What Is Gochujang? The Story Behind The Spice

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Gochujang has been making inroads into the relatively new American market for Asian hot sauces and chili pastes. Sriracha and sambal oelek were the pioneers, and they continue to be the most popular examples. Gochujang is a Korean challenger. So what is gochujang? Let’s explore its story, flavor profile, and more.

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02/18/2024 06:04 am GMT

Table of Contents

What is gochujang?

Gochujang is a spicy and savory Korean condiment (chili paste) made from fermented chili peppers, rice or wheat flour, soybeans, and salt. It has a deep red color and a thick consistency, similar to tomato paste. It’s widely used in Korean cuisine and is an essential ingredient in many dishes, such as bibimbap, tteokbokki, and bulgogi.

Gochujang history

Chili peppers are from the Americas but made their way to parts of Asia including Korea in the 16th century. They were among the products brought into the Old World during what historians call the Columbian exchange. Chili peppers have since become an important part of Korean cooking. They are the key ingredient in gochujang. Gochujang translates literally to chili paste since the word gochu is Korean for chili pepper, and the word jang means paste or sauce. 

Historians believe that before the arrival of hot peppers in Korea, Koreans got their spicy heat from other jangs — or pastes — made with black pepper. The chili pepper changed this, and gochujang essentially took the place of the versions made with black pepper. 

Early versions of this chili paste were made by placing the ingredients in clay pots called jangdok to let them ferment for long periods, sometimes for years. The process is modern now but still involves fermenting the paste for an extended period until it develops its rich, pungent flavor. Over the years, gochujang has become a staple ingredient in Korean food and was first commercially packaged and sold in the 1970s. Many Koreans consider it to be an exceptionally nutritious seasoning. 

Gochujang vs Sriracha
Gochujang in a bowl

Gochujang flavor profile

Most of its distinctive flavor comes from two ingredients: its hot peppers and fermented soybean paste. The fermented soybeans function like miso paste, in that it gives the gochujang a strong umami taste that combines well with the sourness of fermentation.

Other gochujang ingredients include glutinous rice, which is a part of what provides the paste with its thick texture. It also contains sugar from the glutinous rice, which accounts for its mild sweetness. 

Is gochujang spicy?

The chili peppers in this paste are not exceptionally hot, but gochujang’s spiciness can vary based on the proportion of chilies used to that of the other ingredients.

You will find that most types of gochujang range from mild to moderately hot, with a few blends being classified as very hot and even fewer as extremely hot. Its packaging will often have an indication of its spice level. The numeral 3 signals a moderate heat, while 4 means that it is very hot. 

Common uses for gochujang

If you are familiar with Korean dishes like dok boki or the spicy paste called ssamjang, you already know how much of an impact gochujang can have. The combination of umami, tanginess, and heat means that it is a good option if you want your chili paste to offer complexity.

Use gochujang in place of conventional hot sauces like Tabasco and Sriracha for more a more intense savory flavor on cooked food. It can be a delightful addition to salad dressings and a dip for fried chicken. It’s also quite good as an additive to soups and stews to provide depth and heat to the dish.

If you find its fermented notes too pungent to use for finishing dishes, use it in your marinade where it will add both the meatiness of soy and a mild heat; gochujang is a common ingredient in marinades for bulgogi. If you are grilling meat that has been marinated in gochujang, remember that it contains sugar and can scorch easily.

–> More Ideas: Discover Delicious Gochujang Uses

How easy is it to make gochujang at home?

Homemade gochujang paste is delicious but can take some time to make. The fermentation process necessary can take months, so it’s not a good option for home chefs with little patience. We’re in that boat, so we offer a simplified recipe for homemade gochujang here at PepperScale. It sacrifices some depth of flavor for speed – making it less authentic, but more suitable for the home chef looking to experiment with spicy foods. See the video below.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 20, 2023 to include new content.
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I love your recipes and your thoughtful interpretation of food and heat. Above you say see video below and I can’t find any video link. Thank you.