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:
“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 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 a Senior Editor at Food52, where his weekly solo dining column, Table for One, runs every Friday morning. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about 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.

59 Comments

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!
 
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
 
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.