Korean

The Best Way to Make Kimchi, According to My Korean Mom

Jean's tips and tricks (and a couple secrets, too).

by:
May  9, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

“Did you try popping your ears?” my mom asks me over the phone, as I’m standing in the home goods aisle of H Mart.

That’s her answer for everything, including my bad week. Not to say that she takes my dips lightly. But unlike my friends or my cousins or even my brother, Jean often tries to link my lows with something physiological. Oh, you're depressed? There must be something wrong with your chemisms. (Her sister is a nurse, so she knows.)

And yet, even though I know a mere popping of my ears won’t resolve how I’m feeling on the inside, there’s something in the simple imperative (“Just pop your ears”) that comforts me. I laugh, and shake it off. One call to my mother in Atlanta and instantly I feel a little better. When I’m at my worst, I often forget that there’s a person out there who knows exactly what to say when I'm in a pickle—someone much wiser, much older, and much more empathetic.

I realize I've been standing in the home goods section staring at a wall of sake glasses, grocery basket still empty. So I steer the conversation toward her kimchi recipe, the reason I called her originally. I already hear her straightening up (it's late, which means she's in bed or on the couch watching TV). "Okay, so," she starts, "you'll need..."

Photo by Me at H Mart

Jean's Kimchi Recipe

  • 1 head napa cabbage ("You're only making one head, right? That'll be plenty for you.")
  • 1 small daikon radish ("This gets cut up into little matchsticks and goes into the sauce. Makes the kimchi taste fresh.")
  • 5 scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces ("Scallions make a world of difference.")
  • 1 potato ("You know that rice flour paste most kimchi recipes call for? I've actually started using a potato instead. Works better.")
  • 6 to 7 garlic cloves ("That should be enough for one head of cabbage.")
  • 1-inch piece ginger ("I don't know, a pinky's worth?")
  • 1/4 onion ("A quarter of one should be enough for the sauce.")
  • 1/4 Asian pear ("You don't have to add this, but I always do. It's my secret.")
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce ("Usually it's anchovy sauce, but you have fish sauce at home right? Just use that.")
  • 1/4 cup salted shrimp ("You know what that is, right?")
  • 1/2 cup gochugaru aka Korean red pepper powder ("Your kimchi is only as good as the gochugaru you use. I bring mine over from Korea every year—high-quality, expensive stuff.")
  • Salt and sugar ("Salt is the main ingredient! Sugar makes it taste better.")
  • Optional add-ins ("Sometimes I like to add tomatoes, apples, bell peppers—the more things you add to the cabbage, the better everything will taste, really.")
Salted, fermented shrimp is an essential ingredient in kimchi. Photo by Me

I’m laugh-crying in H Mart right now—because what else would one do in an H Mart? I’m laughing because my mother is cackling over the phone at her poor excuse of a recipe (the measurements above are my translations, English and culinary).

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Top Comment:
“My first batch of Kimchi went better than expected making more today but going to use this guide since i cant find my first recipe which i had no daikon for . I have taters so this will work great. It looks that i will have a different kimchi today and I'm excited. Thanks for writing this article. :)”
— B.K.
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“I don’t know, one or two fistfuls of this?” she chuckles again. “Three or four mugfuls of that? I'm terrible.”

It’s funny to me, too. Okay, I tell myself, that’s like three cups. A coffee mug is usually eight ounces. And two tablespoons is what she means by "two rice spoonfuls." I'm also crying because I’m overwhelmed at how much better I feel just hearing her voice and her booming cackle.


How to Make Kimchi

Jean has a few rules about kimchi—and they’re not strict, mind you, but they’re hers. Which is to say that this kimchi is her kimchi and no one else’s. But in my highly subjective opinion, this is the absolute best way to make it. I’ll do my best to walk you through our notes from the phone call, but please, feel free to add your own flourishes here and there as you see fit. So much of this is to taste, anyway.

After I sent my mom pictures of the kimchi I made according to her verbal notes, she decided to make it too, this time writing down the measurements. These are her scribbles for a double recipe. Photo by Jean

1. Brine the cabbage.

This first step is essential for a couple of reasons: 1) It kills off any harmful bacteria that may be in the vegetable, leaving room for the good bacteria, aka Lactobacillus, to grow during the lacto-fermentation process that gives kimchi its distinct, pleasurable tang. 2) It also removes water from the cell walls, which aids in preservation later and, more importantly, in flavor. I've always thought of it as: less water means more concentrated cabbage taste (plus, the sauce will penetrate better).

My phone call with Mom was revealing, to say the least. I thought I had remembered her dry-brining the cabbage all those years, which is to say: placing huge buckets of napa, each cut in half or into quarters lengthwise from the root-end to about halfway up to the greener leafier part (but not all the way through). Yes, she still cuts them this way, claiming that the kimchi, when left intact like this, ripens slower but ends up tasting crunchier and yummier. But tonight she mentioned a salt bath, or wet brine, which does sound like a more uniform way to draw out water from the cabbage.

I go home and try to fit the cabbage into the biggest bucket I've got: my salad spinner. Of course, it doesn't fit. So I cut it up into bite-size pieces (it fits!), cover with tap water, and sprinkle over a non-iodized table sea salt I accidentally bought the other day, thinking the grains would be much bigger (but guess what small-grained salt is perfect for?). I remember what my mom said about brining smaller pieces like this: You'll only need to do it for 2 to 3 hours, versus the 6 to 8–hour brine of those whole heads. (I added the scallions here too, with the idea in mind that I'm also "kimchi-ing" them.)

One important tip my mom mentioned is to smoosh the cabbage around, making sure the salt and water and all of the vegetables get properly, evenly, salted.

Drain, then let sit while you prepare the sauce.

2. Make the sauce.

This next part is the easiest. Well, kind of. First, you have to make the paste, which will become the base of the kimchi sauce. This paste is really just a vehicle for all of the seasonings, to stretch the sauce so it covers more cabbage. I was shocked to learn that my mom now makes hers with...a potato! For years I watched her do it the classic way with glutinous rice flour, water, bubbled away until thick, then cooled. But I just tried her new method (which she picked up from her sister in Seoul) and it worked great.

For Jean's paste: Peel a potato, then grate it directly into a cup or so of boiling water until you've got a thick puree.

Full disclosure: I did this wrong; I thought she had told me to cook the potato first. But it actually turned out fine! There doesn't seem to be much of a difference between grating a cooked potato and mixing it into water versus grating a raw potato and cooking it in water.

I ended up only needing about half of the potato to create a loose mashed potato situation. Don't worry too much about whether it's too thick or too thin; you'll only need about 1/2 cup of this stuff for this kimchi recipe. But if you're like my mom, you'll make more.

Here's why: Jean likes to make a big batch of kimchi sauce and keep some back in the freezer so she can "kimchi" anything at a moment's notice. So if you end up with extra potato paste, don't throw it out.

Confession: I forgot the daikon. Still tasted great, though! Photo by Me

Now we're at the easy part. In a small food processor, blitz the garlic, ginger, onion, pear, fish sauce, salted shrimp, gochugaru, and (to taste) salt and sugar. Stir this gorgeous red paste into the potato paste. At this point I actually don't even bother to taste (neither does my mom). What matters is how your seasonings taste with the cabbage. So onto the next step...

3. Smoosh it all around.

Just get in there! (With clean hands.)

The Korean-mom move would've been to wear kitchen gloves here, but I haven't graduated to those yet. Photo by Me

4. Taste, taste, taste.

Growing up, this is the point at which my mom would hold a container of salt in one hand and mix with the other, crouched down over a huge plastic bowl filled with crimson kimchi. She'd taste as she went, adjusting the salt, sugar, and red pepper powder until it was just right. I'd be watching from a couple feet away, her little taster; she'd call me over and pick out one perfect piece, wiping off any excess sauce, folding it up, holding it out ("Open!"), and placing it in my mouth.

"More salt? More sugar?" she'd ask.

Unfermented kimchi tastes great—different, but great. Which is why it's important to adjust at this stage according to your own tastes. Ask yourself: Does it need more salt? More sweetness? When I made this kimchi recently, I felt that it needed more savoriness, so I added another tablespoon of the salted shrimp.

My breath is pretty garlicky at this point from all the tasting. Photo by Me

5. Jar the kimchi and wait.

Large mason jars are great for storing and fermenting kimchi (but I just reuse old 3-pound H Mart kimchi buckets). Sometimes my mom sets aside a small portion of the unfermented kimchi so she and my dad can enjoy it throughout the week. But if you're in it for the funky stuff, then leave on the counter at room temperature for about 24 hours, then place in the fridge for a week or so. I like to taste as I go, i.e. 3 days later, 7 days later, 14 days later, because each version will taste different and funkier the longer it sits in the fridge.

Or if you're like my mom, you'll buy two (two!) separate kimchi fridges—one in the basement and one in the garage—to store your sta$h. And you'll forget about it completely until it's nice and ripe and rank, perfect for Korean dishes like kimchi jjigae and kimchi fried rice.

The absolute best kimchi is homemade. Photo by Me

Kimchi Videos

If you're looking for even more instruction, I find that it helps to watch a video of the kimchi-making process. Maangchi is always a great resource, of course, as is this very relaxing video.

Here's one my mom sent me, claiming this is pretty close to how she does it herself (but the lady here makes three heads of napa cabbage and keeps them whole):

How do you make kimchi at home? Tell, tell in the comments.


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Eric Kim is a contributing writer at Food52, where he writes the solo dining column, Table for One. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he covers food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

68 Comments

umaxwell February 21, 2020
Your phone call with your mom, complete with her kimchi recipe and instructions made me laugh and think about all of the Korean recipes that my mom shares with me. "A swirl of this," and "an eensie weensie bit of this," as well as "a bunch of that." Classic measurements.

This made me nostalgic to make kimchi... And reminded me how every family's recipe is a bit different and personal, and how the recipe changes a bit every generation.
 
Michelle T. February 9, 2020
I asked my friends Korean mom how to make it and your directions were spot on. This turned out amazing! Thank you so much!
 
Sharon E. December 21, 2019
A really excellent recipe even with many substations (had to keep the pear!). 😁
 
Mariannering December 16, 2019
HI, i read in many recipes that you should never Close the lid on the fermenting jar tightly for the first 24 hours, does this also apply for this recipe? :-)
 
Peter J. December 10, 2019
Should add raw fish to it, like frozen raw myeongtae. My mother adds it to her kimchi all the time.
 
MsLindaW55 December 9, 2019
Oh I love kimchi and making kimchi. I always look at the recipes to see what techniques and ingredients are used. There are so many variations! My favorite way is the cut nappa version. It's better for my small batches. I've tried different ingredients as well since I have a shellfish allergy, and don't care for squid or oysters. Can't wait to try this one using the potato...
 
Michael M. December 8, 2019
Thank you for Sharing this wonderful recipe. I’ve been doing Fermented foods for many years now, and have been searching for a really good quality and authentic tasting kimchi recipe. This one is the one! The recipe book That got me started here is called nourishing traditions, by Sally Fallon. Her kimchi recipe is good, but not great. This recipe is great. I’ll also note that something that helps the fermentation process promoting a lot of lactobacillus production is the use of whey. I do a lot of cheese making, so I use the excess whey to help that process. Brining really makes a huge difference. I also really enjoyed the article so much. You had me laughing out loud often!
 
Garrett S. September 25, 2019
Wait, so do you not ferment it in the brine, making sure it is submerged? I thought a certain amount of salt was required to keep it 'safe' to store and eat?
 
CowgirlCasey September 24, 2019
Your writing style eased me into the confidence to try kimchi. I took a few liberties and am pleased with the results. Thank you for your recipe.
 
Practically E. September 17, 2019
Hello. I am curious about two things:
Has anyone tried using left over mashed potatoes or would the dairy (cream/butter) throw the fermentation off?
I am a home brewer and I have a bunch of 1 gallon fermenters leftover from some tiny batch experiments I did with different yeasts. Would kimchi in a fermenter with an airlock work in this application?
Thanks!
 
the_ichman November 19, 2019
The fermenters will work great. The 2 things that protect against molds and fungi are 1) the salt (initially, at least) and 2) an anaerobic environment. I use the largest Le Parfait glass storage jars I can find, drill a hole in the glass top, insert a grommet, and then jam a plastic airlock into the grommet. Same difference as your 1 gallon fermenters. I use a saturated saline solution in the airlock instead of a sulfur solution with Campden tablets.

According to Sandor Katz (The Art of Fermentation), the preferred bacterium to make kimchi is not Lactobacillus. It is Leuconostoc Mesenteroides, which precedes Lactobacillus Plantarum (L. Plantarum needs an acidic environment to thrive; therefore, it needs a pioneer organism). Hence, the sugar, which is added in the pre-ferment stage. You brew. What happens to this sugar? Will it persist to the final product? No way! It's eaten immediately by the bacteria -- L. Mesenteroides, in this case -- which is precisely what you want to happen. You want a population explosion of L. Mesenteroides before L. Plantarum can get a toehold.

Using the fermenter will give you a nearly 100% chance of success, since L. Mesenteroides will throw off a lot of CO2, which will create an anaerobic blanket inside of your fermenter, and prevent aerobic molds and fungi from taking hold. By the time the CO2 generation stops, the pH of the kimchi ferment will be quite acidic and the kimchi will be able to fend for itself.

Hardy stuff! I've never gotten a Kahm yeast infestation in kimchi; it's stayed good for a year in the refrigerator. Never did go bad. But after the CO2 generation stops (5 or 6 days max), I try to keep the kimchi submerged under its own juice. A smooth rock or a baby food jar will weight the veggies down and keep them under water and in an anaerobic environment.
 
rahima August 16, 2019
Hi, thanks, great instructions. Any specifics we need to know for fermentation? It looks like your bucket in the photo is not airtight - is that correct? Also, do you ever use something (like a ziplock bag filled with water) to weigh down the kimchi to avoid mold? (This is recommended in the NOMA fermentation handbook, which covers lots of lacto-fermentation but doesnt' have a kimchi recipe). Thanks!
 
B.K. August 16, 2019
I've been using canning jars its air tight enough, Done right even leaving it on the counter for 5 days there was no mold just pressure; that was my first batch ever by the book a combination of Kim's recipe here and another. I've tried the leave it on the counter one day and stick it in. My third batch was a full batch and since i had some left from the previous batch I just shoved it in the fridge right away and left it alone. No mold. Not in the three versions of setting up the fermentation.

I think the key is full jars screw on lids, mason jar lids and trusting the process. Like with bread you need a little bit of air for fermentation. Including a no yeast bread; air does part of the work.
 
Jennifer July 27, 2019
I made my first ever batch of kimchi using your instructions! Delicious! Thank you! I noticed other recipes call for rinsing the cabbage thoroughly after brining, and I did that. I wondered if you don't rinse? or just left that out of the instructions? Thanks again for an inspiring and instructive article!
 
B.K. August 16, 2019
I like mine a little more salty so Ii rinse lazily or not at all.
 
Hprime July 23, 2019
The generation before me are gone and they never really taught us how to make the traditional dishes. My cousins, aunts and I have always tried looking to recreate those dishes. I made this kimchi and it was simple and delicious. Thank you for sharing and bringing back a piece of home. Seriously! Passing on the tradition to my kids who have appreciated the fruits! Please thank Jean!
 
Lynn M. July 14, 2019
Forgot to add that my Mom adds shredded carrots in her kimchi to add sweetness.
 
Lynn M. July 14, 2019
I loved your memory of sampling the kimchi and being asked more salt or sugar. My Mom still asks the same question when I'm home and she's making kimchi! Since I'm allergic to shell fish my Mom has adapted her recipe to fish sauce only. It still tastes great to me and you're correct in saying everyone's favorite is their Mom's kimchi!
 
Jane July 14, 2019
this sounds amazing and I can't wait to try it. Jean sounds amazing too!
 
Shane L. July 12, 2019
I can't pop my ears now, without thinking about your mom, you, and kimchi! It's good though, cuz it also leads to me thinking about my mom 😁
 
B.K. July 4, 2019
The first time I ate kimchi it was homemade at work in a Taco Bell. Well I then years later tried bottled and it seemed all thick parts watery and just NOT the same good.

I made kimchi i ate that stuff it was funky for sure as the recipe said leave it on the counter for 5 DAYS. I will say this you can stir fry that into anything even eggs with miso mixed in . I get my Miso from this little Asian market likely the Only one in my city with any salt for ingredients. I'm lazy so my Miso has dashi already in it makes for the good cup of soup.

Digressed. My first batch of Kimchi went better than expected making more today but going to use this guide since i cant find my first recipe which i had no daikon for . I have taters so this will work great. It looks that i will have a different kimchi today and I'm excited.

Thanks for writing this article. :)
 
Priya May 24, 2019
Made my first batch of a vegan version of this kimchi! Is it normal for the kimchi to have a slight bitter taste from the blended onion in the kimchi sauce?
 
kimikoftokyo May 19, 2019
Let’s see if I can do this. I go to hmart or other Japanese/Korean marts as I have for years in this area and I’m like ok I can do this! I don’t. It’s different this year , I’m going to make a small batch. My friend tells me put handfuls Not actual amounts I’m like first of all you dunno we have two different taste buds and I was raised to season and season more and season again lol it’s going to be spicy and garlicky. She’s excited to try it. So now, I’m taking things from this recipe ans another because there are pictures and measurements lol. I can understand it lol 😂 I go by what it looks and taste anyway. But only small batches for me. I tend to over do pickling lol