Kimchi is an incredibly popular ingredient that took the world by storm. It’s versatile in both flavor and usage, plus it has a ton of nutritional benefits from the fermentation process, making it an extremely popular gut-health food!
But along with popularity comes scarcity. Recently, we’ve noticed that a lot of suppliers run out almost as soon as a new batch arrives. Many people opt to make kimchi at home, but let’s be honest — who has the time?
So, what’s the best substitute for kimchi? Making your own kimchi is the best option, but there are downsides. You can also use other pickled vegetables (ex. sauerkraut) as well as other fermented products (ex. tempeh). These will have a different texture, consistency, and overall flavor than kimchi.
In today’s jam-packed article, we will explore a variety of substitutes for kimchi that are all relatively easy to find. We will look at how their flavor compares, their texture, and (of course) their availability and price!
What Is Kimchi?
If you are a foodie, chef, or have any kind of food knowledge, you have most likely heard of kimchi by now.
However, beyond “it’s salty cabbage,” many people don’t have a clue as to what this dish really is. It’s sad because kimchi is so much more than that!
This traditional Korean dish is a staple in many homes, not just because it’s healthy and tasty, but also because of its versatility.
Kimchi actually describes hundreds of different recipes that all have two things in common.
The first is that they are all made from vegetables. Kimchi can either be made from one specific one (usually cabbage or radish) or a combination of a few. And the second is that they are salted and fermented.
You can also add a variety of spices and herbs to further develop a specific flavor. Popular additions include chili powder, spring onions, ginger, turmeric, garlic, and fennel.
As you can see, there is a wide number of variables that can drastically affect the flavor and texture of the dish, as well as the nutritional benefits it could offer.
The most common type of kimchi (at least in the West) is made from salted and fermented Napa cabbage. This version does also include spicy ingredients like fresh chili peppers, cayenne pepper, chili flakes, or chili powder.
How To Make Kimchi
The process of making kimchi is fairly simple once you find an ideal recipe.
First, the vegetables are prepared. They are thinly sliced into even pieces that will allow them all to uniformly transform.
Then, the vegetables are salted for 12 hours at a salinity of 5-7%, then for another 3-7 hours at a salinity of 15%.
This curing process helps extract moisture from the vegetables. It also makes an almost uninhabitable environment for bacteria to grow in while it preserves the vegetable slices.
Then the excess water is drained from the vegetables. Once they have dried slightly, other seasoning ingredients are added.
Next, the seasoned (and definitely salty) vegetables are placed into a canning jar and left to ferment for 24-48 hours at room temperature.
During this time, the vegetables start to ferment and release a ton of CO2 (carbon dioxide). You have to burp the jars to ensure they don’t burst.
The process of making kimchi is fairly easy, as we have mentioned. And there are tons of kimchi experts out there that can help guide you to get the best results with the available tools you have!
If you’re ready to give it a try, check out this video from Maangchi on YouTube:
Characteristics Of Kimchi
The exact characteristics of kimchi do vary a lot. The flavors aren’t set in stone, and neither are the textures.
But, if we look at the ideal qualities of this dish, they should all be relatively crunchy and have a crisp texture. If they are soft, they won’t be nearly as appealing.
Furthermore, their flavor should be well-balanced in sweetness, tanginess (from the fermentation), and saltiness. If the kimchi is spicy, it should be flavorful as well — it shouldn’t just burn!
How To Choose A Substitute For Kimchi
Choosing a substitute for kimchi isn’t very difficult. You just have to decide why exactly are you substituting it!
If you’re looking for an alternative side dish somewhat similar in flavor, then your alternative should also be slightly tangy, sweet, and maybe even spicy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fermented unless that’s the flavor you want.
If you like the texture of kimchi and don’t mind what flavor it is, any tender and crisp side dish will do the job. If you want the alternative to be slightly crunchy and soft, it might be easier if it doesn’t have to be cooked, like tempeh.
If you’re just looking for a crunch in your sandwich or extra texture in a simple salad, then any type of pickled ingredient will do!
And, if you are looking for a substitute for the nutritional benefits kimchi offers, you can look at any fermented item with similar characteristics. All of the alternatives we are looking at today have been fermented or pickled.
Best Substitutes For Kimchi
All of these have a similar fermented flavor, but their texture and accompanying flavors will differ. If any one of these options looks appealing to you but you still have questions, there are a ton of articles on our site you can have a look at.
So, without further ado, here are our favorite substitutes for kimchi!
Sauerkraut is a traditional German side dish that is made with red or green thinly sliced cabbage. This ingredient is also a type that is salted and fermented. Essentially, it’s the same dish but from a different cuisine.
So, why don’t they taste the same?
Well, sauerkraut is a less versatile dish when it comes to the recipe. It is made using either red or green cabbage, whereas kimchi is made with Napa cabbage. Sauerkraut also doesn’t have a ton of other flavoring additions.
Kimchi, as we have mentioned, has a ton of different recipes. And, it is even made with a combination of vegetables as the base.
Kimchi is often a little sweeter and tangier. That is easily adjustable when using sauerkraut. You can easily add a little bit more sugar to the dish and add some lemon juice or vinegar.
Sauerkraut is easy to find, affordable to make, and easily adjustable. When it comes to flavor, it is extremely similar and even has similar textures.
2. Homemade Kimchi
This is by no means a quick solution. It is also not an easy one in comparison to simply buying an alternative.
However, it is a great opportunity to experiment with making your very own kimchi at home and is a flawless substitute for store-bought kimchi.
Homemade kimchi allows you to alter the exact texture of the ingredients, the overall flavor of the kimchi, and the type of vegetable you use. You have complete creative license!
And the best part is that you will save a ton of money when making your own kimchi. Since kimchi does take a few days to make, manufacturers put a massive markup on the actual price. You end up paying 1000% more than it cost to make.
You can have a look at the section “How To Make Kimchi” to get an idea of whether or not it will work for you. Then you can look for more in-depth recipes!
3. Pickled Beets
Pickled beets are a great alternative for kimchi if you don’t like spice.
These beets are often only sweet and tangy without a fermented or spicy flavor to them. They still have the super crunchy texture and earthy flavor that cabbage has.
One important thing to look out for is the type of pickled beets you choose. There are naturally many flavored options. However, even the “plain” options are diverse!
We like “sweet and tangy” pickled beets — they have a similar sweetness to kimchi that plain “pickled beets” don’t have. And naturally, most pickling liquids are made with vinegar. So, the tanginess will be similar to that of kimchi as well.
4. Miso Paste
Miso paste, also known as soybean paste, is a traditional Japanese seasoning ingredient.
As the name suggests, this ingredient only comes in paste form. So, how is it a substitute for crunchy kimchi?
This option will only work if you are after a similar fermented salty flavor. It won’t add texture, volume, or a ton of nutritional value.
But, that being said, the flavors are extremely similar! Miso paste is made from fermented soybeans. So, it’s naturally savory, tangy, salty, and can even be a little sweet. You will also be able to find spicy miso paste.
Miso paste is easy to find and works great as an addition to soups, stews, sandwiches, and spreads. But again, it won’t add texture.
5. Radish Kimchi (Kkakdugi)
This is actually an extremely common substitute and the second most popular type of kimchi after cabbage. The main reason it isn’t higher on our list is that it can be difficult to find in Western countries.
But, we have had a lot of luck at Asian supermarkets! You can even order some from online vendors.
Diced radish kimchi also has a crunchy texture, but is less stringy than cabbage. It is made in virtually the same way as traditional kimchi and common flavoring additions include chili powder, spring onions, garlic, and ginger.
One drawback is that the fermentation time for this kimchi is about 2 weeks — this means the price will also be a little higher.
Nevertheless, we love radish kimchi as an alternative because it has a similar sweet and spicy tangy flavor with a crunchy texture.
6. Other Pickled Vegetables
If you cannot decide on an alternative or you are short on time, you can grab any other type of pickled vegetable, particularly cucumbers.
Not all of them will work equally great with the dish you are making, but in a pinch, you sometimes just have to bite the bullet.
Make sure that the vegetables you do use are all preserved in a vinegar-based pickling solution. As long as they are all crunchy, tangy, and maybe a little bit sweet, they will work as an acceptable alternative.
It also helps if they are slightly sweetened and flavored with some spices and herbs. An added bonus is if the pickles are spicy — that will help hide the differences.
Pickles are usually very affordable and easy to find — you likely even have some type in your home already!
We love pickled onions and gherkins; they are both recognizable flavors that won’t necessarily overpower the main dish as easily. But, if you start buying pickled strawberries or olives, we think those might be too strange.
Natto is similar to miso paste — it is made from fermented soybeans, but in this case, the beans are still whole.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they will add a ton of texture, but certainly more than miso paste. These beans are equally tangy but usually less sweet.
They have a sticky and slimy consistency, which you won’t notice if you add them to recipes instead of serving them as a side dish.
The downside is that they can be difficult to find (even at Asian supermarkets) and that they can also be expensive in some places.
Tempeh has become a very popular Indonesian vegan ingredient that is relatively easy to find in stores today. However, it can still be quite pricey.
This is another fermented soybean product, but this time the soybeans have been formed into cakes. The flavor isn’t as tangy as miso paste or natto, but it does still have a very savory, salty profile.
This ingredient has to be cooked before being served. This is usually done by deep-frying or pan-frying. While it is an extra step you have to do, it also means you get additional crunchy textures in your food. And who doesn’t like that?
Another great thing about using tempeh is that you can break up the piece into the size that you want. So, if you want a fine barely noticeable texture, you can chop it up finely. But, if you want chunks of tempeh, you can prepare those too.
9. Fermented Drinks (Kefir Or Kombucha)
And finally, if you have nowhere else to turn to and are only looking to add a similar fermented flavor, then any type of fermented drink will do.
Two of our favorites include kefir and kombucha. They are easy to find and can be affordable.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink that will also help add creaminess to your soups and stews. You can also find water kefir, but we don’t like it as much as this substitute.
Kombucha is a fermented sweet tea that will help enrich your recipes too.
It will help develop a more complex flavor in your dish. And, you can even find a wide variety of flavored kombucha drinks, too!
They aren’t ideal options as they are beverages rather than true food ingredients. But again, if you just want a tangy flavor for juicy recipes, they will do just fine.
Some other ideas you could look into include Sima, Bouza, or traditionally made ginger beer.