The Art of Fermentation - Milk Kefir & Korean Kimchi

The Art of Fermentation - Milk Kefir & Korean Kimchi

It is rare that my wife and I agree on anything but I was pleasantly surprised when my liking for pickled vegetables converged neatly with her interest in the health benefits of home fermented produce. You might think it would be difficult to find fertile ground on which to nurture this glimmer of mutual interest but luckily the Irish Organic Centre happened to be running a course in just that.

The ' Organic Centre' is located in County Leitrim on Ireland's North West coast and runs courses on various topics generally based around growing and preserving your own food. Other courses include stone wall building, wild food foraging, beer making and an edible seaweed course all of which tend to be small and intimate with 10-15 people attending.

organic centre rossinver leitrim

I know it's unlikely you will be making the trip especially to attend a course but if you fancied a holiday in one of the most unspoiled parts of Ireland you might want to drop in for the day. Flights to the North West are pretty cheap to Ireland West Knock Airport from Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Stanstead and few others so it may well be worth a look for a quick break.

'The Art of Fermentation' is an intensive introduction to fermented and cultured foods which covers both the health benefits and practice of making your own Kombucha, Sauerkraut, Kimchi (or Kim Chee), Kefir and a couple of other surprisingly healthy and tasty fermented foods. How could you resist? So, on a sunny Saturday morning we found ourselves packing up the car with the required cabbage, jars, wooden spoons and other basic equipment Hans asked us to bring and headed off to the Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co.Leitrim.

fermented milk kefir

I'd fairly successfully pickled myself the night before so when I saw we'd be making and tasting fermented milk I have to say I was a little nervous of how the day would go. I don't know if you've ever tasted sour, slightly carbonated goats milk when suffering from a hangover but let's just say you might want to note the position of the exits.

Luckily by the time we got to the fizzy milk bit we had already sampled Kombucha (fermented tea), Home made Sauerkraut and had a properly delicious lunch (including fantastic 'Kimchi', a sort of spicy Korean fermented salad) so at that stage I was feeling a bit more settled. The day was fantastic and also allowed us to have a stroll round the centre to spy on what was growing and steal a few ideas from the experts.

Sauerkraut fermented cabbage

The difference between fermenting and pickling. Clearly it is the acidic taste which appeals to me when I'm getting stuck into a jar of pickled onions from the acetic acid used in the pickling solution. There is a difference between pickling and fermenting in that pickling uses a vinegar solution (acetic acid) to preserve the food whereas fermenting creates it's own acidic conditions (lactic acid) which is a by product of the fermentation process. Pickled food doesn't have the health benefits that fermented food has so there is a big difference between shop bought pickled Sauerkraut and the home fermented version. Fermented food has a number of health benefits including:

  • Enhanced nutrient content. (especially vitamins)
  • Easier to digest (also helps you digest cooked foods served with it).
  • They contain beneficial probiotic bacteria to keep your gut healthy.
  • Detoxification (lactic acid kills off harmful bacteria like E. coli)

The Flavour of

fermenting coffee beans

Fermented Food Ok, so you're probably not going to say "I feel like fermented food tonight" (yet) but I think you'd be surprised at how many fermented foods you already eat. Coffee (fermenting coffee beans in photo), chocolate, tea, sourdough bread, cheese, creme fraiche, yogurt, salami, tabasco, wine, beer, sauerkraut, soy sauce, pickles, vinegar and miso are all products of some degree of fermentation whether it's a fully fermented product or the process has been used somewhere in its manufacture.

Broadly speaking the flavour of home fermented food is tart or sour but I was certainly surprised at the complexity of flavour, especially in my favourite of the day, Koren Kimchi. Fermentation is the basic process but the ingredients bring out a huge range of flavours, think dill in pickles or in the case of Kimchi cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes. Fermentation can take a long (soy sauce) or short time (kimchi) with the shorter fermentations resulting in a fresh and lively taste with just a hint of sourness.

Caucasian mountains

Fizzy Milk The fizzy milk in question is milk kefir, a fermented milk drink made with kefir grains which are believed to have originated in the Caucasian mountains of the former USSR (mountain range sandwiched between Turkey and Iran in the South and Russia in the North).

Hans told us a story about how the 'Grains of the Prophet' (so called because they were believed to be a gift from the prophet Mohammed) were closely guarded by the people of the Northern slopes as it was believed their strength would diminish if the secret was given away. The Russians were keen to get their hands on the mythical grains and sent Irina Sakharova (no relation), a pretty young thing (I hear there is no shortage over there) to charm the local Prince Bek-Mirza Barchorov and relieve him of some of his precious charge.

tsar alexander kefir grains

Unfortunately and, I suspect, not unusually for people born into privilege, the Prince felt he'd rather like to keep Irina without handing over any grains which prompted Irina to say "thanks, but no thanks" and head back to Moscow. The Prince, not used to being refused, had her kidnapped on the way home and decided he'd marry her whether she liked it or not.

The Russians, who didn't like being refused either, and had quite an advantage numbers wise over the Prince's army then kidnapped him and brought him before the Tsar. The Prince was ordered to gift ten pounds of kefir grains to Irina as payment for the inconvenience and that is how, indirectly, Hans got his hands (ha ha) on the mythical 'kefir' grains.

kefir grains

Now, I can't tell you the Russian for "is that it!?!?" but I suspect you would have found out if you were there when the ill gotten grains (stop!) were presented as instead of looking like the mystical golden beans tied in a velvet purse you were imagining they look like small lumps of cottage cheese.

What are kefir grains for? Kefir grains are added to milk to produce a lightly fermented and surprisingly pleasant tasting drink. Kefir has long been used in Russia and Eastern Europe to treat digestive disorders and has the following health benefits:

  • Milk kefir is a source of probiotics thought to be 3 times the probiotic level of yoghurt. Probiotics aid digestion and keep your gut healthy.
  • It contains high levels of the amino acid tryptophan which makes you feel relaxed and helps you to sleep.
  • Like all fermented food it is higher in vitamins than the original ingredients. It contains B12, which is important for your blood and nervous system, and B1, (otherwise is known as thiamine) which is important for helping you withstand stress. Kefir also contains biotin, which is a B vitamin that helps your body use other B vitamins.
  • It contains the polysaccheride 'Kefiran' which is anti-inflammatory and is a stimulant for your immune system.

How to make milk kefir. First you need to get your hands on some kefir grains or starter culture powder (without kidnapping anyone), grains can be tricky to get hold of but powders which are not re-useable are easily available from for example. The unwritten rule about grains is you're not supposed to charge for them but you do see them either free or for a fiver or so on forums like, just google 'milk kefir ireland'. Fermenting folk who make their own milk kefir will always have extra grains as the culture grows every time you use it, ask around locally and you might be lucky. Hans says he often has extra which he is happy to share and can be contacted at the Organic Centre at 071 985 4338.

Making kefir is easy. Simply place the kefir grains in a clean pint sized glass or jar and fill 2/3 full with milk (cow, sheep, goat, it doesn't matter). Cover with a clean dish cloth or kitchen paper and place in a cupboard away from direct sunlight. Leave for 24 hours until it reaches your desired taste, remove the grains with a plastic strainer and start again with a fresh batch. It is important not to use a metal strainer as this can effect the beneficial micro-organisms.

If using kefir powder the process is the same but there will be no grains to remove when finished. Each sachet produces a fixed amount of milk kefir and is not reuseable like grains.

milk kefir with mint in galss

What's it like? Um, well, it does take a little getting used to. It has a slightly acidic, tart flavour which could be described as slightly lemony but after few slurps you do begin to warm to it. It does have a slighty fizzy taste as mentioned in the title but don't let that put you off, it also contains a tiny amount of alcohol produced by the fermentation process so may indeed be a good hangover cure. If you're not ready for full blown milk kefir you can mix it with fruit smoothies or add a little maple syrup or vanilla extract for flavour.

Here's the funny thing though, you really do feel great after you drink it, very relaxed and calm and, well, happy! The word 'kefir' comes from the Turkish 'keif' which means 'good feeling', kefir in Russian apparently means 'pleasure drink'. Give it a go, once you get hold of the grains all you need is milk to make an endless supply.

korean kimchi

Korean Kimchi (Kim-Chee) Kimchi was the big revelation of the day for me because of it's range of subtle flavours and light spiciness. If you haven't tried it I think you'll be surprised at how fresh it tastes, it is bright, open and delicious with a youthful crunch that makes it difficult to stop eating. It's becoming very trendy with the healthy set in the States (for good reason) so start making your own now and be ahead of the 'smug' wave when the craze inevitably hits our shores.

My advice (after being advised by Alys Fowler in 'Abundance - How to store and preserve your garden produce') is to make small batches, if you keep disturbing the contents of a large jar it can result in further fermentation and spoil or as Alys says "will turn your kimchi into something truly horrid in a matter of hours".

mak kimchi in jars

Kimchi Recipes Here's 2 recipes, the first is Gaby and Hans Wieland's recipe as shown in the Organic Centre and the other a less sweet and more spicy/savory version.

Traditional Kimchi seems to be made using seafood either with fermented fish sauce, salted shrimp or fresh oysters but can also be made in as simple vegetarian versions which are great place to start. Gaby and Hans's recipe is deliciously light as described above and is the one I'd recommend trying first as I can't see how you couldn't like it.

Sweet and Spicy Vegetarian Kimchi


1 Napa (Chinese) cabbage finely shredded 3 Carrots finely shredded 2 cucumbers, de-seeded and finely shredded 2 bunches of scallions thinly cut into diagonal pieces 1 apple finely shredded 2 small oranges, peeled, sectioned and chopped into small pieces 2 teaspoons of garlic minced 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper 2 tablespoons sesame seeds 2 tablespoons of Himilayan pink salt (you can replace with a good sea salt if difficult to find)

Kimchi close up

Method: Place the shredded cabbage in a large mixing bowl with salt and gently massage to release the cabbage juice. Do this several times, the cabbage needs to be floating in its own juice. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.

Firmly pack the vegetable mixture with the juice into a large gallon glass jar. Place a pint sized, water filled and tighty covered glass jar on top of the mix to keep them submerged in the liquid while fermenting.

Cover with a clean tea towel and store in a warm dry place for 2 days. After 2 days check flavour and if it's to your taste you're done. If you prefer your Kimchi more taet leave for another day and try again.

Simple Cabbage Kimchi

Ingredients to fill a 1 litre jar.

  • 1 large head of napa cabbage
  • 250 grams of Korean radish or daikon, peeled and cut into matchsticks
  • 4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 50g sea salt or kosher salt (see Recipe Notes)
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 x 5cm piece of root ginger, grated
  • 3 teaspoons of red chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons of Korean fish sauce (optional), must be preservative free


Prepare the cabbage Cut the cabbage lengthwise into quarters and remove the cores. Cut each quarter crosswise into 2 inch strips. Place the cut cabbage in a bowl and massage the salt into the leaves until it begins to soften,

making kimchi

add water to cover. Place a plate on top and weigh it down to keep the cabbage immersed in the water, leave for 2 hours. Thoroughly rinse the cabbage under cold water and drain in a colander, a salad spinner is handy for quickly drying the leaves if you have one.

Make the paste and combine Combine the garlic, ginger and chili powder to make a paste, obviously you can make it more or less hot by altering the amounts of the red chili powder. Add the cabbage, radish and scallions to a large bowl and work the paste into the vegetables with your hands until completely coated. You might want to wear gloves here or your hands will reek of garlic for a couple of days. Needless to say resist the temptation to brush a stray hair from your face during this procedure unless you enjoy running your eyes under the cold tap.