Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How to Make Gochujang (and Dwenjang and Soy Sauce)

Dear Korean,

If you were unable to get the gochujang in the ready-made container, would you be able to make it using some more common ingredients, say ones found at your average health food store? Do you think it could be approximated by mixing soy miso and hot harissa?


First of all, a huge, honking NO to the abominable recipe involving miso and harissa. You may as well be working on getting dogs to mate with cats. Good lord, have you no respect for the natural order of things?

The other question, however, deserves more attention. Can one make gochujang with common ingredients found at a regular health food store? This may surprise people, but the answer is yes--as long as you have several months to spare. In order words, obtaining the ingredients is not the hard part; it is the skill and patience it takes to create the finished product. 

Even if you only buy gochujang from the store (as vast majority of Koreans do,) it would be helpful to know just how that sauce is made. A lot of people, for example, do not know that gochujang and soy sauce are related. If you didn't know that either, read on; you might find this interesting.

Meju: the Daddy

Everyone who has had gochujang knows that it is a type of paste. But what is the paste made out of? Answer: beans--fermented soy beans, to be more precise. Thus, in order to make gochujang, you have to start by fermenting some beans. Through long historical experience, Koreans developed the best way of fermenting beans. This is done by creating meju [메주], a block of ground beans. Both dwenjang and gochujang are made from meju, which makes meju the daddy of them all.

To make a meju, start by soaking soybeans in water for 12 hours or more. After the soybeans are soaked, boil them in high heat until the water comes to boil, then in medium heat, for approximately two hours until the beans are soft. Drain the beans until they are dry. While the beans are still warm, bring the softened beans into a mortar, and mash them with a pestle.

Mashing the boiled soybeans into paste
With the mashed soybeans, form a solid block. This block is called meju. A meju can be as large as a big brick, but it can be smaller. Koreans would usually use a frame, in which the mashed soybeans are stuffed, to create a block. But it is fine to just use your hands. (Aside: meju is also an old timey slang term for an ugly face.)

Monks and visitors of Daeheung Temple, making meju. One can see the
frame for making meju out of the soybean paste, which is in the tub.
Once the blocks are made, they have to be dried. Place the meju at a sunny location with plenty of ventilation, and dry them for seven to ten days. Then comes the exciting part--the fermentation. Place the dried meju in a warm room (around 77 to 83 degrees) for around two weeks, which is usually enough time for the mold to grow on its surface. Ideally, you want to use straws made from rice stalks to place the meju, as the microbes that make the best meju tend to live in those straws. 

Meju with fresh mold beginning to grow on the surface
It takes time for meju to fully ferment. Traditionally, Koreans would hang the meju with mold from the roof, and let it ferment for several months. Fresh soybeans are harvested in the fall, which means the meju hangs and ferments throughout the winter.

Hanging the meju to ferment.
Intimidated by this process? You should be. Like many other fermented foods like wine and cheese, this process requires delicate care. One misstep and the batch can be ruined. The process is so delicate that traditionally, Koreans had a series of elaborate rituals surrounding the sauce-making. A traditional Korean family would select a day of good fortune for making the sauce. For three days before the sauce-making day, the lady of the house would not leave the house, and refrain from having sex. For three weeks after the sauce-making day, the household members were not allowed to attend a funeral.

But if you live in Korea, you're in luck--all this can be skipped because there are many places that sell meju powder, i.e. powder made up of meju blocks that already finished fermenting. Although if you really didn't want to invite your date upstairs, you can always say: "Sorry, I am making gochujang tomorrow."

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Making Soy Sauce

"Wait, what? I thought we were making gochujang!" Relax--in order to get to gochujang, we have to go through soy sauce (ganjang [간장] in Korean) first. So let's press on.

First, clean the meju with a brush, in order to take off all the dust and mold that it accumulated for the last several months. Then dry the clean meju in the sunlight for two or three days to disinfect. Prepare a jar and place the clean meju. For additional flavor, add dried peppers and dates on top. Then fill jar with salt water--four parts water, one part salt. 

The delicious fermentation process

The meju in the salt water solution should ferment for another 40 days. The lid should be kept on for the first three days. Then on sunny days, the lid should be kept open to give the warmth necessary for the microbes to grow. (Obviously, the lid should be closed on rainy days.)

The salt water that absorbed the flavor from the fermented meju blocks is ... soy sauce. After 40 days, drain the soy sauce and use a sieve to clear out any particle. Boil the freshly collected soy sauce once to kill the microbes and enhance the flavor.

Making Dwenjang

We are now about four months into the process, but we still need another month for dwenjang. After soy sauce is drained from the jar, the softened meju blocks should be mashed into paste. To enhance the flavor, add some of the soy sauce back into the mashed paste.

The mashed paste should go back into the jar, then covered by a layer of salt. Use the same method--i.e. opening the lid when sunny--to ferment the paste for another month or so. Ta-da! You have your dwenjang.

Freshly made dwenjang.
One note: if you dared to actually try this process, you might notice that the flavor and consistency of homemade dwenjang are dramatically different from the store-bought kind. The mass produced dwenjang adds carbohydrates and other microbes to make the fermentation process go faster, which significantly changes the flavor profile. This is one of the reasons why TK insists that there is no real Korean food outside of Korea: because even in the U.S., home of 1.7 million Korean Americans, there is virtually no dwenjang made with the traditional method. 

Finally, Making Gochujang

Gochujang is not just spicy; it is also sweet. But how? Korea never had the climate for growing sugar. In order to create sweets, Koreans processed barley. So this is the first step in making gochujang.

Get whole barley grains, wash them well and soak them for a day. After being soaked, drain the barley grains and keep them covered with a damped cloth. Repeat this process for several days. Around the fifth day, the barley grains begin the sprout. At this point, separate the barley grains and dry them. 

Barley grains with sprouts
The sprouted barley is called yeotgireum [엿기름]. The sweet flavor is in the sprout of the barley; this is how Koreans traditionally made different types of Korean desserts, like sikhye [식혜, a type of rice punch.]

Soak the yeotgireum in warm water, which causes the sugar to dissolve out of the sprouts. Prepare flour (ideally made of sweet rice), and boil the flour so that in turns into a thick paste. Strain the yeotgireum water and thin the paste.

Then comes the fun part: putting in pepper powder [고춧가루, gochugaru]. Put in plenty to make sure the paste is actually spicy. Finally, in the pepper-rice flour-sweet water concoction, add mashed up meju. Put the entire batch into the jar, and ferment in the sun. It can be ready as quickly as in a week, but it may ferment for years.

Fermented gochujang in the jar. The top part is dried into a crust,
but the inside has that familiar look.

(Note: professional sauce makers actually use a different type of meju that is specifically created for gochujang. That is, they make different types of meju for dwenjang and gochujang.)

So, can you make gochujang with some items from the health food store? Absolutely. At the end of the day, all you need are soybeans, barley, salt, rice flour--and only about six months of your time.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. Nice article, TK. Although, is this sentence a typo?

    "After the soybeans are soaked, boil them in high heat until the water comes to boil, then in medium heat, for approximately two years until the beans are soft."

    The beans would probably disintegrate if you boil them for two years!

  2. Maangchi made a video and post about hand-making gochujang, http://www.maangchi.com/recipe/gochujang

  3. If you're looking for meju in the corner grocery, you probably won't find it, but meju powder is available online.
    There is a simple (sort of) recipe for making gochujang using meju powder in Hi Soo Shin Heppinstall's book "Growing up in a Korean Kitchen." She also covers making soy sauce and dwenjang, but those require meju blocks.

    1. Not the same... you can't use the powder to make soysauce. It doesn't have enough mold, etc.

  4. When I read the ingredients' list of a Kochujang, I see they put rice too, so I guess modern industry made pastes are different from the well described traditional recipe provided in this article. Naturally I'd assume the barley part was replaced with rice, probably because it's cheaper. But then, more recently, I've seen a company advertise they use brown rice (Hyeonmi) instead of regular white rice for their new products, and it was the main point in one of those short TV adverts you get inbetween programs. So I got the feeling rice would be essential, but then, it's naive to base your knowledge on some advert, isn't it? eheheh Maybe brown rice is still cheaper than barley? I think so, if I remember correct, when buying from the supermarket. I'd appreciate if anyone could explain this part to me a bit more.

  5. It's amazing that Koreans had this knowledge hundreds and hundreds of years ago! It makes you wonder how they thought to do a months-long process in making these sauces/pastes.

  6. Hmm... I think I'd rather travel for an hour or so to my nearest Korean market, honestly D: But it was really interesting learning about the process- it makes me really curious to try the actual thing.

  7. I absolutely agree that there are no replacements for gochujang. Not harissa, not hot pepper paste mixed with soy bean paste, not other pastes.

    It takes a lot of time and reading the article made me realise that it is extra hard to make if you live in the city because there is not a clean aired area for drying the blocks.

  8. Its amazing..It takes a lot of time and reading the article..

    Best Online Shopping Site in India

  9. I've done both--but it's tricky to do without the rice straw. And sourcing untreated rice straw is difficult within the US.

  10. Well, I'm finally embarking on this adventure with soaking the soy beans tonight. Very frustrating that even in this rural farming community, I had to hit a Winco 30 miles away to find raw soy beans... but they had mung beans too, which is another rare find around here, so the trip was worth it. Made me laugh that while I was paying for my mung beans, the lady behind me was buying sealed bags of rinsed and stemmed bean sprouts!

    The next problem is sproutable barley to make the malt powder. I can buy rolled barley for livestock easily, but apparently nobody actually grows the stuff in this area, and the beer makers prefer to skip the sprouting stage and just buy malt syrup from a manufacturer. I may have to order in a 50 lb sack of barley seed from the farm co-op in order to sprout/malt some, in which case I'll just devote some space below the greenhouse to sowing the rest for a crop next spring. Rice straw is a similar problem -- no rice grown here, but if I can find some seed that isn't polished to the point of not being sproutable, then I'll grow my own next year, even if it's just for the stalks and leaves. Our latitude is similar to Korea's, but despite hot summer days, our nights are cool, creating a difference in how crops grow. Can play with oat and/or wheat straw out in the barn to make twine for hanging, in anticipation of rice straw next year, I suppose. Twine-making is the same principal as wool-spinning which I have long-since mastered.

    In the meantime, I'm brainstorming ways to get all 15 gallons of dried gochu peppers from the garden seeded and crushed. Disheartening to watch documentaries of people bringing sacks to the rice mills in small towns of rural Korea, but not having any similar resource here. Will have to play with the food processor to see if the right texture can be achieved. Re-creation of traditional foods without traditional resources is a real chore sometimes!


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...