Korean hot peppers are credited for the well-known spicy kick that Korean food offers. Not all dishes in Korean cuisine are spicy, but many popular dishes are, and they bear the bright red color of the peppers to prove it.
Ever had unforgettable kimchi (fermented pickled vegetables)? The secret is gochugaru (Korean red chili pepper powder or flakes). Craving a bowl of bibimbap (rice dish with meat and vegetables)? A dollop of Gochujang (Korean fermented red chili pepper paste) lends that yummy umami to the dish.
Gochugaru and gochujang (chili paste) are made from Korean chili peppers. They are vital Korean pantry staples.; seek them out from well-stocked Asian groceries or reputable online markets. When you’ve got a hankering for Korean food at home and you’re missing these ingredients, try these creative gochugaru and gochujang substitutes.
What Makes Korean Hot Peppers Unique?
There is growing interest in Korean cuisine enabled by hallyu (the Korean wave) – the rising global popularity of South Korean pop culture. It is now ranking as the new Asian icon, alongside East Asian culinary powerhouses China and Japan, in the global gastronomy scene. Korean chili peppers are a strong force behind the latest Asian food craze.
Korean chili peppers ,also called gochu peppers, have a very distinct flavor – mildly spicy, slightly fruity, smoky and sporadically sweet (depending on the season). They start green and turn red as they mature. The green ones are eaten much like a raw vegetables, especially when eaten with barbecued meat.
Once they go from green to red, the red ones must be cooked in soups or stews or dried and then ground into gochugaru. Making gochugaru is one of the most popular culinary uses of Korean chili peppers, and many Korean families prefer to make their own.
The hot peppers are deseeded, either sun-dried (taeyang-cho), or oven-dried and then taken to local rice mills (called bangatgan) where the dried pods are ground to the preferred texture. Deseeding the peppers result in a more brilliant shade of red, so this is an important step. Gochugaru made from taeyang-cho are said to be more valuable due to the spice’s richer hue and more prominent heat.
Gochugaru Heat Level: Introducing Scoville
The Scoville scale is a measuring tool that determines that heat or pungency of hot peppers around the world. The scale measures the amount of capsaicin – the chemical compound found in hot peppers that causes heat – and assigns numerical value in Scoville Heat Units. The gochu pepper measures less than 1,000 SHU with the spiciest variety – cheongyangkochu – measuring at 3,000 SHU. It is botanically classified as Capsicum annum, along with Hungarian peppers, Sichuan peppers, Italian peppers and Greek peppers.
Gochugaru boasts a vibrant red hue and uniquely sweet & smoky element. The level of spiciness varies depending on the types of chilis used and the process it went through. The spiciest variety is known as maewoon gochugaru, while the least spicy one is called deolmaewoon gochugaru.
Gochugaru made from taeyang-cho is typically between 1,500 to 10,000 on the Scoville scale. It has a mild to medium heat level ranking in between sweet, tropical Rocotillo Pepper (1,500 – 2,500 SHU) and the earthy, salty Aleppo Pepper (10,000 SHU) on Pepper Scale’s Hot Pepper List. Gochugaru that are made from a specific varietal of Korean chilis called cheongyangkochu are spicier and come in between 4,000 and 10,000 Scovilles on the Scoville scale.
These vibrant Korean red pepper flakes or powder is responsible for the bright red orange hue in kimchi. It is also used to lend mild – moderate heat in banchan (Korean side dishes), cold salads, marinades, stews and so much more. Gochugaru is the primary ingredient in making another well-loved condiment in hansik – gochujang.
Gochujang, also known as Korean fermented red chili pepper paste, is made from gochugaru, fermented soy bean powder (called mejugaru), glutinous rice powder, and salt. The deep, rich, sweet, salty, spicy flavor of gochujang comes from its fermentation process – the paste is stored in clay pots and aged in full sun lasting from three to six months.
Gochujang is used in meat marinades, to amp up flavor and heat in dipping sauces, and as base for jjigaes (stews). Remember those dramas where the male or female leads queue at a pocha (a street stall) for some spicy tteokboki (simmered rice cakes in spicy broth)? Gochujang lends that spicy umami to the popular street food fare. Commercial manufacturers of Gochujang label their products based on the Gochujang hot-taste unit, ranging from 1 to 5 – (1) mild to (5) extremely hot.
Can Gochugaru Substitute for Gochujang?
Gochugaru and gochujang come from the same Korean red chili peppers. They vastly differ in taste, texture and production processes, making them not ideal alternatives for one another. While it is generally not recommended, there is no hard rule that says it cannot be done.
Here are some things to remember when swapping gochugaru and gochujang. Keep in mind that results will differ in flavor and consistency due to the substitution. Gochugaru is the primary ingredient in gochujang, but gochujang includes other ingredients and a fermentation process that allows it to reach that beautiful complex level of umami, with a thick and almost creamy consistency.
Gochugaru comes in fine powder or flake form, while gochujang is a paste. Swapping gochugaru for gochujang in classic Korean stews will not yield the same umami like flavors that you get from gochujang. The addition of gochugaru into the dish will only provide heat, smokiness and a tinge of sweetness but will lack the paste-like thickness added to your dish. Enter creativity.
The most basic way to substitute gochugaru with gochujang is to turn it into a paste-like consistency with rich umami flavors. An option would be to add a thick ingredient like bean paste (miso – Japanese fermented bean paste or doenjang Korean fermented bean paste) or even tomato paste to gochugaru to bring the texture closer to gochujang.
Next, build the flavor profile of the gochujang substitute to bring it closer to the umami flavor of the original. Consider adding a combination of salt, soy sauce, garlic powder, onion powder, sugar, honey, and maple syrup. Once you’ve recreated the flavors and texture of the gochujang substitute, you can now easily swap it.
Swap this homemade gochujang substitute for your usual paste in soups, stews and dipping sauces. In marinades, you can safely use either gochujang or gochugaru to add heat. Add extra flavor builders like soy sauce and sesame oil when using gochugaru, or thin out gochujang with sesame oil or water to swap the two.
On the other hand, when substituting gochujang for gochugaru, remember to season with caution. Gochujang is much saltier than gochugaru but will be a good alternative to seasoning stews, dipping sauces and even kimchi. Start by substituting 1⁄2 teaspoon of gochujang in a recipe that calls for 1 teaspoon of gochugaru and increase as the flavor calls for it.
Best Gochugaru Substitutes
The first on the list is Cayenne pepper because it is also sometimes used in Korean cuisine. It’s the most similar to gochugaru in terms of taste and texture. In particular, cayenne pepper flakes (sans the seeds) are most similar to gochugaru flakes in flavor, texture and color. While cayenne pepper flakes are quite akin to the Korean peppers’ spice level, take caution because it ranks at 30,000-50,000 SHU on the Scoville scale, making it way hotter than gochugaru.
When switching cayenne for gochugaru, you will get the same amazing color with more intense heat. Taper this by soaking your cayenne peppers in lukewarm water for 20 minutes. You can substitute roughly 3⁄4 teaspoon of cayenne for one teaspoon of gochugaru.
Next on the list is chipotle powder. Smoked and then dried jalapeno peppers that produce a spicy, smoky with a tinge of sweetness offers itself as a great substitute for gochugaru. Much like cayenne, it’s a close substitute for gochugaru in terms of flavor, heat and texture. It has a Scoville rating of 2,500 – 8,000 SHU, falling within the heat ranking of gochugaru.
When using chipotle powder in Korean cuisine note that it has a deep and smoky flavor, smokier than that of gochugaru. Use equal parts chipotle powder to gochugaru to replace.
Red Pepper Flakes + Paprika
Red Pepper flakes are ubiquitous. They are pretty common in home pantries but you might know them better as the ones you ask for in pizza and pasta joints to sprinkle over pepperoni pizza or pasta arrabiata. Red pepper flakes are a mix of peppers, like jalapeno, bell pepper, cayenne, Fresno, and Anaheim peppers, offering good balance of heat, color ,and texture. These form a good substitute to gochugaru when mixed with equal parts paprika.
Paprika is a staple in many kitchens. Its base is dried, ground red peppers and varies in taste from sweet and mildly hot to very spicy. Some paprikas are also smoky, especially if they originated from Spain. Paprika will add that energetic color and sweet peppery flavor to the dish, so grind up the red pepper flakes and mix with equal part paprika.
The heat from the red pepper flakes coupled with the flavors of the paprika makes this combination a viable substitute for gochugaru, though they also make a great addition to pizza sauce.
Best Gochujang Substitutes
Doenjang + Gochugaru
The best substitute for gochujang is dwenjang (Korean fermented bean paste) mixed with gochugaru. Doenjang is Korean fermented soy bean paste, and already contains the umami-like goodness that gochujang offers. All that’s left is to adjust the spice level and sweetness with gochugaru and sugar (or other sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, or agave).
Miso Paste + Gochugaru
Miso paste is made from fermented soybeans, salt and koji. It is a staple ingredient in Japanese cuisine, offering savoury, umami like flavors to dishes. To bring it to the level of gochujang, combine miso paste, gochugaru (or any of the gochugaru alternatives listed above), salt and sugar (or sweetener of choice).
Sriracha + Tomato Paste
Sriracha is a kind of hot sauce that is made from sun-ripened chilis turned into chili pepper paste, flavored with vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. The sauce is moderately spicy, getting its heat from jalapenos. Sriracha has great heat and good savory flavors, but really falls short in texture and sweetness.
Tomato Paste is a thick paste made from stewing tomatoes and then reducing them. It has a concentrated, almost meaty taste that is used to add a thicker consistency & strong flavor to many sauces. So that’s what we’ll do here. To create this gochujang replacement, simply emulsify sriracha with tomato paste, and season with salt and sugar to taste.