From kimchi to tempeh, sauerkraut to sourdough, fermented foods appear across cultures, climates, and centuries. Learning from traditional fermentation techniques always informs our approach in the lab. Traditional methods persist because they work so well—survival of the fittest ferment, if you will.
Through research, discussion, and hands-on learning we plan to explore the wonderful world of fermented foods and document the process. For this first entry in the series, we’re exploring the ingredients in Baechu Kimchi—the red, spicy, Korean side-dish staple known for its deep fermented flavors. Kimchi comes in many forms, it is a category, a technique—not a specific dish. Baechu Kimchi—the one most people think of when they hear “kimchi”—is the most popular variation made with Napa cabbage. But there’s a world of kimchi variants to choose from, like the more mild Baek (white) kimchi, or Nabak (red water) kimchi.
Let’s explore the ingredients of Baechu Kimchi:
Sweet Rice Powder
Gochugaru (Korean chili powder)
Napa Cabbage makes up the body of this kimchi. It appears in many Asian cuisines from Japan to Thailand, starring in soups or complimenting dishes in pickled or fermented forms.
Napa cabbage is believed to be a natural cross-breed between pak choy and turnip. It’s beloved for its versatility, leafiness, and mild flavor.
This radish adds a peppery earthiness and much-needed crunch to Kimchi. It’s another versatile vegetable found across Asian cuisines.
Asian Pear isn’t always used in Kimchi, but it’s a near-perfect complement for any spicy and acidic meal. This fruit is sweet and low in acid. It brings a mellowing layer to Kimchi.
Sweet Rice Powder
Sweet rice powder is a binding agent used to hold the ingredients that make up the kimchi paste together. It’s high in starch and makes for a smooth and sweet thickening agent.
Gochugaru is the chili flake made from sun-dried Korean red chilis that gives kimchi its characteristic red color. These flakes are more flavorful than spicy—bringing an earthiness and vegetal note. You need to overload on Gochugaru before your dish becomes too spicy. Kimchi can handle a ton of gochugaru, so be sure to taste your paste before slathering it between the cabbage leaves.
Salted Shrimp is another fermented Korean staple. These shrimp are incredibly salty, making them a great fermentation starter or even a substitute for salt or fish sauce in your cooking. Because they’re fermented for about six months, salted shrimp are full of depth and umami beyond the salt. Many recipes substitute fish sauce for the salted shrimp, but try not to skip them as they add that special dose of funk that makes great kimchi sing.
Following along with the Kimchi Korea House recipe, we were inspired by the level of care and technique that goes into their kimchi. The cabbage has to be properly salted and rinsed, the kimchi paste perfectly seasoned with constant taste-testing as ingredients are added, each cabbage leaf has to be separated and covered in the paste, and then the whole thing has to be carefully packed in jars to ferment to taste. Like in our lab, to make the best product, you need to work clean—if you consider hands covered in funky and spicy red paste clean, anyway—and smart. You need to consider your ingredients carefully, always balancing salty, sweet, and sour. And you need to trust in your bacterial allies to make the magic happen.
For the full recipe, check out Kimchi Korea House’s Instagram. Their recipe was easy to follow and made us briefly feel like kimchi experts. Making kimchi isn’t beyond the home cook, but like many ferments, it takes the right ingredients, along with patience and focus. Follow along closely and you’ll be rewarded.