Almost a year ago, when I started cooking more Korean food, my husband and I came to the decision to stop cooking with 고추장. It started when I casually glanced at the list of ingredients and noticed the very first one listed was high fructose corn syrup, and that there were several other ingredients whose names I couldn’t even pronounce. What was in our 고추장? What should be in our 고추장?? So I started researching.
I read that sometimes the corn syrup on the English language ingredient list is a mistranslation of rice syrup, which is more commonly used in Korean cooking. I understand rice syrup because I know that sugar is necessary for fermentation, but I didn’t like the possibility of corn syrup (especially when listed as the first ingredient) or the presence of weird preservatives.
I also learned that although families back in the day had their own recipes for 고추장, these days a good quality 고추장 is generally agreed to contain the following ingredients:
-red pepper powder (고추가루)
-fermented soybean powder (메주가루)
-rice syrup (쌀엿)
Armed with this information, I asked my husband to check the 고추장 options the next time he went HMart in Atlanta for better quality one that didn’t contain questionable ingredients. To be honest, I thought he would just shrug off the corn syrup, the preservatives, the unpronounceable ingredients and just say we should go ahead and continue to use it, but he jumped into the project with as much enthusiasm as I did. He read all the labels, and even the organic and expensive 고추장 did not pass the test. Some even contained MSG.
Now, obviously there is high-quality 고추장 available for sale in Korea, but it’s very difficult to find good 고추장 in the US, even though many Koreans live here. So we started thinking about alternatives, and came up with a few options.
1. Spend a small fortune on a small amount of homemade or “artesinal” 고추장
There is a Korean 아줌마 living in our area who makes her own 된장 from scratch. This is actually so impressive to me because there are not many Korean people living here. My mother-in-law started buying from her instead of purchasing mass-produced 된장 a while back, and it is is delicious. It tastes so much better than conventional stuff. She sells it in a huge glass kimchi jar, and it’s too much for my mother-in-law to eat by herself, so she gives us a generous scoop or two whenever we are running low.
This system is great for us, since my husband told me that conventional 된장 contains the same kind of preservatives as 고추장 , so we are very happy to be eating super healthy homemade 된장. This lady also happens to make homemade 고추장. She called my mother-in-law a few weeks ago to try to sell her some, and guess how much she was asking for a quart sized bag full.
EIGHTY DOLLARS?!!! Even if you grow the red peppers yourself, harvest and dry them, and then make the paste from scratch like she apparently does, that $80 price tag is out of control.
Next, we turned to Amazon to see if we could access any of these high quality 고추장, but all we could find were a few “artesinal” 고추장 options. True, these had a much shorter list of high quality ingredients, but their price ranges from $13 to $30 for a 7 ounce container, and that is just crazily expensive as well.
So we quickly tossed those options by the wayside.
2. Make our own
Maangchi has a great article about how to make 고추장 from scratch, which you can read here. If you had any thoughts that it’s a simple, hands-off process, this will illustrate just how involved it is at every step of the way. I had neither the time, the space, nor the patience to delve into the world of homemade 고추장 and so that was simply out of the question.
As a side note, this article has a great picture of homemade 고추장 vs store-bought and there is a huge difference in the texture and color. It’s so interesting.
At this point, it was clear that our only recourse, other than just give in to the super-processed 고추장 available to us was to make substitutions, and the only possible substitution is a combination of 고추가루 and soy sauce.
So when we cook a dish that calls for 고추장, we simply dump a load of 고추가루 and some spoons of soy sauce in there until the dish has a desired level of spiciness. We will sometimes have to add extra garlic or onions or mashed green apple (which we use as a substitute for sugar or honey) to add some more robust flavor to the dish to make up for what we’ve taken away by removing the 고추장, but it seems to work pretty well.
We’ve been cooking with a combination of equal parts soy sauce and 고추가루, and less of garlic and black pepper. For example, today we made a big batch of 체육볶음 with 3 spoons 고추가루, 3 spoons soy sauce, 2 heaping spoons minced garlic (다진마늘), one spoon of 참기름, 1 minced Granny Smith apple, and a generous amount of black pepper (to take away the pork smell).
And it was delicious.
Unless we are able to find a good AND REASONABLY PRICED brand of 고추장, I think this is how we will cook from now on. It’s an easy and cost-effective alternative, it’s just as tasty as if we had used 고추장, and most importantly we aren’t putting weird things into our bodies.
If you have any suggestion for healthier 고추장 that won’t cost an arm and a leg, please let me know! I’m always looking for alternatives~