Once you get used to cooking with real gochujang, there’s no going back. The umami depth paired with a hint of sweetness and smack of spiciness is the star ingredient of many Korean dishes.
Truth be told, it’s not possible to replicate the same depth and balance of flavors that gochujang provides with any other ingredient. But you can get close, like real close, with a combination of a few ingredients.
There have been several times when either my pantry or the Asian store near me ran out of gochujang when I really needed it. This gave a purpose to try out substitutes. I plowed through various food blogs and forums and got some pretty interesting ideas. Some worked, some didn’t.
In this guide, I’m going to put together all the gochujang substitute ideas internet and experience taught me.
But before I get to that, let’s learn what gochujang is made of. Understanding what goes into this spicy-umami bombshell will help you understand the flavor profile and how to replicate it.
What’s in Gochujang?
The core ingredients of this glorious chili paste are crushed gochugaru / korean chili powder, fermented soybeans, glutinous rice, and salt. In an authentic gochujang, the sweet notes don’t come from any added sweetener.
The starch is glutinous rice convert into sugar during the fermentation process, giving the paste a natural sweetness. Some commercially produced gochujang pastes also contain yeotgireum or barley malt powder. A high-quality gochujang paste has a thickness of peanut butter. It’s a really thick paste and therefore, you need to thin it out a bit with rice vinegar to let it blend nicely into your dish.
How about Replacing Gochujang with Just Any Hot Sauce?
You can, you won’t go to jail for it but I would advise against it. Gochujang is a melange of different flavors like umami, salty, sweetness embedded with the formidable heat of gochu-garu – or Korean chili powder.
Some commercial hot sauces are amazing but expecting them to mirror the depth and character of gochujang would be a bit, silly, respectfully. I have seen people suggesting tomato paste as a substitute and I am perplexed.
There’s no tomato in gochujang. It doesn’t make sense. I’ll stop ranting and get to the point.
5 Legit Gochujang Substitutes That Won’t Let You Down
1. Quick & Simplified Homemade Gochujang Paste
The most logical thing to do to get authentic gochujang flavors without any gochujang is to make an easy version of it yourself.
You will need:
- Gochugaru or Korean red pepper powder that’s easily available online.
- Red miso paste and not white or yellow. The former is sharper, saltier, and exhibits more pungent and complex flavors due to the two-step fermentation process it goes through. It will help deepen the color of your paste as well.
- Rice vinegar.
- Honey or brown sugar.
- Sesame oil.
- Sake (completely optional).
How to prepare:
- Start with 4 tablespoons of gochugaru powder, and mix it in 1/2 cup of water. Halve the quantity of both to tone down the heat level.
- Then goes in 1 tbsp of red miso paste into the slurry. Thin it out with 1 tbsp rice vinegar, 1 tbsp sesame oil, 2 tbsp of honey or brown sugar, and a dash of sake if you have it.
Add a pinch of salt or simply skip it if you want since red miso paste already contains a generous amount of salt.
- Combine it with the chili slurry, and pour the mixture into a saucepan.
- Turn the heat to medium and let the mixture come to a boil.
- Keep stirring gently until the mixture thickens up and starts to bubble up.
- When you see the bubbles, turn off the heat and give it another good stir to make sure everything is well combined.
- Let the paste sit for about 15 minutes or until it reaches room temperature.
And voila! There you have it, a quick and easy but delicious homemade gochujang to level up your dish.
2. Hoisin Sauce
What if you can’t find gochugaru powder? Got some hoisin sauce in your pantry? Bring it to the table, add two tbsp in a bowl, then goes a tbsp of either red miso or Thai bean paste. Add a tbsp or a pinch of cayenne pepper and paprika (feel free to adjust the quantity of pepper).
Like gochujang, hoisin also contains fermented soybean paste with garlic and some spices. Hoisin can be intensely sweet, so I won’t recommend adding any additional sweetener to the mixture.
3. Red Pepper Flakes Paste
It’s not ideal but is an easy fix but sometimes, that’s all you need. In a mini glass bowl, take some pepper flakes, some dark soy sauce, and a tablespoon of honey or brown sugar.
It will emulate the sweet-salty-spicy flavors of gochujang but it will still not be the same. If you can get your hands on dark miso, go ahead and add a tablespoon.
If not, consider adding 2-3 tablespoons of hoisin sauce to the mix. Zhuzh up your Korean-style stir-fried chicken, pork, and beef with this paste and you won’t be missing out on much.
4. Thai Chili Paste
In terms of texture, Thai chili paste is much closer to gochujang than sriracha. On the downside, the garlic flavor is too strong in Thai chili paste but I am a sucker for garlic, so I don’t mind it.
Simply make a paste with dark miso, some soy sauce, and a drizzle of honey. You can also sprinkle a little bit of cayenne pepper for more heat.
5. Sriracha and Soy Sauce
Sriracha contains vinegar which gives it a sharp tanginess. To offset the acidity, add some honey or brown sugar. Finish it off with a tablespoon of dark soy sauce.
Add 1 tbsp of miso paste (red is preferred but light will also work, I guess) if it’s handy. I believe it would make your cheese tteok-bokki taste awesome, not authentic, but awesome, nonetheless.
To Sum Up
As a general rule of thumb, you need to sub gochujang with ingredients that have nearly the same flavor profile as fermented soy paste and gochugaru powder.
Depending on your spice tolerance, you can choose any hot pepper for the kick. You won’t sorely miss the smoky-sweet goodness gochugaru chili in slow-cooked, simmered dishes that contain lots of ingredients.
But for dishes like Korean stir-fried pork or bulgogi that obtain their unique characteristics from gochujang paste, it’s difficult to sub the core ingredient without compromising on the taste a tad bit.