Tag Archives: Fermented Food

Kim Chi

Homemade kim chiKim chi is an ace up the sleeve, delivering instant, intense flavour to bland ingredients like rice, flour, and eggs.  And unlike most condiments that pack that kind of punch – things like hot sauce or fish sauce – kim chi is quite wholesome.

Kim chi fascinates me because it is simultaneously very similar to and wildly different from a preparation that I am much more familiar with: sauerkraut.  Both are ostensibly fermented cabbage, but where sauerkraut is thinly sliced and acidic, with an almost floral, yeasty aroma, kim chi is chunky, salty, often burn-your-face-off spicy, with something of a fishy aroma.  Sometimes, amazingly, it is also effervescent.

Sauerkraut is made with European-type cabbages like savoy.  The relatively low salt content (I use 1.89% salt) and the relatively warm fermentation temperature (15-20°C) favour both the acid-producing bacteria as well as the aroma-producing yeasts that give sauerkraut its characteristic flavours.

Kimchi can be made with any vegetable, though nappa cabbage is by far the most common.  It almost always has other vegetables mixed in, things like daikon, green onion, and carrot.  A relatively high salt content (~3%) and relatively cool fermentation temperature (4-10°C) favour gas-producing bacteria that give kim chi its subtle effervescence.

While every crock of sauerkraut is a little different, there are really only a few ways that styles of sauerkraut differ from one another.  Kim chi is a much more complicated and variable preparation, and when I first undertook its production it made my head swim.

Like many white kids my age, I owe a lot of my knowledge and appreciation of many Asian preparations to David Chang.  The kim chi recipe in his Momofuku Cookbook is the first I ever made.  It is a frustrating recipe as it uses very imprecise measures (“one small to medium head cabbage”) and so can have quite inconsistent outcomes.  My other beef with the recipe is that it is incredibly sweet, with sugar being the most important ingredient after cabbage, about 12% of the weight of the cabbage by my measurement.

So starting with the Chang recipe I made several iterations week after week as my mother-in-law continued to bring me heads of nappa cabbage from her garden.  By the fifth iteration I had a pickle I was quite happy with.  This is how I answered some of the many questions that came up.

What vegetables to use in kim chi?

I came to realize that a major contributor to the flavour that I expect from kim chi, the funky part, is more from daikon than it is from fermentation.  So in addition to nappa cabbage I use daikon.  Green onion is essential for the flavour I was seeking, plus it’s a good pop of green in the sea of fiery red.  I also appreciate the visual contrast and crunch provided by carrot.

How to achieve 3% salt content?

One of the most important things I wanted to do with my recipe is dial in the salt content so that I knew exactly how many grams of salt to add per kilo of vegetables.  In On Food and Cooking Harold McGee says kim chi should be about 3% salt by weight.  The tricky bit is that we’re using kosher salt and fish sauce, which is extremely salty.  I decided to take the kosher salt quantity from my sauerkraut recipe, then add the fish sauce on top of that.

Should l use sugar in kim chi?

My main problem with the Chang recipe is that it’s way too sweet.  I plan to eat large amounts of kim chi, and want to feel good about it, so I entirely removed white sugar from my recipe.  There is some sugar in the fish sauce, so the kim chi is not entirely devoid of sweetness.

Do you really need to use gochugaru, Korean chili?

In a word: yes.

I was extremely skeptical of the websites that say you absolutely must use gochugaru to make kim chi.  I figured it was a bit like a website telling you that you need to use Italian olive oil to make proper pasta: just a bit of pretension.  Turns out they are more or less correct.

Gochugaru is quite different than North American chili flakes, mainly in that all the seeds of the pepper have been removed.  The flavour is very fruity, and a touch smoky.  As the seeds and surrounding membrane are a major source of capsaicin, Korean gochugaru is actually not as hot as chili flakes, which means you can add a lot of it before the mixture gets too spicy.  This is good because it gives the kim chi a vibrant red colour.  The other important difference is that gochugaru is ground to a consistency finer than chili flakes, but coarser than chili powder.

I made several batches with standard North American chili flakes.  They were all tasty, but did not really have the real flavour and red-stained brilliance of true kim chi.

What fish sauce to use?

This is one component that I haven’t play around with yet.  I had a bottle of Squid Brand Fish Sauce in my fridge, so that’s what I used in all my experiments.  It’s likely that different brands have different concentrations of salt and sugar and may require adjustments to the recipe.

 

Kim Chi Recipe

I chose to write my kim chi recipe as a baker’s formula.  I distinguish between two types of ingredient: the vegetables and the flavouring agents.  When added up the vegetables total 100%, like the flour in a baker’s formula.

Kim Chi
from scratch

A plate of crispy kim chi pancakes

Crispy kim chi pancakes with sesame and green onion.

Ingredients

  • 87.89% nappa cabbage, cut into strips about 1″ broad and 2-3″ long
  • 7.29% daikon, cut into thin half moons
  • 3.30% green onion, sliced into 2″ lengths
  • 1.52% carrot, julienne
  • 1.89% kosher salt
  • 7.12% fish sauce
  • 3.43% fresh garlic, finely minced in a food processor
  • 3.43% fresh ginger, finely minced in a food processor
  • 1.36% gochugaru

Procedure

  1. Combine cabbage, daikon, green onion, and carrot.  Toss with salt.  Cover and let stand at a cool room temperature overnight.
  2. Meanwhile, combine the fish sauce, garlic, ginger, and gochugaru.
  3. The next morning, press the vegetables and strain off the liquid that has pooled at the bottom of the container.
  4. Add the chili mixture to the vegetables and mix thoroughly.  Cover and let stand at a cool room temperature for 48-72 hours.
  5. Transfer to the refrigerator.  After about two weeks a tanginess will have developed.
  6. Store tightly covered in the fridge.

Sauerkraut

This post was originally published on September 17, 2013.  I’m re-posting it todayfor those that attended my session at Eat Alberta 2017.

 

Shredding cabbage to make sauerkrautKraut is German for “herb”.  It was also a derogatory term for Germans during the Second World War.  Sauerkraut means “sour herb”, or possibly “German curmudgeon”.  Why this preparation would be called sour herb I have no idea.

Ukrainian, Russian and several other eastern European languages use the word kapusta to refer to fresh cabbage, cured cabbage, and various dishes made with one or both of those.

Sauerkraut is a miracle preparation.  Cabbage and salt.  That’s it.  Somehow liquid appears from thin air and submerges the cabbage.  Over a few weeks, though neither cabbage nor salt are acidic, the mixture develops a piquant tanginess.

I had never eaten sauerkraut before moving to Alberta when I was a teenager, unless maybe once I accidentally got it on a hot dog at a baseball park.  In Edmonton there seems to be a house every couple of blocks that has a big crock of sauerkraut in the basement.  I first learned the process from Yolande at Tipi Creek.

While I’ve made sauerkraut a few times over the past couple years, this was the first year that I went all in and filled a 10 gallon crock.  The ever-resourceful Judy had found us an old Medalta[1] crock, as well as a wooden cabbage shredder, pictured above.  The latter is basically a mandolin with three sets of serrated blades that make quick work of a trimmed, quartered cabbage.  The last piece of the puzzle fell into place on a balmy Saturday morning when I saw that August Organics was selling 50 lb bags of cabbage for $25.

The freshly sliced cabbage, about to be mixed with salt35 lbs of shredded cabbage had the crock brimming, though the volume falls by more than half once the salt is worked in.

The specifics of the preparation are discussed below.

Sauerkraut

Ingredients

  • 100% cabbage, thinly sliced, roughly 1/16″ wide and  2″ long
  • 1.89% kosher salt
  • optional: spice, usually either caraway or juniper, to taste

The percentages above are equivalent to 18.5 g of salt per kilo of cabbage, or roughly 3 tbsp of kosher salt for every 5 lbs of cabbage.

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large bucket or crock.  Let stand for one hour, then mix vigorously until liquid is pooling on the bottom of the container.  (Letting the mixture stand for an hour makes the mixing and liquid extraction easier; you can proceed directly to the mixing, but you’ll have to work harder to get the liquid from the cabbage.)
  2. Once there is enough liquid, use a plate that is slightly smaller in diameter than the bucket to cover the cabbage.  Weigh the plate down (a smaller bucket filled with water works well) until the cabbage is submerged in liquid.  Cover the entire operation in a kitchen towel and secure with an elastic band.  Store at a cool room temperature, maybe 18-20°C.  Most basements are this temperature.
  3. A white scum will slowly form on the surface of the liquid.  For the first week or two, skim the surface every day.  Afterwards, skim whenever you remember that you have a crock of sauerkraut curing in your basement.
  4. After three weeks, starting tasting periodically.  The sauerkraut is done when it has a sharp-but-manageable acidity.

A jar of sauerkraut

 

1. Medalta, short for Medicine Hat Alberta, was once a large ceramics factory in that town.  They produced plain but distinctive pottery that can still be seen in kitchens and flea markets across the province.  One advantage of setting up such a factory in Medicine Hat was the large oil and gas reserves that could cheaply fire the kilns.  In fact it has been said that Medicine Hat has all hell for a basement.[2]  The site of the old factory is now a historic district housing modern ceramics studios and a museum.

2. Most know this phrase from the Big Sugar song All Hell for a Basement.  When that song was first played on the radio, my cousins in Ontario started asking if we had basements out in Alberta or what the deal was.  The song is actually the ballad of an itinerant worker moving to Alberta to find work.  Big Sugar is quoting Rudyard Kipling, who when touring southern Alberta, wrote, “This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.”

The Big Sugar line is: I have lost my way / But I hear tell / Of a heaven in Alberta / Where they’ve got all hell for a basement.

Great lyrics…

Lacto-Fermented Pickles

Cucumbers

Naturally fermented dill picklesI come from a land of “refrigerator pickles”: cucumbers steeped in syrupy vinegar and spices, and stored in the fridge through the fall. There is another type of pickle called a lacto-fermented pickle.  The idea of producing an acidic pickle with only brine was a revelation.

The procedure couldn’t be simpler. Make a brine of one cup salt in one gallon of water. Cover your chosen vegetables in the chilled brine (most vegetables want to float, so you’ll have to find a way to keep them submerged) and leave for a week at a cool room temperature. This is the only tricky part: the solution must stay below 23°C to prevent the proliferation of harmful bacteria. I don’t have any air-conditioning, so I wait for weeks like this, when it barely reaches 20°C outside, and then crack open the window in my “cold storage room” (also my office, where I am typing this post).

Little carrots from August Organics bubbling in the early stages of lacto-fermentation.

The familiar Lactobacillus bacteria consume something (lactose?) in the vegetables and create lactic acid. Lactobacillus can survive in the saline solution, while most undesirable bacteria can’t.

Once the vegetables have reached the desired balance of salty and sour, they are removed from the brine and placed in a new container. The brine is boiled to kill off any pathogens, then chilled and poured back over the vegetables. The pickles will keep indefinitely in your fridge.

That is my only misgiving about this preservation technique: the pickles are not properly canned, and so they tie up fridge space. The bulk of my cucumbers are cooked into syrupy relish, properly canned, and kept in the pantry. It’s worth saving a few vegetables for this natural pickling process. The taste is exquisite: delicate acidity and a high crunch-factor.

Cabbage

Naturally fermented sauerkrautWe’re starting to get 5lb heads of cabbage from Tipi Creek. While I have a gargantuan appetite for braised cabbage at this time year (apples come into season, I smoke pork, maybe there’s some kohlrabi kicking around…) there’s still plenty left over to make sauerkraut by the traditional brining method. This year I tried canning my sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is often cooked before eating anyways, so I figured it will hold up to the canning process nicely.

There’s still a nagging voice in the back of my mind, a voice insisting that canning without a recipe is dangerous.

I need a book that liberates me, the home-canner, from recipes. A book that says: “This is the pH, salinity, or sugar content required to safely jar food. This is how to measure the pH of your pickles. This is the approximate pH of common household pantry items. This is how to calculate the pH of your pickling solution.” That way, instead of working from a recipe, I could start with a set of ingredients or cured products like sauerkraut and salt pork and test and adjust them to make sure they’re safe to can.

Even though I didn’t have a recipe for the canned sauerkraut, there are plenty of forums and Youtube videos from the northern US that detail the jarring of traditional home-cured sauerkraut. All the folks in these videos have friendly, trustworthy faces, so I gave it a go.

 

Lacto-Fermented Pickles