There is no end-all-be-all kimchi recipe. But If you want to learn how to make kimchi, the process can be easy.
In fact, DIY kimchi may be one of the more accessible at-home food projects out there: It doesn’t require much more than some basic ingredients, the lidded crock or container of your choosing, and time. Should be simple enough, right?
Well, with so many variables going on, right down to the molecular level, the line between kimchi that’s brilliantly funky and fermented, and one that’s just plain funky can be a thin one.
We pop open the jar on how to make kimchi. Plus, we give you a few different recipes to work with.
Kimchi-making novices don’t need to worry, though. Although you could certainly boil kimchi fermentation down to a science, it’s better to think of it as a tradition, backed up by history and guided by a few intuitive principles that you can learn.
Our senior video producer, Guillermo Riveros, visited Atoboy in NYC to get a lesson from chef de cuisine YeongSoo Lee:
When looking to make a new batch of kimchi or troubleshooting one that’s gone awry, it helps to consider your ingredients and the processes that take them from crunchy and raw to tender and bubbly. Here are seven pointers that can have you on your way to delicious fermented vegetables.
1. Embrace the seasons
One nuance that gets lost in translation outside of Korean cuisine is that kimchi isn’t one kind of pickle, but many — there are hundreds of different types in Korea alone.
Kimchi recipes vary by region, the local availability of ingredients, and especially the seasons. Napa cabbage kimchi, the most well-known variety, is associated with the harvest in the fall. Spring, on the other hand, is about fresh greens, while summer is for warm-weather vegetables like cucumbers and radishes.
You can even find kimchi made from eggplant, broccoli, snap peas, tomatillos, and even apples.
Kimchi isn’t just a recipe…
When shopping for your produce, remember that kimchi is not just a recipe, but a means of preserving ingredients while they’re at their best. Don’t hesitate to look beyond your basic cabbages and incorporate whatever peak seasonal produce fits your fancy.
2. Experiment with ingredients and flavors
You can enhance kimchi with a bunch of seasonings and add-ins, traditional or otherwise. These give a distinct flavor to the final product.
Love lots of deep, umami, flavor? Try adding salted shrimp, oysters, or mushrooms.
Prefer something a bit lighter and cleaner? Leave the seafood out and make all-vegan kimchi.
The same goes for spice levels, too. Feel free to adjust the amount of hot pepper to fit your heat tolerance.
You’re meant to personalize and customize kimchi, so don’t be afraid to go off-recipe and tweak flavors to your liking.
3. Salt wisely
So much depends on salt when it comes to kimchi. A saline environment encourages the development of the lactic acid bacteria that drive fermentation processes, which give pickles their characteristic tang, while getting rid of harmful microorganisms.
Not enough of it will increase the chances that your veggies will rot. But too much will kill off those lactobacilli (good bacteria), stop fermentation, and make the whole thing unbearably salty.
Many kimchi recipes call for a two-step brine:
- First, a short dry brine in which you rub the vegetables with salt to help break down, soften, and open them up.
- This makes them more amenable to soaking in flavors during the second stage — a long wet brine in a solution that’s roughly as salty as seawater. It’s important to rinse the salt off thoroughly after the dry brine. Otherwise, you might end up with a rather salty batch.
Coarse sea salt is called for in most traditional recipes. Keep in mind, however, that the density of salt per volume of water can vary depending on the size and shape of the crystals, so you can (and probably should) use your taste buds to check the saltiness. Kosher salt works just fine as well.
Iodine warning: Iodon’t
When salting your kimchi, stay away from iodized table salt.
It’s much saltier by volume, and the iodine can also disrupt fermentation.
4. Pack it in
One of the most frequent mistakes that kimchi newbies make is leaving in lots of air-filled gaps and bubbles after they’ve put their pickles inside the fermenting vessel.
This is a big no-no. Too much air increases the risk of unwanted bacteria, produces off-flavors, and results in unevenly seasoned and fermented kimchi.
Keep it packed
Make sure that you pack in and press down firmly on your vegetables, leaving as few spaces as possible. Ideally, brine should cover the top of your veg.
Be sure to seal your container tightly.
5. Be mindful of where you store your kimchi
Warmer temperatures will help you jump-start fermentation, so feel free to store your kimchi at room temperature during the first few days.
After it starts to gain a lactic tang, you can move it to a refrigerator to slow down the fermenting process and help it age gently, steadily, and gracefully.
Keep fermenting kimchi away from sunlight. This can spoil the contents inside.
6. Do not disturb
The span between packing your kimchi into the jar and it being ready to eat can be days or even weeks, during which time you’ll more than likely be tempted to open up the container to check on how things are going.
But do try to keep the peeking and poking to a minimum. Introducing too much fresh air into the jar will oxidize the process and increase the risk of off-flavors.
But I just wanted to try a little bit of kimchi…
If you do steal a nibble, make sure to pack the top layer down again and ensure that it’s fully submerged in the brine.
7. Be patient (or not)
Like a fine wine, the longer you let your kimchi sit and ferment, the more complex and interesting it will be. Think of it as the one thing that you want to get lost in the back of your refrigerator, only to discover it ages later when it has come into full maturity.
When you keep it in a cool, dark environment with minimal exposure to air, kimchi will last for months, even years.
Want a quicker fix of tang?
If you absolutely can’t wait to enjoy some kimchi, check out geotjeori, a whole class of quick pickles that you can make in just a few hours or even minutes. They carry the snap of their longer-fermented relatives, but with less funk and a fresher flavor.
Once you’ve got the basics, they can help you ace any of these kimchi recipes:
1. Basic Napa cabbage kimchi
This is your standard cabbage kimchi recipe. It’s seasoned with pepper flakes and has a slightly funky edge from adding shrimp. You can eat it on its own or incorporate it into stews, fried rice, tacos, mac and cheese, potato salad — you name it.
- 1 2-pound Napa cabbage
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 12 cups cold water, plus more as needed
- 8 ounces daikon radishes, peeled and cut into 2-inch matchsticks
- 4 medium scallions, ends trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces using all parts
- 1/3 cup Korean red pepper powder
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 1/4 cup peeled and minced fresh ginger from about a 2-ounce piece
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic cloves (from 6 to 8 medium cloves)
- 2 teaspoons minced Korean salted shrimp
- 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
Get the recipe here.
2. Kkakdugi (cubed radish kimchi)
Made from fat, sturdy, Korean radishes, this kimchi provides a moreish crunch alongside a sinus-clearing dose of heat.
- 4 pounds Korean radishes or daikon
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 2/3 cup Korean hot pepper flakes (gochugaru)
- 4 stalks of green onions, chopped
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic (from about 5 or 6 garlic cloves)
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
Get the full recipe here.
3. Brussels sprouts kimchi
Brussels sprouts may not be traditional in Korean cuisine, but they’re a natural fit for being kimchi-ed nevertheless. Their snappy inner cores and frilly outer leaves become all sorts of tender and juicy when left to ferment in a strongly-seasoned brine.
- 3.5 ounces kosher salt, plus 0.7 ounces
- 1 1/2 pounds small Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
- 1/2 small onion, coarsely chopped
- 2 scallions, sliced
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1/4 cup gochugaru (coarse Korean red pepper powder)
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce, such as nam pla or nuoc nam
- 2 tablespoons Sriracha
- 1 tablespoon peeled and grated ginger
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons crushed coriander seeds
- 2 teaspoons crushed fennel seeds
Get the full recipe.
4. White kimchi
Kimchi without heat? That’s right: This pepper-free version swaps out the spicy stuff to focus on the sweet and salty.
- 230 grams sea salt
- 1 very large Korean cabbage or several heads Chinese cabbage with bottom trimmed, wilted, or tough outer leaves discarded and rinsed well
- 20 grams sweet rice flour
- 1 large Asian pear, grated, juice and pulp reserved
- 1 small onion, grated, juice and pulp reserved
- 4 teaspoons garlic
- 2 teaspoons grated or finely chopped ginger
- 2 1/2 tablespoons sea salt
- 1/2 leek, cut into 2-inch lengths and julienned
- 450 grams mu (Korean white radishes) or mooli, peeled and julienned
- 1 carrot, julienned
- 1 red chili, deseeded and julienned lengthways
- 1 green chili, deseeded and julienned lengthways
- 30 grams dried jujube dates (daechu), deseeded and julienned
- 20 grams pine nuts
Get the full recipe here.
5. Quick cucumber kimchi
No time? No problem! You can make fresh kimchi by allowing your veggies to sit and marinate for just a couple of hours.
This cucumber version stays crisp while still soaking in lots of garlicky and gingery flavor.
- 2 pounds Kirby cucumbers, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise to 1/4-inch thickness
- Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup sesame oil, untoasted
- 1/2 small onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped Thai or sweet basil
- 2 tablespoons gochugaru
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
- 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
Get the full recipe.
Once you pick your preferred flavors, making kimchi can be a simple process with a long wait time.
Be sure to look at which veggies are in-season and experiment with a wide range of flavors. Go easy on the salt (but put in enough to start the fermentation process), and pack the kimchi into a jar so that it’s free of air pockets. Then, be patient.
From Brussels sprouts to radishes, spicy to sweet, there’s a near-infinite range of possible kimchi twists to add zing to plenty of dishes. Why not learn how to make gut-healthy kimchi tacos or kimchi potato salad?