Kimchi in grilled cheese? It’s a spicy, crunchy flavor boost

We’ve upped the ante on the original pull-from-the-pantry meal — the grilled cheese — with one potent ingredient: kimchi. And we use it two ways for a double dose of flavor.

Cheese with kimchi may sound odd, but the pairing is hardly new. Budae jjigae, otherwise known as army base stew, originates with the Korean War. It’s a hot pot made with American surplus foods, such as hot dogs, baked beans and instant noodles, along with kimchi and American cheese.

It loosely inspired this recipe from our book “Cook What You Have,” which draws on pantry staples to assemble easy, weeknight meals. The fermented cabbage and its flavorful brine combine for a spicy, crunchy, umami-rich sandwich that’s far more interesting than what you had as a kid.

Besides putting the kimchi between the bread, we also mix its brine with mayonnaise to spread on the outside. Using mayonnaise instead of butter allows you to cook the sandwich over (slightly) higher heat. That heat helps melt the cheese inside but also increases flavorful browning on the bread with less risk of burning.

Sliced deli ham or cooked bacon turn the sandwich into a fuller meal, but the sandwich still is tasty without it.

Kimchi Grilled Cheese with Ham

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

⅓ cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon kimchi juice, plus 1⅓ cups cabbage kimchi, drained and chopped

8 slices hearty white sandwich bread

8 slices cheddar OR pepper jack OR whole-milk mozzarella cheese

4 slices thinly sliced deli ham OR 4 slices cooked bacon

In a small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise and kimchi brine. Spread evenly over one side of each slice of bread. Flip 4 of the slices to be mayonnaise side down, then top each with 1 slice of cheese, 1 slice of ham (or 1 slice bacon, torn to fit) and a quarter of the kimchi. Top each with a slice of the remaining cheese, then with another slice of bread, mayonnaise side up. Press on the sandwiches to compact the fillings.

Heat a 12-inch nonstick or cast-iron skillet over medium until droplets of water flicked onto the surface quickly sizzle and evaporate. Add 2 of the sandwiches and cook until golden brown on the bottoms, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a wide spatula, flip the sandwiches and cook, pressing down lightly and adjusting the heat as needed, until golden brown on the second sides and the cheese is melted, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board. Cook the remaining sandwiches in the same way (the second batch may cook faster). Cut each sandwich in half on the diagonal.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more recipes, go to Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street at