If you're a fan of Korean food, you've probably encountered gochujang. It's used in the spicy red sauce for bibimbap and is the base of many dipping sauces for meats and veggies. But what exactly is gochujang? Read on to find out.
Advertisement
a photo of a bowl of Gochujang beside other foods and chop sticks
Credit: Getty Images

If you could peek inside every Korean person's kitchen, you'd likely find a tub of gochujang sitting in their fridge. Along with ganjang (soy sauce) and doenjang (fermented soybean paste), this thick and vibrantly red paste is fundamental to Korean cuisine. So, what exactly is gochujang? Here's everything you need to know, including what it tastes like, how it's made, where to find it and, most importantly, how to use it.

What is Gochujang? 

Gochujang is a fermented red pepper paste from Korea. Pronounced goh-choo-jang, this fiery red paste is made with gochugaru (Korean red chile flakes), yeotgirum (barley malt), chapssalgaru (sweet/sticky rice flour), mejugaru (fermented soybean powder) and salt. Different recipes may have slight variations, such as the addition of a sweetener like jocheong (rice syrup) or maesilcheong (plum extract), but the basic ingredients are always the same.

History of Gochujang

It is commonly believed that gochujang was created after Japan introduced South and Central American chiles to the Korean peninsula after their invasion in 1592. However, recent academic studies have argued that Korean chile peppers, which are not as spicy as the ones from the Americas, had been grown and harvested by Koreans long before then. The earliest reference to gochujang appears in a Chinese document dating back to the late 9th century, and the first recorded recipe, called Sunchang Gochujang, is found in a document from the 18th century. Sunchang is a region in South Korea that is still famous for their gochujang today.

What Does Gochujang Taste Like? 

Gochujang is spicy, salty, earthy and sweet. It has a texture that is thick and sticky. The paste is spicy because of the Korean red pepper flakes, but the exact level of heat will depend on the cultivar used—spiciness can range from medium to very hot. Certain red chile peppers are also sun-dried, or taeyang cho, before grinding, which adds a smoky element to the paste. The earthy, savory, umami quality of gochujang is thanks to the fermented soybean powder, a flavor profile that may remind you of miso. Gochujang is also sweet, which comes from the barley malt and fermented sweet rice. Many brands and recipes will also add a sweetener to accommodate contemporary taste buds and preferences. Many feel that the additional sweetness helps balance out the savory and salty notes.

How to Make Gochujang

Making gochujang is fairly simply. First, the barley malt is soaked and then strained out. That liquid is mixed with sweet rice flour and brought to a boil and reduced. Next, the Korean red pepper flakes, fermented soybean powder, salt and sweetener (if using) are added. Finally, the mixture is transferred to an onggi (earthenware pot) to ferment.

In order to ferment properly, the gochujang needs to be exposed to sunlight, which requires the lid of the earthenware pot to be opened during the day and closed at night (or during times of inclement weather). Sunlight is good, but if temperatures are high, the gochujang will ferment too quickly. To prevent this from happening, it's best to avoid making gochujang in the summer. It takes at least two to three months for the gochujang to ferment. In the past, gochujang was oftentimes fermented for years before consuming.

Where to Buy Gochujang

Gochujang can be found in the condiment section of all Korean markets. It's most commonly packaged in red rectangular tubs next to the doenjang, which is sold in the same type of tub but in the color brown. Gochujang can also easily be found online and at some large grocery chains. The level of spiciness will depend on the recipe, so try out different brands to see which one you like.

How to Store Gochujang

After opening a tub of gochujang, store it in the refrigerator. If properly stored it can last a a couple years in the fridge, although it may be best to use before that. Pay attention to the "Best-by" or expiration date, but if there are no signs of spoilage (the salt acts a preservative), it's fine to consume. Over time, your gochujang may harden. Unless there is visible mold, dried out gochujang is still perfectly OK to eat. Just add a little warm water to the quantity you want to use before adding it into your recipe.

How to Use Gochujang

Gochujang is a versatile paste that can be used as a flavoring agent for soups, stews, marinades, glazes, dips, and sauces. Although it is rarely, if ever, used as a finishing sauce, gochujang can be used straight from the tub. In fact, many Koreans will eat it as is as an accompaniment to raw vegetables (like crudité) and dried anchovies. However, for the most part, gochujang is usually cut or mixed with other ingredients, such as sesame oil, soy sauce, minced garlic and/or sugar.

Substitutes for Gochujang

If you find yourself short or out of gochujang, the best DIY substitute is to mix doenjang or miso with Korean red pepper flakes and a little sweetener (if you want). This mixture best mimics the spicy-salty-earthy-sweet flavor of gochujang. If you don't have Korean red pepper flakes, you could use red chili flakes (like the ones you find at pizza parlors) or cayenne pepper instead. Keep in mind that these chili flakes have a different spice and flavor profile to Korean red pepper flakes, so you won't get the same type of warmth in your dish.

Bottom Line

Gochujang is a fermented red pepper paste that is a staple ingredient in Korean cuisine. This spicy paste is salty, savory and slightly sweet, and can be used in many ways including in soups, stews, marinades and sauces. Traditional Korean dishes that include gochujang are bibimbap, a mixed rice dish, tteokbokki, a spicy rice cake street food, and Jeyuk Bokkeum, a spicy marinated pork stir-fry. If you're looking for some fusion recipes, try these Korean Turkey Burgers where gochujang is mixed into the patty, or this Gochujang-Glazed Tempeh & Brown Rice Bowl which is packed full of flavor. For a fun baking project, we really love this Potato-Leek Tart with Gochujang and Honey, it's buttery, savory, spicy and a little sweet, which makes it a total crowd pleaser.