Korean Kimchi Recipe Demystified

authentic kimchi recipe

Koreans are among the leanest and healthiest people on the planet…says MSN Health. I don’t know about that but I do believe kimchi has something to do with our health, good or bad. For those who never watched M*A*S*H*, Kimchi is a fermented pickled cabbage from Korea.

Wow Weee! What’s that smell???

Kimchi is to a Korean as ketchup is to an American. You can eat a meal without it, but it tastes so much better with it. In fact, when I eat pizza or used to eat hamburger, I sometimes craved kimchi along with them. The crisp, crunchy, spicy cabbage with a hint of sour taste, cleansed my palate after eating meat. I don’t eat it with every meal but I always have a jar in the fridge like I have ketchup. Yes, garlicky odor can smell stinky when you open the jar initially but the spicy garlicky aroma is something  you have to experience to know its addicting quality. Just ask an old friend of mine who told me recently that he tried to smuggle a jar through an airport security once and now he is blacklisted from the airline. Next to carrying a weapon on board, carrying a jar of kimchi through the security check point will definitely put you on the “No Fly” list or clear out the airport before you can say, “kimchi!” So don’t even try it, unless you are an old Korean granny coming to the U.S. for the first time.  (Actually, I don’t think even she would try to attempt such a risky move.)

Then, why would I recommend such a vile smelling dish?


Who needs vitamins when you have Kimchi?

Kimchi is packed with vitamins A, B, and C and immune system-boosting phytochemicals. Its main ingredient, fermented cabbage, contains lactic acid, which helps with digestion and may weaken infections. But the biggest benefit may be from presence of lactobacilli in kimchi – healthy bacteria that helps with digestion, stops and even prevents yeast infections. Several years ago, Korean researchers found chickens infected with the avian flu recovered more quickly after being fed an extract of kimchi. More recently, a study at the University of New Mexico suggested that eating cabbage might help ward off breast cancer. Kimchi is low in calories, rich in dietary fiber, low in fat, and low in carb. Some believe that kimchi has kept obesity at bay in Korea (although, since American fast food joints have been popping up everywhere in Korea, there have been increased cases of obesity. Damn those Big Mac’s and KFC’s!). And what’s even better, when kimchi gets ‘old’ or over-ripen, it is used in everything from soups to pancakes. Every piece of kimchi is used up – nothing is wasted.  My idea of a perfect gastronomic experience.

There are some naysayers, some raw foodies, who say that fermented foods are bad for us. But I think they are mainly talking about fermented western foods derived from animals like yogurt and cheeses. They also cite Koreans and Japanese having higher rates of stomach cancers but can that be attributed to fermented foods? I think the jury is out on that issue. But one thing for sure, kimchi has been on the top of the list of foods to try as a result of recent researches done on the health benefits of kimchi. And I can tell you, personally, it has helped me.

Growing up, my mom would make a hot bean sprout soup for me and she would put some spicy kimchi in the soup whenever I had the flu or a cold. It seemed to speed up the recovery. And if nothing else, the spicy hot steam would clear up my sinus and I could breathe easier. Kimchi broth was also an elixir for indigestion as my mom would make me take spoonfuls of it whenever I had a stomach virus. And even if I was not in the mood to eat anything by mouth, I tolerated little spoonfuls of Kimchi broth.

Kimchi making is like making ‘gravy’ for Italians

The thing is, it is labor intensive to make kimchi, especially if you are making it for the winter. Back in the day, women in the ‘village’ would gather and make kimchi, literally, all day long. And they were done, they would divide up the portions equally, and they would store them in huge clay vats that they bury in their backyard for the winter. This method was used to preserve and slow down the fermentation process so that they can have kimchi throughout the brutally cold Korean winters without having to make it so often. There is even a special word, ‘Kim Jang‘, to describe this type of kimchi making ritual before the winter.

But now, we can drive to the supermarket and pick up a fresh jar at any time. Or make just enough and store them in a special kimchi refrigerator. Yes, thanks to those clever Korean engineers, they now have kimchi refrigerators, specially made, to store kimchi all year around.

So the traditional ritual has dwindled in this modern day a bit, but still, making even a small jar of kimchi has always terrified me since it seemed too monumental to even fathom. Making kimchi, using a ‘secret’ recipe that was handed down through generations, is like making your grandma’s apple pie with her secret recipe. Every woman has a different way of making it and there is a sense of pride and mystery that shroud a good kimchi recipe. So, that’s another reason why I never even tempted to make it in fear of failure to get it ‘just right’.

But this year, “I made kimchi!” – as I squealed loudly when I made it for the first time, like Tom Hank’s character in Cast Away, when he shouts “I made fire!!!” And it was ridiculously, I mean, ri-di-culous-ly E.A.S.Y.! Ok, so it was not the original, 30+ ingredients-with-one-more-secret-ingredient-just-for-the-hell-of-it kind of Kimchi but hey, you gotta make ‘do’ when it’s just me, myself, and I making the stuff and not the whole village! So here is my ‘secret’, ridiculously easy kimchi recipe. (Forgive me Grandma for this 21st century watered down, simplified version.)

Kimchi tips I learned

I learned a few things in the process and I’ll share this valuable wisdom I’ve acquired with you.

1. It takes at least three days to make kimchi so don’t think you’ll start the darn thing at 3PM and have it for dinner. There’s no short cut in kimchi making.
2. Traditionally, and don’t ask me why, kimchi has some sort of fish or shrimp extract in it. Forget that ingredient for my recipe. As far as I’m concerned, kimchi should be a vegan dish. Oh, and by the way, if you think the store bought ones are vegan, think again. They are NOT! That’s why it’s so much better to make it at home. You know what’s going in that mixture of vegan looking dish.
3. Kimchi masters would tell you, it’s all in the salt. Use it too sparingly and you’ll have a stringy mushy mess. Use it too much, you’ll end up with just salty goopy mushy mess. But use it just right – and you know how it’s never a ‘tablespoon’ of this and ‘teaspoon’ of that but a ‘dash’ of this and ‘smidgen’ of that – and you’ll be good to go. But I did learn one solid fact; use Sea Salt or Kosher Salt. Never table salt. There’s not enough flavor in table salts. I didn’t try mineral salt but I’m assuming if sea salt is good, mineral salt would be just as good, if not better.
4. Always use red pepper – I used “Ancient Sweet Red Pepper” for mine. You can add one little spicy hot pepper to taste but believe it or not, I don’t like very spicy kimchi. If you can’t find Ancient Sweets, you can use red bell peppers. If you use habaneros, be ready to drink lots of water because after kimchi ferments, it might get spicier. Or it might get sweeter but not less spicier. Trust me. Also, there are packaged red pepper flakes called, “Go Choo Gah Rooh” (pepper flakes in Korean) sold in Korean grocery stores but it’s really tricky to buy the ‘right’ one. Some might be stale and some might be too spicy and you won’t know until you use it and no, the packages do not tell you the grades of spiciness. But do not fear; you can find all the ingredients for this recipe in your supermarket so you don’t have to search high and low for a Korean grocery store for the right ingredients for this one.

Ready? Here is the ultimate kimchi recipe even my grandma would be proud of.

Kimchi Recipe

  • 2 Napa Cabbage
  • 2 Ancient Sweet Red Peppers
  • 6 medium sized cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 large yellow onion
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger
  • 2-3 tablespoon cold water
  • 1 C chopped scallions (green onions)
  • 1/2 C to 2/3 C – more or less – coarse salt – sea salt or kosher salt

Also need: a large glass jar to store kimchi, glass bowl to mix (or a large non-reactive bowl), blender or a food processor

1. Separate Napa Cabbage leaves and wash thoroughly to rid of all the dirt hidden within the leaves. Drain well, chop them in one inch widths and put them in a large glass, flat bottom, bowl or a pot.  Sprinkle salt evenly…about 1 tsp of salt to a hand full of cabbage. Cover and store the cabbage in a cool place over night – or for at least 5 hours.

salted cabbage
2. As pictured above, there will be a little bit of liquid formed in the bottom of the bowl when cabbage gets marinated in salt. Mix the cabbage mixture and taste. If it’s salty enough, then, you are ready to proceed but if it’s not, then, add more salt, one teaspoon at a time. If you add more salt, wait another a couple of hours, and then, taste again.

3. If you are happy how salty it is, then, you are ready to add the rest of the ingredients. Scallions are not pictured here but you will added them later when you are mixing.

Kimchi ingredients
4. Add garlic, onion, peppers, ginger and water to a food processor or a blender (don’t use the one you use to make margaritas, otherwise, your guests won’t like the garlic tasting margaritas after making kimchi in it) and puree. It’s OK to see little specks of pepper but you shouldn’t have chunks.

Red Pepper Puree for kimchi
5. Add the puree mixture and chopped scallions to cabbage and mix really well.

6. Pour the cabbage into a large glass jar – a large mouth glass jar works really well since you’ll be taking out kimchi every time you want to eat it.

kimchi bottle
7. Take a large spoon and push down the cabbage until all are submerged in the liquid.
8. Store in room temperature ( 75 〫F) for a couple of days.  And then, store it in the refrigerator for future consumption.
9 Repeat after me. “I made kimchi!”

Some of the ‘secret’ ingredients used in kimchi include: fish sauce, shrimp extract, oysters, pine nuts, radish, cucumber, Asian pear, pepper threads, daikon, sugar and even MSG! But I simplified and included only the essential ones for this recipe. And it’s vegan and just as good as any of those “secret” handed- down-from-generation-to-generation-from-the-Han-dynasty kimchi recipe.

P.S. My own mom asked me how I made such a great kimchi, so simply. Now that was a compliment!

Look at the cucumber kimchi I made using the same recipe. I just adjusted the amounts of the ingredients but you get the idea.

cucumber kimchi

So if you want to be lean and healthy like us, Koreans, start consuming massive amounts of kimchi. Just make sure your partner has some too so that you won’t reek of kimchi breath.

Let me know how yours turns out. :)


    • says

      It’s a great way to share and support each other! I still get together with my Mom when we make kimchi for the winter. We have a great time and we eat lots of delicious food!

  1. PhyllisShreve says

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for de-mystifying!!! I still have one question for you: did you drain the liquid from your cabbage after the salting and soaking process?
     I started some kim chee last night. i made a red batch and a green batch with European cabbages instead of oriental cabbage. I used about 1.5 tablespoons of salt in each batch. I didn’t drain the liquid yet. I’m not sure if i should keep the liquid or not ?
    Most recipes that I have seen use tons of salt, then require rinsing. I was trying to avoid all of the waste and rinsing. I haven’t checked the results today. I also put my kit into the fridge;I din’t leave it out more than three hours. 
    What do you think?

    • says

      PhyllisShreve I think you may need more salt if you are using regular cabbages since they are thicker and tougher. And I wouldn’t keep them in the fridge….room temp is best. And if you washed the cabbages before salting, you don’t have to drain the water. My mom is neurotic about cleanliness and she washes before AND after. I don’t. I wash the cabbage before salting and keep the liquid, after adjusting for the saltiness.

  2. Tommy says

    The two most awesome dishes, WOW. I can pass the smell with on problem, its the taste that I’m after. Thanks, good job. I will try this.

  3. says

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I’ve enjoyed kimchi in Korean restaurants, but was mystified as to how it might be made. I’ve heard that fermented foods are very good for us, and I love that I now know how to make some at home.

  4. says

    Oh man, awesome!! I love kimchi, though it took me a while to come around to it. I had it not too long ago rolled up in sushi. It was so good!

    • says

      So then, you know why TSA wouldn’t like it in our carry on luggage. ;D But glad you acquired the taste for it! Try it on pizza next time. With a little bit of spic kimchi on top of veggie pizza is indescribable!

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