How to Make Kimchi
Are you a kimchi lover who’s wondered how to make kimchi at home? Here’s how to make your own easy, fermented kimchi with this authentic Korean recipe (without the fish sauce!)
Kimchi can be a bit of a mystery for those who haven’t tried it (hell, it can be a mystery even if you have tried it).
At its core, kimchi is fermented cabbage. But it’s so much more. It’s spicy and umami and sour and perfect for adding zing to everything from fried rice to tacos!
What is kimchi?
Kimchi is made by lacto-fermentation of napa cabbage, which is fermentation by Lactobacillus bacteria (the same kind of fermentation that gives us yogurt and dill pickles!)
As with many fermentation products, kimchi is incredibly healthy! It’s packed with probiotics, which help promote a healthy cut microbiome. Its main ingredient, napa cabbage, brings another punch of healthy properties, like being an excellent source of vitamins K, C, and folate. And when the fermentation is complete, 1 cup (150 g) of kimchi has just 23 calories while being relatively high fiber (2.4 g).
So obviously with the promise of major flavor and health benefits like that, I had to try my hand at making kimchi. But the thing is, traditional kimchi isn’t vegetarian. Most authentic kimchi recipes include fish sauce, which adds umami taste.
To make this kimchi plant-based, I tried two variations without fish sauce: in the first I simply omitted it, in the second I used miso paste instead. Both kimchi variations were delicious, and the recipes are included below!
- Napa Cabbage: Otherwise known as Chinese cabbage, this will form the base of the kimchi.
- Non-Iodized Salt: Aim for iodine-free or kosher salt (iodized salt may prevent fermentation).
- Korean Pepper Flakes: Otherwise known as gochugaru. Find it online or check out your nearest Asian supermarket. If you’ve looked everywhere and can’t find gochugaru, you can sub hot paprika powder (but I recommend giving gochugaru a try if possible).
- Garlic: You only have to be in the general vicinity of kimchi to know it contains garlic. That smell 😅 Just be sure not to add too much garlic, as it can cause the kimchi to become bitter.
- Ginger: Ginger brings a fresh flavor while contributing to the fermentation (like it does in kombucha!)
- Sugar: Just a dash of sugar is enough to kickstart the fermentation, giving the bacteria something to “feed” on.
- Carrot or Daikon Radish: Traditional kimchi uses daikon radish for added crunch, though carrot works just as well (use whichever you have access to).
- Green Onions: Finally, green onions for flavor!
How to make kimchi
There are two main stages to making homemade kimchi. In the first, you salt brine the cabbage to kill off any bad bacteria and release moisture. In the second stage, the good Lactobacillus bacteria take over and convert all the sugars into lactic acids. Let’s get into it!
Step 1: Sterilize everything
Wash your hands well before every time you touch the ingredients. Wash supplies with hot water. Clean is key with any fermentation!
Step 2: Brine the cabbage
Rinse the cabbage well, then cut it into quarters, lengthwise. Place in a large bowl and cover completely with salt, working the salt in between all the leaves. Let sit for about 2 hours, massaging and turning the cabbage every 30 minutes, until cabbage has wilted down. When finished, drain and rinse the cabbage very well (until a torn-off piece no longer tastes overly salty). Squeeze out the excess water.
Step 3: Flavor it up
While cabbage is sitting in the brine, add your Korean pepper flakes, garlic, ginger, and sugar to a clean food processor, along with some water to get things moving. If desired, add miso paste as well (for umami taste). Blitz until smooth.
This pepper paste, along with the carrots (or daikon radish) and green onions, will bring major flavor to the kimchi!
Step 4: Mix
Combine the well-rinsed cabbage (either whole leaves or roughly chopped), pepper paste, carrot (or daikon radish), and green onions in a large bowl, mixing well with clean hands (you may choose to use gloves here to prevent your hands from smelling).
Step 5: Ferment
Pack the mixture into clean glass jar(s), pressing down so that the veggies are submerged in the juices. Leave at least an inch of empty space at the top of the jar, then seal shut with a lid. Set the sealed jar on a plate or bowl (to catch possible leaks), and place somewhere room temperature and out of direct sunlight, letting it ferment for 2 to 5 days. Check on it everyday, pushing the cabbage down to release gasses and prevent leaks. The kimchi is finished when the taste is slightly sour and cabbage is a bit soft.
The “finish point” depends on your taste. The longer you let the kimchi ferment, the more sour and less crunchy it will become. This will also go faster in a warmer environment. Simply taste it each day when you check on it, and transfer it to the fridge when it’s the perfect amount of ripe! Refrigeration will pause the fermentation process, where it will stay fresh for several weeks or months.
Recipes that use kimchi
Kimchi is great served on its own as a side salad of sorts, but you can also use it as a condiment or topping on a bunch of recipes! Here are our favorite ways to use kimchi:
How to Make Kimchi
- 1 large head napa cabbage 3 to 5 lbs, 1.3 to 2.2 kg
- ¼ cup non-iodized salt 60 g
- ¼ to ½ cup gochugaru Korean pepper flakes, depending on your spice tolerance, 30 to 60 g
- 7 to 10 cloves garlic
- 3 to 4 inches ginger 7½ to 10 cm
- 1 tsp sugar
- 3 to 4 Tbsp water 45 to 60 mL
- Optional: 3 Tbsp miso paste
- 2 carrots cut into strips, or 8 oz daikon radish
- 4 green onions cut into 1-inch pieces
- Sterilize: Wash your hands well before every time you touch the ingredients. Wash all supplies with hot water.
- Brine: Rinse the cabbage well, then cut it into quarters, lengthwise. Place in a large bowl and cover completely with salt, working the salt between all the leaves. Let sit for about 2 hours, massaging and turning the cabbage every 30 minutes, until cabbage has wilted down. When finished, drain and rinse the cabbage very well (until a torn-off piece no longer tastes overly salty). Squeeze out excess water.
- Flavor: While cabbage is in the brine, add the gochugaru, garlic, ginger, sugar, and water* to a clean food processor. If desired, add miso paste as well (for umami taste). Blitz until smooth.
- Mix: Cut the bottom stem from the cabbage so the leaves are loose. Optionally chop into bite-sized pieces. Combine the well-rinsed cabbage, pepper paste, carrot (or daikon radish), and green onions in a large bowl, mixing well with clean hands (you may choose to use gloves here to prevent your hands from smelling).
- Ferment: Pack the mixture into clean glass jar(s), pressing down so that it’s submerged by the juices and there are as few air pockets as possible. Leave at least an inch of free space at the top of the jar, then seal shut with a lid. Set the sealed jar on a plate or bowl (to catch possible spills), and place somewhere room temperature and out of direct sunlight, letting it ferment for 2 to 5 days.
- Upkeep and storage: Check on the kimchi everyday, pushing the cabbage down with clean fingers or a spoon to release gasses and prevent leaks. It's done when the taste is slightly sour and cabbage is a bit soft (depends on your taste – longer fermentation will result in a more sour, less crunchy kimchi). When finished, store in the fridge to stop the fermentation process.
- *For traditional kimchi, sub 2 Tbsp of the water for fish sauce.
- Kimchi that has been made in a sterile environment can be stored in the fridge for several weeks or months!