- when you serve use clean chopsticks and transfer to a serving dish. Do not eat from the fermenting jar and double dip! That is where the kimchi will go off quickly. Otherwise I have eaten a batch of kimchi for months. MONTHS. And it’s perfectly fine and gets even better and better.
- when it is just too dang stinky and fermented to eat as it is, make kimchi soup, kimchi fried rice, kimchi pancakes, fried kimchi with pork loins.
posted by like_neon at 6:13 AM on June 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Fermenting is very safe. That's the whole reason why it exists as a foodway. Like others have said, your "starter" bacteria comes from the bacteria naturally present on the food and in the air. It's kind of magical!

Trust your nose -- I know that you can't in many other situations, like when, for example, B. cereus spores have made toxins in your rice. But when fermenting, it's really obvious when things go bad.

The subreddit /r/fermentation is quite active (heh) and you can always post a picture of something you think is iffy and get almost instant feedback.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:04 AM on June 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you eat fish adding either fish sauce, salted squid/shrimp or anchovies to the kimchi spice mix really helps take it to the next level. Vegan kimchi isn't bad but it definitely feels anemic compared to the stuff with a seafood element.
posted by Ferreous at 7:25 AM on June 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Relax! Fermenting seems scary at first, but in practice it's a very safe technology and it's hard to give yourself food poisoning. Throw out anything that's obviously moldy or has otherwise creepy stuff growing in it. (White scum is the ambiguous one; it may just be harmless yeast.) Otherwise you'll be fine.

Be sure to leave some headroom in the jars and have some way to release built up CO2 gas pressure. And/or put the jars somewhere where if they bubble over (through the sealed lid) it won't ruin the carpet. Ask me how I know!

Kimchi is a little complicated in that it has so many things going on with it. If you want to start simple make a basic sauerkraut first; just salt. Kimchi is exactly like that only 10x more delicious with the spices.

Me, I'd ferment it 3-7 days at room temperature before considering the fridge. Cellar temperature is better, 50-60F, if your house is warm use less time.

Be sure to taste the kimchi along the way. There's a magical stage of "sweet kimchi" that comes after a day or two where it's started to ferment but isn't very sour yet and it's really delicious.
posted by Nelson at 8:21 AM on June 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I went to the Ocado website (they are currently partnered with Waitrose and sell their products) because I was so curious about this paste and in their product details they had this recipe:

Add 90g to one whole sliced Chinese cabbage and leave for 2 hours or overnight.
Chinese cabbage once blended with the paste should be refrigerated.

Do not follow these instructions Please brine the cabbage for a few hours in salted water as advised by others above! This way of doing it sounds terrible to me? And also seems like it would go off well before it ferments.

And for those curious like me, here is the list of ingredients:
Water, Fructose Syrup, Garlic, Dried Chilli, Yellow Onion, Sugar, Rice Vinegar, Raw Soy Sauce (Water, Soya Bean, Wheat Flour, Salt), Fish Sauce (Anchovy (Fish), Salt), Salt, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Acidity Regulator (Citric Acid. Malic Acid), Cayenne Pepper
posted by like_neon at 12:15 PM on June 24, 2019

FWIW, I like the David Leibowitz kimchi recipe and find it easy. It's a lot like the paste recipe, except you chop and mix individual ingredients. Leave your kimchi on the counter and able to vent gases until it has reached your desired level of funkiness. Definitely salt and weight the cabbage and let it start fermenting before the paste - this way the desirable microbes can build up their populations so they can crush any interlopers once they're no longer in a very salty environment.

I've never had a problem with kimchi going off, but I've had sourdough cultures and sauerkraut get infected with bad fungi, and it's obvious, there is mold and it smells bad.
posted by momus_window at 1:06 PM on June 24, 2019

Thank you for the answers. I really appreciate hearing about the nuance and the Why This and Why That that you just do not get with online recipes. Breaking down the making of kimchi into
salting the lettuce and then adding flavour really made things clear for me

I may have to throw away my current batch -- I soaked it in salty water and that was the extent of my preservation. I definitely did not press down to get rid of air bubbles or anything like that.
posted by moiraine at 8:22 AM on June 25, 2019

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