Why It Works
- Brining the cabbage instead of salting it by hand allows for more even distribution of salt between all the layers in the cabbage.
- The seasoned glutinous rice slurry provides sugar for fermentation, and is thick enough to perfectly coat each layer of cabbage leaves.
Baechu kimchi, the ubiquitous kimchi made from Napa cabbage, is the spicy, fermented heart of Korean cuisine. It’s enjoyed in a multitude of ways, whether eaten fresh as an accompaniment to bossam or Korean barbecue, as the perfect topping for ramyun noodles, as an excellent mix-in for fried rice, or as the star, as in kimchi jeon.
But baechu kimchi’s significance is best exemplified by kimjang, the practice of communal kimchi-making that takes place every autumn. Kimchi and kimjang have become so inextricably linked with Korean cuisine and culture that UNESCO included kimjang in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013, noting that kimjang is a way for Koreans to “practice the spirit of sharing among neighbors, while promoting solidarity and providing them with a sense of identity and belonging.”
Traditionally, baechu kimchi is made in the late autumn and stored in onggis, Korean earthenware fermentation pots, which are then buried in the ground to slowly ferment through the winter. However, if you’re making kimchi at home, you don’t need an onggi; you don’t even need an earthenware pot. You just need a nonreactive container of some kind. I like to use a gallon-sized glass jar with a tight-fitting lid or a fermentation crock, but you can also use a plastic fermentation container designed for kimchi, or even an onggi. My friend, a ceramicist named Adam Field, makes beautiful handmade Korean onggi in the old-style that are perfect for showcasing kimchi-making in your home.
Once you have an appropriate container, you can get started. Baechu kimchi is made in a variety of ways, but the process for making every variety is the same: you salt Napa cabbage, season it with gochugaru and aromatics, and ferment it. North Korean kimchi historically incorporates less gochugaru and relies more heavily on the tanginess from lactic acid fermentation for its flavor profile, while kimchi made in the South along the coasts is typically spicier and fermented with seafood.
No matter how you make baechu kimchi, you have to start by selecting the right Napa cabbage. I look for dense, unblemished heads that weigh between 3 and 4 pounds each. It’s all right if they have dark green outer leaves (don’t discard them; while they’ll be tougher and chewier, the more mature leaves, once fermented, are perfect for kimchi jjigae) and the interior of the cabbage should be pale green and white. The most important thing is to make sure that there is no brown discoloration of or blemishes on the leaves, both of which could lead to problems with the fermentation.
When I’m ready to start, I carefully trim the bottom of the cabbage, leaving the core intact, and I only remove any outer leaves that are blemished. Then, using a sharp knife, I split the core, slicing about six inches up the length of the cabbage, far enough that I’ll be sure I can then evenly rip the cabbage in half by placing my thumbs into the split and pulling in opposite direction to pry the two halves apart. I then repeat the process with each half, thus quartering the Napa cabbage. Doing it this way leaves the core intact—think of the core like the binding that holds a book together—and it doesn’t do as much damage to the cabbage’s cell walls as quartering it with a knife would.
Once the cabbage is all quartered, you have to season it and remove most of its water content, which will help to concentrate the kimchi seasoning and make the vegetable more pliable; simply salting the cabbage accomplishes both of these goals. Traditionally, Koreans either sprinkle salt directly on the cabbage or place the cabbage into a brine; I’ve tested both methods and have found I prefer using a brine, as it evenly distributes the salt all over the cabbage, even in hard-to-reach crevices.
I want to take a moment here to emphasize that selecting the right type of salt for kimchi is incredibly important. Natural sea salt is the salt of choice for most Koreans making kimchi, but I’ve found that kosher salt is a very good substitute. Like natural sea salt, kosher salt has nothing added to it—table salt, on the other hand, often includes additives such as potassium iodide and anti-caking agents, which can impart a metallic flavor to whatever it’s used to season. While I love using natural sea salt for kimchi, it’s significantly more expensive than Diamond Crystal kosher salt, the salt I use for everyday cooking, and kosher salt works just as well for the brine used in this recipe.
Once the brine is made, I “swish” the cabbage around in the brine with my hands so that the salt water enters every nook and cranny. I leave the cabbage quarters in the brine, place a large sheet of parchment on top of the cabbage, and then place a wide pot of water over parchmen to act as a weight. It's okay if the cabbage isn’t covered with the brine at this point; the salt in the brine, combined with the weight, will force the cabbage to release enough water that, in about two hours, the quarters will be completely submerged. The cabbage then sits in the brine for 12 hours, and all you have to do is flip the quarters, swishing them around in the brine again when you flip them, at least two times to ensure that they’re evenly salted.
While the cabbage is in brine, you can prepare the rest of the kimchi mixture, or gochugaru slurry, a mixture of cooked sticky rice flour, sugar, soaked gochugaru chile flakes, fish sauce, and saeujeot (salted shrimp). This slurry serves two important purposes: the sugar and the sticky rice in it will feed the bacteria responsible for healthy lactic acid fermentation, and the slurry itself is thick enough to adhere to the cabbage leaves, ensuring they’re all evenly seasoned. And while preparing the slurry requires a good amount of chopping, I strongly suggest you pay attention to how you’re chopping the vegetables. For example, it’s best to finely mince ginger and garlic so that they meld seamlessly with the other ingredients in the mixture, but, on the other hand, it’s important to cut the carrot, radish, and Asian pear into batons, because they’ll provide a crunchy texture to the kimchi as the cabbage wilts over time.
Once the cabbage is done brining and the kimchi mixture is prepared, I rinse the cabbage to remove any excess brine and then wring out each quarter by squeezing and rolling it in a clean towel, and then the assembly can begin.
To keep things neat and clean, I start off by slipping on my large rubber kitchen gloves and placing sheets of parchment on a clean work surface, Dexter-style. Then, placing the cabbage down, core-side up, I spread an even layer of the kimchi mixture on the bottom-most cabbage layer, and move my way up until I reach the core-layer. Once all the cabbage layers have been seasoned, I roll up the baechu-kimchi. Starting at the core, I roll it tightly like a cinnamon roll until the outer leaves are wrapped around the interior in a neat parcel. I then pack the parcels tightly into my fermentation container.
Once the container is filled, the baechu kimchi should be placed in an area that ranges between 65 and 75℉ (18-24℃), away from direct sunlight—in my small apartment, I place my jars by a slightly cracked window and cover them with a towel to block out sunlight. In a day or two, I “burp” the kimchi by using a clean spoon to press down on the tightly packed parcels and push out any trapped air bubbles, which also ensures that the kimchi is submerged in the liquid in the container. After a three-day fermentation at room temperature, I transfer the kimchi to the refrigerator and let it ferment there for at least another three days at a slower rate.
One of the best parts about kimchi is that it can be eaten at every step in this process. For example, before it’s fully fermented, kimchi can be served as a salad known as geotjeori. But the other thing about kimchi is that it’s all about personal preference; when you choose to start eating it is up to you. My preferred aging time for baechu kimchi is between two and three weeks, when it has acidic funk and slight effervescence, but the vegetables retain their textural crunch. Any longer than that and the fermentation will begin to break down the vegetables and the flavors—the acidity and spice–will start to mellow. But of course, that isn’t a loss: at that point, it’s ideal for adding to braises, fried rice, and it makes an especially good kimchi jjigae.
- For Brining the Cabbage:
- 1 head (about 3 pounds; 1.3kg) Napa cabbage
- 2 quarts (1.9L; 1.9kg) filtered or bottled water
- 4 3/4 ounces (135g; about 2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons) Diamond Crystal kosher salt or sea salt
- For Making the Kimchi:
- 1 cup (110g) coarse ground gochugaru (Korean chile powder)
- 3 tablespoons (24g) glutinous rice flour
- 2 tablespoons (30g) sugar
- 1/2 cup (120ml) fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons (40g) saeujeot (Korean salted shrimp), with its brine, minced
- 8 garlic cloves (40g), finely chopped
- One 2-inch piece (about 1 ounce; 30g) fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 small Asian pear (about 6 ounces; 170g), peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4- by 1/4- by 2-inch batons (yielding about 3 1/2 ounces; 100g total)
- 4 ounces (115g) daikon radish, peeled and cut into 1/4- by 1/4- by 2-inch batons (yielding about 3 1/2 ounces; 100g total)
- 1 medium carrot (about 4 ounces; 115g), peeled and cut into 1/4- by 1/4- by 2-inch batons (yielding about 3 1/2 ounces; 100g total)
- 16 scallions (about 4 ounces; 115g total), root end trimmed and discarded, scallions halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
For Brining the Cabbage: Remove and discard any blemished outer leaves from cabbage head. Using a sharp knife, trim root end, then cut through bottom quarter of cabbage head lengthwise, as if to halve it, but stopping where core meets leafy part. Using your hands, tear cabbage head in half lengthwise. Repeat process by cutting each half through core, stopping where core meets leafy part, and use your hands to tear cabbage head lengthwise into quarters.
In a large bowl, whisk together water and salt until salt is fully dissolved, about 45 seconds. Add cabbage, arranging pieces cut side up. Cover surface of brine with sheet of plastic wrap or parchment paper, then place a weight on top to keep cabbage as submerged as possible (Chef's press weights, fermentation weights, or a large bowl filled with water all make good weights). Cabbage may not be fully submerged at the beginning of the brining process; as water expels from the cabbage during first hour of brining, volume of brine will increase, submerging cabbage pieces. Set aside to brine, maintaining an ambient temperature between 55°F (13°C) and 75°F (24°C), for at least 12 hours and up to 14 hours, flipping cabbage quarters twice over the course of brining.
Remove cabbage from brine, and working with one quarter head at a time, rinse under cold water; discard brine. Using your hands, squeeze cabbage to wring out excess water (cabbage should be quite limp at this point), and set pieces aside on a rimmed baking sheet, cut side up.
For Making the Kimchi: In a small bowl, stir together gochugaru and 1/2 cup (120ml) warm water until well combined; set aside to bloom (gochugaru will brighten in color). In a small saucepan, combine rice flour, sugar, and 1 cup (240ml) water, and whisk to combine. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly to prevent mixture from scorching and forming lumps, and cook until mixture thickens to a paste, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in bloomed gochugaru, and transfer to a medium bowl. Set aside until cool enough to touch, 8 to 10 minutes.
Once cooled, stir in fish sauce, salted shrimp, chopped garlic, and ginger until thoroughly combined. Add Asian pear, daikon, carrot, and scallions. Using clean hands, gently mix until thoroughly combined, and vegetables are evenly coated with paste mixture, 3 to 4 minutes.
Working with one piece of cabbage at a time, starting with outermost layer of leaves and working in toward the core, use your hands to evenly spread kimchi paste mixture over each cabbage leaf, making sure to thoroughly coat the core as well. Repeat seasoning process with remaining pieces of cabbage.
Working with one piece of cabbage at a time, cut side up, roll tightly into a compact parcel, starting from the core and working toward the top, so that outer layer of leaves is wrapped around quarter head of cabbage. Transfer to a non-reactive 1-gallon container, such as a fermentation crock or glass canning jar. Repeat rolling process with remaining pieces of cabbage, nestling them tightly into the container, and pressing down to eliminate air pockets.
Using a rubber spatula, scrape any leftover kimchi paste and accumulated juices from the bowl and baking sheet over the cabbage. Press down on mixture to eliminate air pockets, cover surface of mixture with plastic wrap, pressing gently to ensure full contact, and weigh down with fermentation weight. Seal container with airlock lid, if using, following manufacturer's instructions.
Store kimchi in dark area away from sun and let ferment, maintaining an ambient temperature between 55°F (13°C) and 75°F (24°C) for 3 days; check mixture daily for signs of gas formation (this is a good sign). After first 24 hours, vegetables should have released a good deal of moisture; using a clean spoon, press down on cabbage to submerge in liquid.
After 3 days, transfer container to refrigerator and continue to ferment for at least 2 more days before eating. After 5 total days of fermentation, begin tasting kimchi daily until it has reached desired flavor. Kimchi will continue to slowly ferment while refrigerated, becoming more "ripe" in flavor over time. Properly stored, baechu kimchi can be refrigerated for up to 2 months. "Young" baechu kimchi is ideal for serving as a banchan, whereas older kimchi is better suited for cooking, as in dishes like kimchi jjigae.
To serve as a banchan, transfer one (or more) of the cabbage parcels to a cutting board, and unroll. Using a sharp knife, remove core, and cut cabbage into 2-inch pieces. Divide between small individual serving dishes, spoon liquid from fermentation container over top, and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Serve.