Growing up, you either loved cabbage or hated it; there never was an in-between. However, as time went on and fusion cuisine took the world by storm, cabbage became a much more interesting and frequently used ingredient.
Over the past two decades or so, kimchi and sauerkraut have become especially popular amongst world-renowned chefs.
But, as with most food trends, all of a sudden you just see kimchi and sauerkraut everywhere without even knowing what they are, how they are used, and frankly, what all the fuss is about.
So, what is the difference between kimchi and sauerkraut? Both kimchi and sauerkraut are made by fermenting cabbage, but kimchi originated in Korea and sauerkraut was originally a Chinese dish. Kimchi also tends to have a wider range of flavors which range from sour to spicy to salty. Traditional sauerkraut is sour and pungent.
In this article, we will be exploring the many different aspects of both kimchi and sauerkraut.
We will be comparing and contrasting the ingredients used to make them, how they are made, their flavor profiles, and nutritional values.
What Is Kimchi?
Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish that dates back thousands of years.
Although its production methods and flavor profile has evolved quite a lot since then, the basic principles of this dish remain the same.
Kimchi is cabbage that is fermented with additional seasoning ingredients that contribute to its overall flavor, such as garlic, ginger, and Korean chili spices.
Ingredients Used in Kimchi
Kimchi is made most often using Chinese or Napa cabbage that undergoes a fermentation process for only a few days. It can be fermented longer in cooled storage conditions.
The cabbage leaves are used whole and fermented along with additional ingredients. Even though the type of cabbage used can vary, it is mostly made using green cabbage varieties.
Kimchi is usually made with cabbage as the only or main vegetable, however, the dish can also include other vegetables such as radishes, cucumber, celery and a wide variety of Asian root vegetables, like burdock roots.
Seasoning ingredients used include Korean chili powder, ginger, and garlic. Kimchi consumers may also choose to add seafood ingredients into their kimchi such as fish paste and jeotgal (salted and preserved seafood).
As with any dish, there are a ton of regional varieties of kimchi, each using their unique types and combination of ingredients.
How Kimchi Is Made
The first step to make kimchi includes preparing the ingredients. If any ingredients need to be peeled or sliced, it must be done before the brining process starts.
Brining salt is used for the initial salting process of the main ingredient because the salt granules are much larger, therefore it is less processed. The cabbage is placed in the salt for a bit to dry out before the water is added.
This allows the vegetables to develop a lot of natural flavors and the salt draws out the moisture in all of the ingredients before brining. This is a crucial step, as it helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
The brining process can either be done for 12 hours at 5-7% salinity, or for 3-7 hours at 15% salinity.
Any excess water is drained after brining and the seasoning ingredients are added. Then the kimchi is packed into an airtight jar and left to ferment for 1-5 days. The jar should be opened once a day to release carbon dioxide.
If you’re thinking about making your own kimchi at home, we have a guide for how to safely can kimchi the best way.
Once ready, the kimchi is transferred to the fridge.
Aging of Kimchi
Kimchi can either be aged or fresh. Traditional kimchi is aged for a couple of days.
To make aged kimchi, the vegetable and spice mixture is added into airtight preserving jars and allowed to ferment for 1-2 days at room temperature (20-22˚C or 68-72˚F).
You can, however, ferment the kimchi in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. The lower your temperature, the longer the kimchi will take to ferment. The higher your temperature, the quicker the kimchi will ferment.
The jar should be opened daily to release the carbon dioxide build-up. This will prevent the jar from cracking or even exploding.
To make fresh or unaged kimchi, the mixture doesn’t undergo any jar storing or fermentation and is consumed as-is, immediately after salting and blending your fermented cabbage with additional seasoning and ingredients.
How Kimchi Is Used
Kimchi is traditionally used as a side dish for many foods, however, it can also be enjoyed on its own. One of our favorite ways to enjoy and truly appreciate the flavors of kimchi is to serve it with white rice.
Kimchi can be used as an ingredient in a wide variety of dishes such as soups, stews, dumplings, pancakes or fritters, and grain bowls, to name a few.
You can also use it in a much more unconventional way as a topping on your pizza, in your salad, or on a sandwich.
Any leftover liquid from the kimchi jar can be used to flavor stews or to make delicious and flavorful sauces.
What Is Sauerkraut?
Sauerkraut is a side dish made from finely shredded cabbage that has been fermented.
Although sauerkraut is now mostly associated with German culture because of its name, it originated in China and was later picked up in central European cultures.
Ingredients Used in Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut can be made using red or green cabbage varieties. Although there isn’t a preferred type of cabbage, the most common varietal used is your common green cabbage.
There are regional variations to sauerkraut, but the traditional and classic version isn’t made with any other ingredients. All you need is cabbage, salt, and time.
These variations include adding shredded apples, carrots, bell peppers, or beets. There are also sometimes spices like caraway seeds included to add additional flavor. Another common ingredient used in the variations is cranberries.
How Sauerkraut Is Made
Making sauerkraut is surprisingly easy.
Firstly, the cabbage has to be sliced as finely as possible, either by hand or by mandolin. This will provide a bigger surface area for the salt to draw out as much moisture as possible to create the brine.
The shredded cabbage is packed in layers, with salt sprinkled between each, and left to ferment in an airtight and sterilized container anywhere from 5 days to several months.
This is one of the main differences in production between kimchi and sauerkraut: the amount of time used to ferment the cabbage.
Because sauerkraut ferments for a considerably longer period than kimchi, the fermentation process differs a lot. Sauerkraut ferments in 3 phases.
During the first phase, anaerobic bacteria start producing acids. When the second phase starts, the acid levels of the mixture have become too high for most of the bacteria to continue growing and only some healthy bacteria is left.
In the third and final phase of fermentation, these beneficial bacteria continue to ferment the remaining sugars and continue to create more acids.
Because sauerkraut is so acidic, it is very resistant to bad bacteria and spoilage, but it does go bad. If you’re making sauerkraut at home, you may choose to freeze yours to make it last even longer.
Aging of Sauerkraut
The fermentation or aging of sauerkraut is not similar to that of kimchi. Sauerkraut ferments for much longer than kimchi, which is why it has a more acidic taste to it.
There isn’t an “unaged” version of sauerkraut. However, you can decide how ripe you want the cabbage to be by leaving it for a shorter or longer fermentation period.
The shredded cabbage and salt mixture is left in an airtight jar or container to ferment for at least 5 days at room temperature (20-22˚C or 68-72˚F).
This fermentation period, however, can be considerably longer depending on a lot of factors, including the type of cabbage used, the salt percentage, the moisture levels, and the temperature it is left in.
The average optimal fermentation time is considered to be 2 weeks.
Again, as with kimchi, the lower your temperature, the longer the sauerkraut will take to fully ripen or ferment. The higher your temperature, the quicker the sauerkraut will fully ripen or ferment.
Again, the jar should be opened daily to release the carbon dioxide build-up. This will prevent the jar from cracking or exploding.
How Sauerkraut Is Used
Like kimchi, sauerkraut was initially intended to be a side dish. It is still often served alongside pork dishes and meat roasts or used as a condiment for foods like sandwiches and hot dogs.
It is also a very popular ingredient in other dishes. Sauerkraut is used as a filling for many goods like Polish pierogi or Ukrainian varenyky. It is also a popular ingredient used in soups, stews and even salads.
Nutrition Content – Kimchi Vs Sauerkraut
Both of these dishes are extremely healthy foods with loads of benefits. They are both extremely low in calories and very high in dietary fiber, antioxidants and probiotics.
The high fiber and probiotic content help improve digestion and promote the growth of healthy bowel bacteria, which helps protect the digestive tract against diseases.
Sauerkraut is a very good source of vitamin C and K, calcium, magnesium, folate, iron, potassium, copper and manganese.
Because the ingredients used in kimchi vary considerably, it is hard to specify all of the vitamins and minerals it is high in, but kimchi is also a very good source of these vitamins and minerals overall.
They also contain tons of live lactobacilli and beneficial microbes and enzymes.
Are These Dishes Safe to Consume?
Because these are foods that use natural bacterial growth, there will always be a possibility of harmful bacteria growing if the food isn’t handled and made using proper food hygiene methods.
Firstly, be wary of cross-contamination of foods and make sure all the equipment and storage jars are clean and sterilized at all times.
Secondly, a general rule of thumb is that these dishes should have a pH lower than 4.5. Anything below this pH means that there is enough acidity to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
Because sauerkraut has such a long fermentation period, it is very acidic and has a lower chance of growing harmful bacteria.
Similarities – Kimchi and Sauerkraut
The most obvious similarity between these two dishes is that they are both made using cabbage and are fermented, albeit in different ways.
Both these dishes are pickled using salt and fermented using the lacto-fermentation method, which means that no heat is used during the fermentation process.
Kimchi and sauerkraut are very nutritious dishes and have loads of health benefits in common.
Here are their similarities:
- Made from cabbage
- Brined and lacto-fermented
- Nutritious and high in probiotics
- Can be used as a side, eaten alone, or mixed into main dishes
The similarities between kimchi and sauerkraut end here. Below, we’ll summarize the main differences between these two dishes.
What’s the Difference?
So, now that we have discussed each in-depth, let’s take a look at the differences between these very similar dishes.
The first and most obvious difference is their origins. Kimchi originated in Korea and became popular in other Asian cultures, whereas sauerkraut originated in China and later spread to Central Europe.
If we look at the ingredients used to produce these dishes (here we are looking at a basic version of each), kimchi uses multiple flavoring ingredients with the cabbage, whereas sauerkraut only uses the cabbage.
Therefore, kimchi gets its flavor from the addition of ingredients and sauerkraut gets its flavor from the duration of fermentation and the flavors the natural bacteria produces.
Furthermore, kimchi uses whole or roughly chopped cabbage leaves compared to sauerkraut, which uses only finely shredded cabbage.
Another major difference between the two comes up when comparing their production methods.
During the salting process, the brine is drained from the kimchi before it is stored, whereas the sauerkraut uses the brine as part of the fermentation process.
The fermenting times also differ vastly. Kimchi only ferments for a couple of days at room temperature while sauerkraut can ferment for a couple of weeks at the same temperatures.
When comparing taste, kimchi has a much saltier, less acidic taste than sauerkraut. This is because the pickling mainly consists of salting the cabbage and minimal bacterial fermentation.
Sauerkraut has a much more acidic and almost tart flavor profile due to the extensive fermentation period.
Kimchi will also be crunchier than sauerkraut, as it is not aged as long and can even be eaten fresh.
Here is a chart detailing the differences for your convenience:
|China and Central Europe
|Cabbage along with additional flavoring ingredients
|Whole leaves or chunks
|Used to extract the moisture from the cabbage and brine is discarded before fermentation
|The brine that forms is used during the fermentation process to convert sugars to acids
|Fermentation time (room temperature)
|5 days–2 weeks
|Only produces enough anaerobic bacteria to start producing acids to prevent some bacteria and produce a slightly acidic flavor profile
|Undergoes 3 phases of fermentation where enough acids are produced to prevent harmful bacteria and produce a mainly acidic flavor profile
|Salty, sour, spicy, and more depending on the spices and ingredients added
|Acidic and tart