What Is Gochujang? And How to Use It

This spicy fermented chile paste is an essential part of Korean cooking.

Brick-red in color with spicy, sweet, umami notes, gochujang is a staple in Korean cooking. The fermented red pepper paste is a key ingredient in dishes like bibimbap and tteokbokki, and can be used in marinades, stir-frys, soups, or dipping sauces—it’s often referred to as the ketchup of Korea.

A popular ingredient in Korean cooking, gochujang is a fermented chile paste. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES / NUNGNING20.

“Gochujang is the one thing that every Korean household has,” says Lauryn Chun, founder of Mother-in-Law’s, which sells gochujang in paste and sauce forms in addition to its popular kimchi. “It's akin to having kimchi. It’s such a key anchor of the sauces in Korean cooking. I mean, you really can’t make Korean food without it.”

But what is gochujang sauce? Here, you’ll find everything you need to know about this versatile ingredient, including how it’s made, how to store it, and how to cook with it.

How Is Gochujang Made?

Gochujang gets its bold red color from gochugaru (Korean red chili powder or flakes), which is combined with glutinous (AKA sticky) rice, fermented soybeans, salt, and often barley malt. The basic gochujang recipe includes additional sweeteners, such as sugar, honey, or plum extract, that are sometimes added as well to balance out the heat. Traditionally, gochujang is fermented in onggi (earthenware pots) that are kept uncovered in a sunny spot outdoors during the cooler months of the year. Direct sunlight is key, but too high of temperatures will cause the gochujang to ferment too quickly, so it's usually not made in the hot summer months. As with most fermented foods, time is an essential ingredient, and gochujang is typically fermented for at least 3 to 4 months.

What Does Gochujang Taste Like?

Gochujang is spicy, salty, and slightly sweet, though the level of heat can vary widely across producers. Some companies also add additional sweeteners, but gochujang gets a hint of sweetness from the fermentation process, when starches from the rice are converted into sugars. Chun says that fermentation also lends a distinct umami flavor to gochujang that sets it apart from other hot sauces.

“It is spicy, but it has more of those umami notes that come from fermentation, and that's what makes gochujang really more unique than any other kind of hot sauces or spicy sauces out there,” Chun says. “The flavor that comes from fermentation is the thing that we crave, whether we realize that or not. It's the reason why cheeses have that craveability. Wines, beers, Parmesan cheese, all these kinds of fermented foods have this flavor profile that comes from fermentation that our taste buds just love.”

How to Store Gochujang

Look for gochujang in the condiment aisle at most Asian markets and some well-stocked grocery stores—it’s commonly sold in red rectangular tubs, as well as bottles and jars. Once opened, it should be stored in the refrigerator. But because it’s fermented, gochujang has a relatively long shelf life, and can be kept for around a year in the refrigerator.

How to Use Gochujang

You may be wondering, what is gochujang used for? Despite its spicy flavors, don’t think of gochujang as a hot sauce. It has a thick, sticky consistency similar to tomato paste and an intense, pungent flavor, so it’s not commonly used on its own as a condiment or finishing sauce. Rather, think of it as a seasoning agent, perfect for adding depth of flavor to marinades, dressings, glazes, stir-frys, and sauces or as a base for soups and stews. For a quick and easy sauce, Chun recommends mixing a little gochujang with vinegar, sesame oil, and sugar to taste.

“What's so great about gochujang is it just has so many applications,” she says. “Gochujang really becomes this mother of all sauces. You could add a little dab of the paste in your cooking whether you're doing a stir-fry or some sort of a stew. I met a chef who was telling me to add a little bit of gochujang to even something like osso buco to amplify a little bit of the spice and really give it this depth of flavor at the back notes.”

Our Favorite Gochujang Recipes

Of course, gochujang is a natural fit in many Korean recipes, including crispy, crunchy Korean Fried Chicken and Korean Fire Chicken with Cheese. It’s traditionally used in bulgogi and also pairs well with beef in our recipes for Korean Beef Bowls and Korean-Style Short Ribs. Gochujang is also the cornerstone of classic bibimbap sauce—try our recipe for the dish or this riff on bibimbap in casserole form.

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