Korean

How to Make Any Kind of Kimchi Without a Recipe

August  3, 2015

Here at Food52, we love recipesbut do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Kimchi is the solution to an overload of just about any vegetable.

I cannot get the kimchi recipe out of my Korean-American boyfriend’s mother. I ask Dan for his mom’s amazing kimchi recipe, he heads to his parents' house for a family dinner with his mission cut out for him, and he returns with six gallons of the stuff—but never a recipe. That’s because “kimchi” is a term that encompasses a whole genre of food—like “sandwich.” And for many, including Dan’s mom, making it doesn’t require a recipe (or even measuring spoons).

Luckily, Dan helped me to reverse-engineer a classic kimchi that is still easy enough to commit to memory and loose enough to riff on. Prepare to get your hands dirty and dedicate some serious fridge space to the cause. Here's how to do it:

1. Gather equipment and ingredients.
Many Korean families have a mini fridge just for their kimchi—I’ll call that optional. You will need a very large bowl (plastic, glass, doesn’t matter) or plastic tub. That’ll be the place where you salt and prep your vegetables—oh, you’ll need a considerable amount of coarse salt, too. Think about how you’ll store your kimchi: Plastic containers will retain the orangey-red color and garlicky smell of the kimchi. Mason jars can work, or you can find a gallon-sized glass jar online, if not at a local kitchenwares shop, to store your whole batch.

Then, think about what you’re going to turn into kimchi. Those items that make you say, “What am I going to do with all of this!?” They’re usually great candidates. After napa cabbage, radishes take the number two spot on the kimchi totem pole. (Think daikon, not spicy French radishes.) You can julienne a large radish with a mandoline or cut it into cubes. Other great options are cucumbers (slice large ones in rounds and small ones in quarters lengthwise), zucchini, squash, tough leafy greens, or scallions. Those would be the traditional choices, but there’s nothing stopping you from testing out other farmers market finds.

As you’re shopping, eyeball about a gallon’s worth of veg—that’s a good amount to start with for your kimchi adventure. You can also mix and match what you decide to kimchi: Watercress, daikon, and scallions all in one jar? I’m not stopping you.

Things that won’t work would include anything with too distinct a flavor (beets, most fruits—kimchi’s powerful flavor doesn’t play well with others), or anything too dense to tenderize during marinating (carrots are tricky, for example, unless they’re julienned). 

You might need to take a trip to an Asian market or shop online for some of the other items you’ll need:

  • Something briny: Saeujeot (새우젓), or tiny shrimp, taste great. If you’re looking for a vegan or vegetarian version, soybean (miso) paste is a trusty umami substitute. In Korean, this is called doenjang (된장). It’s slightly more salty and funky than its Japanese cousin. Some folks use raw squid or oysters or dashima (kombu), too.
  • Something spicy: Get plenty of Korean chili flakes (gochugaru, 고추가루) to achieve the signature spice. They’re dried and ground to achieve just the right flavor and texture, but any ground red chiles without added flavoring could work.

In addition to these “specialty” ingredients, you’ll also need to collect: one white or yellow onion, an apple or Asian pear, lots of garlic, some ginger, a carrot, and scallions.

 

2. Prepare the vegetables and get layering.
Now, clean up your vegetables. Depending on what you’re fermenting, preparation can differ. The goal here is to get everything thoroughly covered when marinating, but to keep some texture intact. If using cabbage, trim tops of leaves, cut in half, and remove the core, separating out each leaf. Green onions and leafy greens are usually left whole. If using daikon radish, peel and cut into cubes. If using cucumbers or zucchini, large ones can be cut into rounds and small ones into quarters lengthwise.

Next, pack in a single layer of your prepared kimchi base (cabbage, radish, or whatever you’ve chosen) into your large container/tub. Sprinkle with coarse salt and repeat until you’ve layered in and salted all of your vegetables. Be careful not to go salt crazy; you’re just using enough to remove some moisture and clean the vegetable, not enough to create a super-seasoned kimchi. Let the salted vegetables sit for 3 to 4 hours at room temperature. You can cover with plastic wrap or clean kitchen towels if you’re concerned about cleanliness, but it’s not necessary.

 

3. Make the “sauce.”
Meanwhile, you can get to work on the seasoning. Combine roughly chopped onion, chopped apple or pear, and two small palmfuls of your briny addition (Saeujeot, miso) to a food processor. Toss in a knob of chopped ginger, about the size of your pinky finger. Finally, go garlic crazy. About 10 peeled cloves should be added to the mixture. Purée. You can add a little bit of water if the mixture is too pasty. You should end up with something that’s about the consistency of applesauce. 

  

Stir in a bunch of scallions that have been roughly chopped, and a julienned carrot to give some texture to the purée. (If you’re making scallion kimchi, you can skip the scallions here.) Finally, toss in two big handfuls of gochugaru, the Korean red pepper flakes. Let the kimchi sauce sit and marinate for at least 30 minutes, or up to 4 hours—the longer the better—at room temperature. Again, cover if you wish.

 

4. Test the salted vegetables.
You’ll know your veggies are ready for saucing by their taste and texture. After a few hours of sitting in the salt, cut off a small piece, rinse off the excess salt, and taste. The salting will have given it a slightly sour flavor and tenderized it to the point where the snap is gone but there’s still a bit of bite. Think of a favorite kimchi you’ve had and match that texture. The kimchi won’t change much texturally as it ferments.

5. Combine the vegetables and the seasoning.
Time for the fun part! Rinse your vegetables to remove excess salt and pat dry. You might want pull on some rubber gloves now to avoid having bright red, garlic-scented hands for the next few days. Gather your large bowl/container from before and the jars you’ll be using to store your kimchi. Now, pretend you’re making a lasagna: Pack in a single layer of vegetable and then cover generously with the sauce, like topping lasagna noodles with tomato sauce. Spread around and use your hands to gently massage sauce into crevices if need be. Repeat until you’ve used up all of your marinade. Pack your jar(s) with your sauced kimchi if you haven’t been already. Cover the jar’s opening with a layer of plastic wrap (it helps to contain the odor) and place the lid tightly on top.

 

6. Let it sit.
Leave your kimchi outside of the refrigerator overnight to kickstart fermentation. Taste it in the morning to make sure the funkiness has set in and then transfer to your refrigerator. Pro tip: After a few days, flip the jar upside-down and to distribute the goodness; just make sure the lid is secured tightly to prevent kimchi juice from spilling all over the fridge; flip back to right-side up a day or two later. 

Kimchi can be eaten right away, though each day that passes will deepen its flavors, and will keep for a few months. Some people believe kimchi never goes bad, but if you taste it and there’s an unpleasant “fizz,” you might want to skip. Kimchi’s shelf life decreases if you’ve included fresh seafood, like oysters, in your mix. But not eating the kimchi fast enough probably won’t be a problem.

Photos by James Ransom

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19 Comments

Jill D. April 2, 2016
Best burger topping ever.
 
yejee August 22, 2015
So happy to see kimchi recipe here! Mine is as simple as yours but in the traditional recipes they use some sort of rice paste. I just made some onion kimchi, radish leaves kimchi, and chives kimchi :)
 
yejee August 22, 2015
And sometimes i use peaches or gold kiwi instead of apples :)
 
Jongjoo K. August 17, 2015
Hello! <br />I am so happy to read this recipe!!<br />You can reduce the time, if you want easy type kimchi. With 24oz diced cabbage and radish, you can add a boiling salt water, 4 cups water+1/3 cups coarse salt, just wait 10 mins.<br />Not boiling with, just pour boiling salt water to vege.<br />And if you don't have salted shrimp, just use a fish sauce. They can do a great works, too.<br />And Actually we are not use zucchini, but you can use anything what you want.<br />Mom use a veet for a 물김치-water type kimchi.<br />We use a boiled flour water, but you can add 1 or 2 spoons of cooked rice when you make a sauce. Yes, grind with them.<br /><br />Have fun guys!!!
 
Misty August 12, 2015
Thanks, before I got your response I checked one of my favorite food sites(foodsubs.com) for options and it suggested that one tablespoon of miso is roughly equivalent to one cube of bouillon. While I am at it, I was wondering if I could use the salt called for because of preserving qualities, but not necessarily adding other salty ingredients, at least until after I sample the results. Is the briny addition like miso there for any thing besides flavor? Thanks, I am experienced with canning and dehydrating but fermenting is new for me and I really don't like pickles, etc.-too salty, for one thing.
 
Misty August 12, 2015
First let me say I have never made or even eaten kimchi, but the ingredient list has me intrigued, and I do have most of it. I just want to know if ham could be the briny thing to add (seriously), since I have that and would be using it quickly. I work at a grocery store, but can't think of what else I would use, that we also carry. Anchovies would probably work, but never had them either. I will check into miso, since that seems to be a safe option. We do stock kimchi but it is in a big jar and costs more than I would like to spend if I don't like it. Making a small amount to try seems like a better option.
 
Author Comment
Hillary R. August 12, 2015
Hi Misty! Very cool -- I would love to hear how it goes if you give this a try. You're absolutely right that making your own kimchi is cost-effective. My boyfriend choked when he saw how much small batch producers were charging at our farmer's market for a pint of kimchi, hahah! I've definitely never tried ham. I'm not sure how the flavor and texture for that would work. Dried anchovies are definitely regularly used in kimchi and miso is the go-to when making a vegetarian/vegan version; that will definitely work!
 
Valhalla August 4, 2015
Turnip kimchi is also great!
 
Author Comment
Hillary R. August 12, 2015
Ooh! Love this idea. Thanks!
 
Chi T. August 4, 2015
I'm sooo making kimchi tomorrow !!!!
 
Author Comment
Hillary R. August 4, 2015
:) :) Let me know what tricks & tips you've got!
 
beejay45 August 4, 2015
That "unpleasant fizz" is probably a by-product of the fermentation, like you would get making kombucha, for example.<br /><br />I've got a huge container of gochugaru that I need to use before it loses its oomph, so I'm going to try this freeform method out very soon. What do you think of green beans in this? Could they go in whole, or would they need to be julienned?<br /><br />Thanks for your effort!
 
Author Comment
Hillary R. August 4, 2015
Green beans could work! I'd be curious to hear how they come out for you. I would leave them whole. At our house, we make another kind of panchan with blanched green beans-- sesame oil, soy sauce, gochugaru and sesame seeds. Pretty much all to taste. ;)
 
Christine L. August 3, 2015
Oh Hillary--I'll give you my mom's recipe! I don't believe in keeping recipes secret!
 
Author Comment
Hillary R. August 3, 2015
Please do!! The more the merrier. ;) <br />Still trying to perfect "fresh" kimchi if you have a good recipe for that one!!
 
Candice August 3, 2015
Ahh I love kimchi. And I never thought to use apples... will have to try that.
 
Author Comment
Hillary R. August 3, 2015
Yes! Apple or Asian pear for sweetness is a must.
 
kimikoftokyo August 3, 2015
I heart kimchi grew up with it. I make it once a year to eat all summer. I love cubed kimchi but sadly folks have a time getting over the smell to taste it. I just go to my local hmart and buy it the rest of the year and eat it just as is. It's fun to make with friends.
 
Author Comment
Hillary R. August 3, 2015
Oh, it's the best! I love having a bunch in the fridge... on busy nights I just serve alongside some steamed rice and maybe a pan-fried piece of fish. So simple!