Korean food has always been associated with spicy food. There’s bright red kimchi, spicy fried chicken, spicy rice cakes, nuclear noodles, and more. Beneath the spiciness in these well-loved Korean dishes is a subtle sweetness and umami that you won’t typically find in other cuisines. What’s the secret? It’s Gochujang.
Comparing The Best Gochujang Brands
What is gochujang?
Gochujang is a thick, red, chili paste that is fermented in earthenware pots. It is one of three essential fermented pastes in Korean cooking, along with ganjang and doenjang. Its bright red color is a clear indication of its spiciness. But thanks to its ingredients, it offers an underlying sweetness and touch of umami that’s unique to this spicy paste.
Due to its pungent taste, it’s not entirely considered as a ready-to-eat, standalone condiment. It’s typically mixed with other ingredients to make a spicy base for soups and stews, marinades for meats and barbecues, and heat boosters for dipping sauces.
Some famous Korean recipes with gochujang include tteokbokki, bibimbap, Korean-style fried chicken, Korean Army Stew, and more.
Gochugaru - Red pepper powder gives gochugaru its spicy flavors. Gochugaru that’s made from sun-dried chili peppers, is preferred by most gochujang producers for a cleaner and fresher tasting chili paste.
Barley Malt - This acts as the base liquid that kickstarts the fermentation process of gochujang. It also adds a nutty taste to the final product.
Glutinous Rice - During the fermentation process, the starches of glutinous rice are converted to sugars, giving gochujang its naturally sweet flavors and paste-like consistency.
Mejugaru - This is a fermented soybean block or powder that’s also used in making doenjang. Milder in taste, this miso-like ingredient gives gochujang a touch of umami goodness.
Salt - Coarse sea salt, particularly those from the Sinan Island of South Korea, is used for the best gochugaru because it doesn’t have traces of bitterness from the crystallization process.
New gochugaru variations use rice syrup as additional sweeteners. A dash of soju is also used to prevent molding in hot environments.
Difference between gochugaru and gochujang
You’ll find gochugaru and gochujang on their own or even together in most Korean recipes. Do remember that these are two different ingredients. Gochujang is a red pepper paste while gochujang is red pepper powder. From the name itself, gochujang comes in a paste form, while gochugaru comes in a powdered form.
Both use chili peppers as their key ingredient, but gochujang uses gochugaru as its primary ingredient. While they are both spicy, gochugaru has a smokier finish while gochujang has umami and lingering heat.
Since gochujang is thicker in consistency, interchanging both may have an impact on the texture of your dish.
Best Gochujang Brand Comparison
Gochujang is readily available in your local Korean grocery, but with several brands in your midst, you’ll be left thinking: which is the best gochujang brand? I’ve curated some of my favorite gochujang brands just for you:
Sempio’s gochujang is made from all-natural ingredients, including 100% Korean sun-dried peppers. It uses corn syrup to balance out the heat and add a delicate sweetness to the dish you plan on cooking. Fiery and sweet? Count us in!
Why you should buy this: Sempio doesn’t use any preservatives or additives, which makes their gochujang an ideal choice for trying out authentic Korean recipes. It also comes in different sizes so you don’t need to skimp on the heat!
Chung Jung One also uses 100% sun-dried red peppers and fermented soybeans in their gochujang. But what sets them apart is that they use brown rice instead of white rice. This adds a distinct nuttiness to their red pepper paste.
Why you should buy this: Chung Jung One’s gochujang is produced in Sunchang, Korea– the main producer of fermented pastes in Korea. The clean waters and moderate temperatures from the region extract the best flavors out of the main ingredients, especially the fresh and spicy kick out of the red peppers. The quality is just pure perfection!
For almost 50 years, CJ Haechandle has kept things traditional and carefully selects their ingredients intending to preserve the legacy of Korean food culture. This allowed them to be the number 1 best-selling gochujang in Korea from 2007 to 2015. That says a lot about the taste and quality of their gochujang.
Why you should buy this: This one’s a biggie! And I mean large in size and flavor! It comes in a 6.61 lb. tub which is perfect for prepping large batches of kimchi or hosting a big Korean dinner party.
More Spicy Korean Sauces
As with any ingredient, you really won't be able to find a perfect substitute. But here are three ingredients that come close to that addictive punch of spice of gochujang:
You can’t make gochujang without gochugaru, so if you have the latter in your kitchens, make your spicy pepper paste yourself! Gourmet Sleuth suggests moistening the gochugaru with soy sauce and adding a little bit of sugar. These three ingredients let you get close to the spicy, savory, and sweet taste of gochujang.
2. Sambal Oelek
Sambal Oelek may be a close match for gochujang’s pasty texture but since it uses raw chili peppers, it still is slightly thinner in consistency. It doesn’t have that earthy umami flavor note since sambal isn’t a product of fermentation. However, you can expect a tang in your dish since it uses vinegar.
Sriracha comes quite close to gochujang in color and consistency! It’s still thinner in texture but its bright red hue gives any dish a boost in vibrance, especially for bibimbaps. It may not have the same umami as gochujang but it does have a mild spiciness and garlic flavors that are worth bringing to the table.
Fermented pastes are pillars of Korean cooking and if you’re in love with Korean cuisine just like me, it’s best to have gochujang, doenjang, and ganjang all in your kitchen! It may be easier to grab the first ones you see in your local Korean grocery, but choosing the best gochujang brands and other fermented pastes make a huge difference. That’s why I share my curated Asian groceries– so you can find joy in Asian cooking through good ingredients!
Prepare spicy Korean dishes and embrace the smoky heat with these gochujang brands! For more Asian grocery brand comparisons and curated food items, shop only at Karman Foods.