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All About Gochujang
Umami-packed gochujang, a fermented red chile paste, is a central ingredient in Korean food. We tasted supermarket and artisan brands to explore its flavors, textures and uses.
What You Need To Know
Brilliant red, sweet, spicy-hot, and savory, gochujang is an essential Korean ingredient that enhances the flavors of meats, soups, noodles, vegetables, and sauces. A fermented paste made from Korean red chile peppers (“gochu” means “pepper”; “jang” means “fermented sauce or paste”) plus a handful of other ingredients, it is brimming with umami and adds rich, nuanced flavor and deep crimson color to innumerable dishes, from Korean fried chicken and tteokbokki to bibimbap and more.
“Gochujang is one of the three main jangs in Korea, which are like the mother sauces,” said chef and recipe developer Irene Yoo. “The others are soybean paste (doenjang) and soy sauce (ganjang), and those three are the fermented products that make up the base of a lot of Korean cooking. Gochujang occupies this territory of adding both savory and spice to a dish that is uniquely Korean.”
Gochujang has a long history in Korean culinary tradition. Its specific origins are unclear, but many scholars believe that it came into use in its present form in the 16th century, after Portuguese traders brought chile peppers to Korea. But some historians note that as early as the ninth century, Koreans were making a similar fermented paste with black peppercorns.
How It’s Made
“In the old days, every Korean family made its own jangs, which would determine how deliciously the family would eat for the coming months or even years,” wrote Hooni Kim, New York–based chef-owner of Michelin-starred Meju and Little Banchan Shop, in his book, My Korea: Traditional Flavors, Modern Recipes (2020). “If you have access to high-quality ganjang, doenjang, and gochujang, you’ll be able to cook amazing food.”
All three jangs traditionally begin with meju. These pressed squares of cooked soybeans are tied with stalks of rice straw (which contribute a key bacterium) and hung to air-dry and ferment for months before they are used to make jangs. Traditional gochujang has only a few ingredients, said Sarah Ahn, creator of Ahnest Kitchen and social media coordinator for America’s Test Kitchen.
“It’s typically made by combining gochugaru (Korean red chili powder), rice flour, mejugaru (soy bean powder), and yeotigireum (barley malt powder),” Ahn said. Traditionally the mixture ferments outdoors in huge earthenware pots called onggi for months under the sun.
Today, big-brand manufacturers have figured out ways to speed up or even skip the fermentation steps, and often leave out meju. These products have longer, nontraditional ingredient lists, containing corn syrup, malt syrup and maltodextrin, wheat, garlic, onion, and yeast extract to create the desired...
Everything We Tested
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