Classic Pogi Kimchi (Whole Napa Cabbage Kimchi)
Everything you need to know to make authentic, better-than-store-bought kimchi at home
As a Korean Canadian growing up in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, I ate homemade kimchi every day. In our house, we made so much kimchi the napa cabbage had to be brined in our bathtub; we’d organize our showers before the big kimchi-making was scheduled to allow my mother time to scrub the tub in advance. My older sister and I would peel a bushel of garlic (it's the same size as a bushel of apples), then we’d move to the kitchen floor, where we’d purée an armful of hot chilies in a red-stained blender dedicated to kimchi-making. It was a big production, and everyone in the family dug in deep, donning gloves and chopping vegetables. And there were lots of tears — my sister and I would forget to avoid touching our eyes after handling the peppers!
While there are hundreds of iterations, from mustard leaves to cucumbers, perilla and radishes, baechu kimchi, or napa cabbage kimchi, is the most traditional. Koreans make pogi kimchi (whole head kimchi) in super large quantities for kimjang, a collective family or neighbourhood kimchi-making event, which happens in late fall to prepare for the cold season. Some collectives use 100 to 200 cabbages — and with one head making enough kimchi to fill a two- or three-litre jar, that's enough kimchi for all to enjoy every day. UNESCO recognizes this ritual as an Intangible Cultural Heritage tradition. It's intertwined with our culture, and we think of kimchi with overwhelming pride. Fiery and effervescent, kimchi is Korea's national identity and beating heart. It's ubiquitous in the Korean menu — South Koreans consume 42 kg of kimchi every year — and there was never a time in my childhood when a jar of kimchi wasn't in my refrigerator. When my family immigrated to Canada, we had nothing and could afford little. A soda pop crate became our table, but we had rice and kimchi to fill our bellies, and it was enough.
With so many kimchi varieties, recipes are dictated by family tradition and regional flavours of the season. My mother favoured adding oysters and salted fermented shrimp to her baechu kimchi, and over the years, we swapped oysters for fish sauce, a popular substitute in Korean homes. These strong flavours help develop and round out the punchy spice. While I do provide instructions below on how to make mak kimchi (where the cabbage is cut into smaller pieces before fermenting), the pogi variety, in my opinion, is by far more delicious and worth the extra effort. The layering, spreading of the paste, and rolling technique allow for a slow fermentation. Make it, and you'll be an honorary Korean in my books.
Classic Pogi Kimchi (Whole Napa Cabbage Kimchi)
While kimchi is a staple of every Korean table, it’s more than a side dish or condiment. Older kimchi has the right amount of sourness to make the best Korean recipes, from kimchi soup and stew to kimchi fried rice, noodles and pancakes. It’s become a popular addition to non-Korean dishes — you may see it in grilled cheese sandwiches, and on burgers, pizza, tacos and more — with good reason. Might I suggest you use kimchi as a condiment on oysters and deviled eggs, in softened butter for fish, or in mayo as your new favourite sandwich spread.
When buying gochugaru for this recipe, look for a bright red hue, and make sure to buy the mild version.
Use a mandoline to quickly julienne vegetables; a Japanese mandoline is a workhorse in every Korean kitchen and makes precise cuts.
To make mak kimchi (where the cabbage is cut up) instead of pogi kimchi, cut the cabbage into 1½- to 2-inch pieces, place in a large bowl, sprinkle with the kosher salt and add 2 cups of cold water, tossing to soften the leaves every 30 minutes for 1½ hours, before proceeding with the rest of the recipe.
This recipe makes enough to fill a 2.5-litre to 3-litre glass canning jar. Don't fret about the volume; after salting and draining, the bulk softens and wilts during the fermentation.
While you can eat kimchi right away, it's not fermented, and its flavour is not fully developed (nor are the healthy bacteria at their height). Deliciously fermented kimchi needs 1½ to 2 weeks in the fridge, after its 1 to 2 days of fermentation at room temperature, to fully develop its flavour. For a fun, scientific test, taste your fermenting kimchi every day, noticing the blooming flavours.
Kimchi will last for months in the fridge and will slowly age for you to enjoy, even after it turns very sour. Aged, sour kimchi is preferred for cooking as it makes the best tasting kimchi stew, soup, fried rice, dumplings and pancakes.
Note: Cleanliness of ingredients, tools and hands at every stage is important for making fermented food that is safe to eat.
- 1 large head napa cabbage (5 or 6 lbs)
- ½ cup kosher salt or Korean sea salt
For the spicy porridge mixture:
- 2 tbsp glutinous/sweet rice flour
- 2 cups cold water
- 2 tbsp packed brown sugar or granulated sugar
For the vegetable mixture:
- ⅓ cup chopped garlic (from about 2 heads)
- 1 tbsp chopped ginger
- 2 red finger chilies, roughly chopped
- 1-2 Thai chilies, chopped
- ½ onion, chopped
- 8 green onions, halved lengthwise and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 bunch Chinese chives, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 cups peeled, julienned Korean radish
- 1 cup peeled, julienned carrots
- 1 peeled, cored, julienned Korean pear (optional)
- ½ onion, thinly sliced
- 1½ cups gochugaru (Korean coarse hot pepper flakes); see tip
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- ¼ cup salted, fermented shrimp, finely chopped
- 2 tsp kosher salt (ideally, Diamond or smaller grain kosher salt) or Korean sea salt
Peel, trim and discard any old, bruised parts of the outer cabbage leaves. Using a sharp knife, trim and discard the base. Make a 2-inch cut to halve the base of the cabbage, then pull apart the head from there with your hands to create jagged leaves (this will help the spicy porridge mixture adhere). Cut each half in half again at the base, pulling apart to the top once more to make quarters. Dunk the quarters and any loose leaves in a large bowl of cold water.
Working with one quarter at a time, in a large wide bowl, sprinkle 2 tablespoons of salt over each layer of leaves, starting from the bottom layer and lifting the leaves back to cover all of the surfaces, paying close attention to the thick white parts. Repeat with the remaining quarters, and salt the loose leaves well too. Let stand at room temperature until the leaves are wilted, and the tougher white pieces are softened and pliable, about 2 hours, rotating every 30 minutes.
Drain the cabbage of the extracted liquid. Fill the same bowl with cold water and rinse the cabbage thoroughly 2 to 3 times, changing the water. Then drain the cabbage in a colander or on a cooling rack over a bowl or the sink for an hour.
Meanwhile, make the spicy porridge mixture. In a medium saucepan, stir together the rice flour and water, and place over medium heat. Bring to a low boil, stirring constantly until thickened, about 2 minutes. Transfer the porridge mixture to an extra-large bowl, then stir in the sugar and allow to cool completely.
Prepare and add the vegetable mixture. In a food processor, process the garlic, ginger, both types of chilies, and chopped onion until smooth, about 30 seconds. Scrape into the cooled porridge mixture. Add the green onions, chives, radish, carrots, Korean pear (if using), gochugaru, fish sauce, salted shrimp and salt to the porridge mixture. Stir until well combined.
Wearing rubber gloves, place one cabbage quarter on a baking sheet or in a large bowl. Lift each leaf and rub with some of the mixture, making sure to coat the tough white core well, and repeating until all of the layers are coated. Then roll up the cabbage quarter and rub the outer leaves with some of the mixture. Repeat with remaining quarters and any loose leaves. Place the seasoned cabbage rolls into a large, sterile glass jar (see note) or container with a fitted lid, placing a large plate or tray underneath to catch any bubbling juices. (Alternatively you can use a thick plastic food storage container with a fitted lid.)
Let the kimchi stand, covered, on a counter or in a cool dark area for 1 to 2 days to ferment. Check the state of the kimchi after one day, pushing the kimchi under the juices, and close again, loosening the lid if there is too much gaseous buildup. The warmer the environment, the faster the kimchi will ferment. Check for bubbling, and taste the leaves for an effervescent, slightly sour taste.
Refrigerate and store the kimchi to slowly continue the fermentation; the flavours will evolve to perfection.
Enjoy when the kimchi has fermented to taste, after 1½ to 2 weeks. To serve, remove a quarter of the cabbage, unroll, and cut into bite-sized pieces.
Yield: Makes about 12 cups or 3 litres
Soo Kim is a Toronto-based professional cook and baker, writer, stylist and recovering food editor. Hungry for more? Follow her delicious stories on Instagram @soocookie.