Recipe-phile: Cool summertime climes call for fermentation in the crock

In my book, the cool summer temperatures we've been having are good for one thing only: fermentation. Here's a good rule: if it's too hot to light the oven, it's too hot to make fermented pickles. Sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented beans and anything ...

Kimchi in a jar
Kimchi is part of the pan chan, or the parade of tiny dishes that both kick off and accompany a Korean meal

In my book, the cool summer temperatures we've been having are good for one thing only: fermentation.

Here's a good rule: if it's too hot to light the oven, it's too hot to make fermented pickles. Sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented beans and anything else you'd care to sour in a big crock make their best progress during days that hover around 68 degrees and nights that dip a bit cooler.

These things tend to rot in summers whose daytime temperatures skyrocket into the '90s, a point that was driven dramatically home for me by a crock of kraut that turned slimy and disturbingly alcoholic during the hot August of 2007.

So since we're hitting the zone of fermentation perfection and I wasn't doing any swimming last week, I had time to make some kimchi. I love sauerkraut - a lot - but I think I might like kimchi even more.

A Korean staple with most meals, traditional kimchi is a bubbling, fizzing mixture of salted cabbage, daikon radish, ginger and red pepper flakes that you press into a crock and leave to ferment for about a week, after which time it turns into a hot, sour, completely irresistible rust-colored heap of wilted goodness.


When I was pregnant I ate kimchi straight from a bowl with a fork, but my Korean friends told me that eating it like a bowl of cereal wasn't quite the traditional way. (Though it does possibly explain why a one-year-old baby would cry out and reach for more spicy fermented cabbage.)

Properly, kimchi is part of the pan chan, or the parade of tiny dishes that both kick off and accompany a Korean meal. You might pick up a leaf of kimchi with your chopsticks at the beginning of a meal, just to taste it, and you might eat a bit more with your rice or rolled up in a lettuce leaf with a strip of marinated, barbecued beef bulgogi. It's kind of like Korean ketchup--ubiquitous, indiscriminate and salty. And like ketchup, it goes with eggs.

But it's more complex than ketchup. Kimchi recipes vary greatly. Most rely on Korean spicy red pepper powder for heat and ginger and scallion for flavor, but the vegetable base can be anything: many versions use napa cabbage, but you can give radishes, turnips, greens, celery the same treatment.

Often it calls for some kind of salted fish paste or anchovy, and some grated apple or asian pear, but I don't go in for all that. I let my German heritage, and my grandmother's fermented dill pickle recipe, influence my kimchi-making; I adhere to a strictly sour-and-hot kind of thing and eschew the fish.

Last year I even replaced the napa cabbage with regular cabbage, to great effect. It ended up being more like spicy ginger sauerkraut, but its cross-cultural heritage makes it more a versatile player with western food. Spicy ginger kraut on a grilled pork burger is a knockout, especially with an over-the-top swath of sesame oil-spiked mayonnaise under the bun.

Note: When it has finished fermenting, I pack my kimchi into jars, screw the lids on tight and refrigerate it to maintain its flavor, health benefits and crunch. It lasts about six months before it starts to taste over-fermented, which means it's not as stable as canned sauerkraut or kimchi, but I've never met the coming of spring with a surplus.

What I don't eat myself I give away to fellow kraut lovers.

Spicy Ginger Kraut


5 pounds cabbage, freshly picked, thickly shredded

3 tablespoons pickling salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons Korean red pepper powder (or 3/4 teaspoon paprika and 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper)

2 tablespoons minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Mix everything together well with your hands. Pack into a clean, sterilized crock and cover with large pieces of whole (or mostly whole) cabbage leaves. Rub these with a little of the salt mixture to wilt. Cover with three bags filled with brine: (3 Tablespoons salt to every 1 1/2 cups water) and then a clean towel. Set on wooden risers to prevent mold growing on the bottom of the crock. Ferment at cool room temperature, about 65 to 70 degrees for about 10 days, or until pleasantly sour. Start tasting at 5 days.

Pack the kimchi into sterilized quart or pint jars and screw on sterilized lids. Store in the refrigerator. I tripled this recipe and it made four packed quarts.


Traditional Cabbage and Radish Kimchi, from The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich

3 tablespoons pickling salt

5 cups water

1 pound Chinese (napa) cabbage, cut into 2-inch squares

1 pound daikon, cut in half lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise

1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

5 scallions, cut into thin rounds

1 1/2 tablespoons Korean ground dried hot pepper (or other mildly hot ground red pepper--Penzey's Half-Sharp Paprika is good)


1 teaspoon sugar

Dissolve 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons of the salt in the water. Combine the vegetables in a large bowl, a crock, or a nonreactive pot, and cover them with the brine. Weight the vegetables down with a plate, and let them stand 12 hours.

Drain the vegetables, reserving the brine. Combine the vegetables with the remaining ingredients, including the remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Pack the mixture into a 2-quart jar. Pour enough of the reserved brine over the cabbage to cover it. Push a freezer bag into the mouth of the jar, and pour the remaining brine into the bag. Seal the bag. Let the kimchi ferment in a cool place, at a temperature no higher than 68 degrees F, for 3 to 6 days, until the kimchi is as sour as you like.

Remove the brine bag, cap the jar tightly and store the kimchi in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months.

Makes about 1 1/2 quarts

(Note: in place of daikon I sometimes use kohlrabi)

Kimchi Fried Rice

3 slices thick-cut bacon, diced


1 teaspoon canola oil, optional

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 scallions, sliced thinly

2 cups leftover rice

1/2 cup chopped kimchi

1 1/2 Tablespoons soy sauce

2 Tablespoons sesame oil, divided

1 egg


pinch of sugar

salt to taste

Whisk the egg with 1 tablespoon sesame oil and a pinch of salt in a small bowl.

Heat a wok over high heat and add the bacon. Cook, stirring constantly, until the bacon is chewy and cooked through. Remove bacon and reserve. (Add a dribble of canola or vegetable oil now if the pan seems dry, depending on the fattiness of the bacon.) Add the garlic and scallion to the pan and stir. Add the rice and fry over high heat. When the rice is hot, add the kimchi, cooked bacon, pinch of sugar and remaining sesame oil. Move the rice to the high sides of the wok and add the beaten egg. Cook the egg in the middle until scrambled and mix with the rice. Add the soy sauce and taste for seasoning. Serve.

Technically, it serves 2.

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