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

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! All month long we'll be sharing recipes, stories, and long reads to celebrate the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who make America what it is today. This week, Senior Editor Eric Kim calls his mother to find out how to make her homemade kimchi recipe.


“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.

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Top Comment:
“which diverts into an exploration of my existential crises :D Great kimchi recipe!! My Umma Moung taught me a mix of the wet & dry brine – salt each leaf of the quartered cabbage heavily (get in the cracks!) and then soak in a wet brine overnight that's so salty you should make a very specific face.”
— Irene Y.
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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..."

Yes, a potato! More on that later. 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 (says Mom). 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).

“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...that’s like three cups, I tell myself. 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 the Senior Editor and 'Table for One' columnist at Food52. Formerly the Digital Manager of FoodNetwork.com, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog.

45 Comments

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
 
Shane L. May 18, 2019
I've only made Kimchi using Maangchi's recipe, and love it. Your mom's potato instead of rice flour sounds intriguing though; I wonder how it will taste! Definitely trying your mom's recipe next time I make a batch.
 
luvcookbooks May 18, 2019
Just made my first batch of Kim chi with my son. Haven’t tasted it yet because I left it with him but he loves it! It was super easy and beautiful.
 
Alice K. May 12, 2019
I have had kimchi in restaurants that was very good, but the kimchi I find in grocery stores is not so great. I look forward to making it to my own taste! Thank you and your mother for the instructions! One question, though: I am only one person. How long can I keep the kimchi before it spoils, and how will I know if it's spoiled?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 16, 2019
That's the beauty of kimchi/fermentation! Very likely that it won't last long enough to spoil (aka months and months in the fridge). One head of cabbage is just right for one person.
 
Cindy C. May 12, 2019
This is similar to the way my aunt (the best ever Korean cook per everyone) makes it, except her philosophy is less is more. Her secret is a special way of shredding the garlic.
 
Cindy C. May 12, 2019
Oh the other thing about my aunt is that she steadfastly maintains that you can't have a recipe because everything is made "to the hand" or whatever. The amount of salt or sugar or anything that you put depends on how the cabbage tastes. It's sort of annoying, actually, but it seems to be true because I can never make it as good as she can! My mom, on the other hand, is a TERRIBLE Korean cook, per everyone. LOL!!!!
 
Cindy C. May 12, 2019
Oh also, we skip the potato or rice flour part altogether. The raw julienned daikon acts as the paste itself. Also, we don't use the regular onion or pear. Otherwise, the method is the same, brining in salt water first. With fewer ingredients then there are fewer flavor components to adjust. I think we use like, quadruple the garlic LOL. Also, we are very generous with the fish sauce :-)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 16, 2019
Wait, what's her garlic-shredding technique?
 
jellygood May 12, 2019
Great article Eric, and another reason to seek out an H Mart! I get my Korean chili powder gochugaru from Kalystyan's in New York. My kimchi is always quite liquid because I never have the rice flour to hand! I love the potato idea and can't wait to try that. When I couldn't find daikon I've subbed in regular English radishes cut into matchsticks. I've also subbed a whole tin of finely chopped anchovies when I didn't have enough fish sauce, careful to remove the oil. Guess that makes my kimchi more Anglo Korean, but still tastes yummy!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 16, 2019
Sounds fabulous. LOVE the anchovy idea.
 
Katchang May 10, 2019
The lined page with your mother’s handwritten kimchi recipe confirms that every Korean woman of a certain age has the same handwriting! How can they all write English exactly the same?!? Seeing it makes me miss my mom and since she’s not here anymore, I’ll have to take comfort in making your mom’s kimchi.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 11, 2019
Oh my goodness, Katchang. I've always thought the same thing! I might peg it to the specific type of English they learned in school, or maybe that's what it looks like when one's brain is translating from a more "angular" written language like Korean. These are just theories, of course. Any anthropological typographers out there?
 
Diana May 12, 2019
I think it’s the same way with many nationalities! My Polish mom’s writings in her recipes look exactly like most other Polish women near her age (she passed 4 yrs ago at 92 so maybe I should say at least over 60 or so)! Seeing your post reminded me of this and my mom who I miss more than anything in the world. If mama was alive we would have been making this together. She was a fantastic self taught cook and was head cook for the catering company she worked for until she was 75!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 16, 2019
I love that.
 
Bruce May 10, 2019
This is pretty much how I do it. I put it all together and let it ferment for a week or so, then to th jars. I make about 15 lb. every couple months. It’s my addiction. I look forward to using potato. I enjoy cucumbers in mine recently, an addition encouraged by a close friend who is Thai.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 11, 2019
Cucumbers are very refreshing.
 
Single L. May 10, 2019
Question. Im allergic to the shrimp (well all things from the sea) but can handle the fish sauce. what should I replace the shrimp with? thank you.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 11, 2019
Hi Single Lady (great username by the way)! You can definitely just amp up the fish sauce amount. Someone below mentioned using fermented tofu as an umami replacement. Cool idea.
 
Single L. May 11, 2019
Thanks!

i saw the tofu comment but am a bit hesitant. But will try with more fish sauce!!
 
Single L. May 11, 2019
Oh one more request. Can you do a series on kimchi varieties? Saw the drama Immortal Classic and very intrigued by the different styles. Thanks in advance!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 16, 2019
Sure.
 
Sarah D. May 10, 2019
That's so funny your mom put Korean pear in her kimchi. My grandma used to put it in her non-spicy kimchi, aka Baek Kimchi
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 11, 2019
Delicious.
 
Edie May 10, 2019
Eric,
I love your articles about cooking that weave in your family, especially this one! I find it so endearing the way your mom describes measurements and retells “recipes”, makes me laugh. I can relate having tried to extract recipes from my own Chinese immigrant mom. I love that you’re unearthing these great treasures and sharing the techniques with all of us!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 11, 2019
Aw, thanks so much for reading Edie. Ha! Classic Asian immigrant mom behavior, for sure.
 
Diana May 12, 2019
Eric, again it’s Classic Immigrant mom’s period! Your story could have come from me and my mama just by changing it to Polish recipes and inferences!
One thing I want to tell you that’s most important! Get every single recipe from your mom while you can! I certainly tried. Also sit her down and record all of her stories! Then you’ll have her around forever and for your family and descendants!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 16, 2019
I'm trying!
 
Dfast May 9, 2019
I have to make it vegetarian, so instead of the fish I use spicy fermented tofu. I also like to add carrots and sea vegetables (dry seaweed salad mix - gotta soak it first). The tofu seems to kickstart the fermentation.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 9, 2019
Dang, that's a smart swap. Thanks for mentioning—I forgot about the vegetarians!
 
DocSharc May 10, 2019
Thanks for this suggestion! I'm vegetarian and was willing to make this without the shrimp and accept that it'll just not have as much umami...but this sounds like a great substitution! :)
 
Fred R. May 10, 2019
You could up the umami by adding some MSG...that’s what I do to salad dressings.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 11, 2019
Love that idea!
 
Stephanie B. May 9, 2019
Excellent instructions and article, thank you Eric!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 9, 2019
Hi Stephanie! Thank YOU for always stoppin' by.
 
Whiteantlers May 9, 2019
I don't have a mother or grandmother anymore and I doubt I'll ever make kim chi from scratch, but I loved this article. I'm having the kind of day where I feel like my head is going to explode if one more person I work with asks me for help, so I was identifying with you standing in the aisle in H Mart laugh/crying. My lineage is one of women who were reluctant, angry and atrocious cooks so I don't have fond memories of making calls for culinary advice. I ran away from home at an early age and learned how to cook on the fly so I could get work to support my young self. There was no collective unconscious of good cooking to tap into.

Jean sounds like a comfort and a treasure. We all need someone like that in our lives-past or present. You're a lucky lad, Eric! <3
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 9, 2019
WA- Your comments are like little notes one passes in school. I always look forward to reading them.

I was having that kind of day, too. Thanks for sharing your story. I'm lucky, for sure, to have a Jean. She's been texting me ALL day with updates to her recipe. It's driving me mad/obviously I love it.
 
Annada R. May 9, 2019
Amazing article, Eric! I absolutely loved the section where she gives you measurements on the phone. Reminded me of when I made the 50-mango pickle with my mom.

When I ask my mom or mother-in-law anything about measurements, they get an incomprehensible look in their eyes, as if to say, why on earth does one need measurements? With further addition of "Eyeball it and learn from your mistakes." That's when I go glassy-eyed.

Moms are the best! A classy ode with Mother's Day coming up, Eric!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 9, 2019
Thanks Annada :)

"Eyeball it and learn from your mistakes." —classic mom move
 
Mike S. May 9, 2019
I work in Koreatown (LA), and have been lucky enough to try all the different kim chis from the local markets (including H Mart), but this actually convinced me that I can do it myself! I can't wait to try!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 9, 2019
In this case, it really does taste better than store-bought!
 
Irene Y. May 9, 2019
I'm laugh-crying too!!! I've had so many phone calls with my mom in H-mart which starts with "oh hey mom what's that thing you told me about called?" which diverts into an exploration of my existential crises :D

Great kimchi recipe!! My Umma Moung taught me a mix of the wet & dry brine – salt each leaf of the quartered cabbage heavily (get in the cracks!) and then soak in a wet brine overnight that's so salty you should make a very specific face.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 9, 2019
Ha! You just made me realize I forgot this from my notes: "The brine should be so salty that you go, 'Ah! So salty!' Actually, not that. A little under that."

Thanks, Mom...so specific...
 
tina May 12, 2019
> The brine should be so salty that you go, 'Ah! So salty!' Actually, not that. A little under that."
This. My mom says the same thing. (We're Korean as well. <3)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. May 16, 2019
Ha!