Kimchi Anthropology: Fermentation

This is a series on kimchi. Kimchi is the food of my people. I love kimchi and if you’re reading this, I suspect you do too.

I’m sure you already know, but not all kimchi is the same.  There are multiple varieties (over 200!) and every cook makes kimchi their own way. 

Then there’s the fermentation process.  Kimchi tastes different depending on its ripeness and place in the fermentation process. What is kimchi ripeness?  Well, just like you know when a peach is ripe, you know when kimchi is ripe.  You can tell by the smell, color, and texture.    

Fresh Kimchi

Fresh kimchi smells salty, like the sea.  The cabbage leaves are crunchy and crisp, while the flavor is fresh and raw.  You will see lots of white cabbage and little bits of yellow or green on the tips of the leaves. The spice paste looks smeared on top of the cabbage leaves, a separate element completely.

Fresh kimchi is packed into jars on the day that it’s made. The taste is completely different because fermentation has not yet begun its work. The equivalent is probiotic cultures that have been added to milk; it’s not yogurt yet, although all the raw ingredients are there.

As kimchi ages, the fermentation process begins.  Bubbles work their way up from the bottom of the kimchi jar, much the same way yeast works in a batch of dough. After a day or two (sometimes longer), the kimchi has ripened and is ready to eat.

Ripe Kimchi

Ripe Kimchi has a softer texture although it’s still somewhat crunchy. The flavor and aroma is strong and pungent. Now that “raw” taste is gone and there’s a new flavor profile: distinctively sour and funky. It tastes and smells like kimchi!

Ripe Kimchi. Assertive, spicy, and pungent.

Kimchi is perfectly ripe for the briefest of times.  It continues to age and change, deepening in character and moving further along the fermentation process. When kimchi is ripe, it tastes best served at the table as banchan.

Over-Ripe Kimchi

We’ve all bought a jar of kimchi and forgotten about it. Months later, we pull it out from the back of the fridge. But now the kimchi tastes, smells, and looks completely different. The kimchi is old and over-ripe.

Old kimchi is soft and fizzes in your mouth.  It’s dark red, very juicy, and smells even funkier than usual. This kind of kimchi no longer tastes good when served at the table.

Overripe, mature kimchi is dark red and very juicy.

But old kimchi isn’t thrown away. Oh no, that would be like throwing away gold! Old kimchi tastes AMAZING in any dish that requires cooking or stewing.

Old, stinky kimchi is the backbone of the most iconic Korean stew: Kimchi Jjigae. The older and stinkier, the better! Don’t even try making Kimchi Jjigae with new kimchi. Or any cooked Korean dish, really. It will taste horrible!

Interestingly, most recipes don’t specify the age of kimchi in their recipes. They simply list kimchi as an ingredient, with no mention of what kind of kimchi to use. But ask any Korean cook and they’ll agree. For any cooked kimchi recipe, **old, mature kimchi preferred.**

Ripeness Preference

Every Korean has a preference for kimchi that is underripe, just ripe, or over-ripe.  Ask your favorite Korean and I bet they’ll tell you. I like kimchi that’s underripe to just ripe. Halmoni and my dad like kimchi that’s a little past perfectly ripe. But my mom prefers very ripe, mature kimchi.

Kimchi ripeness is so important that Korean markets sell kimchi with a date stamped on top.  This tells you when the kimchi was packed.  

Ingeniously, kimchi is eaten at every stage of the fermentation process. On the day when kimchi is freshly made and packed into jars, we eat bossam: freshly salted cabbage leaves, boiled pork, and a swipe of spicy radish paste. When kimchi is ripe, we serve it on the table as banchan. When kimchi is overly ripe, we throw it into a pot and make delicious jjigae.

Read the rest of the Kimchi Anthropology series:

Kimchi Anthropology: Origins

Recipes with Kimchi

Kimchi JJigae
bowl of kimchi stew with a spoon next to another bowl and napkin
Instant Pot Bo Ssam + Radish Oyster Kimchi
Bo Ssam platter + radish kimchi with oyster
Budae Jjigae
budae jjigae ingredients in hot pot on table with plate of vegetables on the side
Kimchi Queso Dip
Kimchi Queso Cheese Dip
Kimchi Cheese Fries
kimchi cheese fries in cast iron skillet with fork
Easy Kimchi Fried Rice
bowl of kimchi fried rice with fried egg in bowl and hands holding spoon and bowl
Kimchi, Korean, Writing
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[…] paste, kimchi, anchovy stock, gochujang, etc. These are all pungent, fantastically flavoured foods. Fermented food, in particular, forms the base of Korean cooking. I once heard Anthony Bourdain describe it as […]

aho
aho
1 year ago

Great post and beautiful photography. Made me crave kimchi now 🙈

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[…] food, actually. I’ve never seen kimchi mold or go bad. It simply gets more and more fermented. When it’s so old that it fizzes in your mouth, it’s time to throw in a pot and make […]

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[…] kimchi (almost) every day.  Kimchi is the national food of South Korea.  Kimchi is also a fermented food and amazingly good for you.  But what I love most about kimchi is the way it makes EVERYTHING […]