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I've been reading up on how to make fermented foods and noticed something interesting - many of the recipes I've seen (pickled cucumbers, etc.) go to great lengths to warn about using sterilized jars or pressure canners, while recipes for kimchi never warn at all about this.

Is there something different about kimchi that makes sterilized equipment not necessary?

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Sure. The containers should be clean, but because it's an active fermentation (very similar to sauerkraut, other than the ingredient lists typically differing) the salt suppresses the activity of certain undesirable bacteria more than the desirable ones (which are naturally present on the plant leaves), and then desirable ones take over and make things highly acidic, (lactic and acetic acids) which also makes bad bacteria unhappy. If you are using an appropriate jar, the CO2 given off by the action of the friendly bacteria also make it anaerobic. And that's how (Kimchee, sauerkraut, fermented pickles) work.

Mind you, I figure all the "good bacteria" I need are on the leaves, and tend to steam (and then cool) my container, but I do go for overkill sometimes.

Vinegar pickles are not fermented - it's just fruit and enough vinegar to make an acidic environment (which makes the bad bacteria unhappy, still) and then heat processing to try and kill off as many bacteria of all strains as possible.

I'm not quite up for writing a tome, and many tomes have been written on the subject.

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When you make regular pickles you are trying to prevent fermentation and any bacterial growth from happening. You are adding something that has been produced through fermentation - ie vinegar - as a flavoring and preservative. It's fundamentally different from making Kimchi, where you are relying on bacterial growth and fermentation.

There are times where you sterilize containers when fermenting, for example beer and wine production. In this case you want to control which microbes are present so you get a predictable, and palatable result.

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    Nitpick - "sterilization" (kill everything) is rarely undertaken or achieved in beer/wine/etc. "sanitizing" (greatly reduce the populations) is. Read John Palmer's "How to Brew" (online for free unless you want an updated paper version) for a good, readable explanation of the difference. – Ecnerwal Nov 5 '15 at 14:14
  • Well being a winemaker for a few decades now, I have to disagree slightly. You sterilize equipment, but sanitize ingredients when you want to control which yeasts will grow, the sulphur salts you use to sterilize equipment really does sterilize. – Escoce Nov 5 '15 at 15:27

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