10 Fiery Facts About Gochujang Chili Paste’s Spice Level

Gochujang chili paste offers a moderate to high heat level with a depth of flavor, scoring 1,000 to 10,000 SHU on the Scoville scale. Its unique blend of red chili peppers, fermented soybeans, and rice creates a rich, spicy, and slightly sweet profile, enhanced by the fermentation process. The paste’s heat is influenced by capsaicin levels and the choice of red peppers, with aging further maturing its flavor and heat. Gochujang’s ability to balance spice with sweetness makes it versatile in cooking, providing a warm depth to dishes.

Korean gochujang (red chili paste), spicy and sweet fermented condiment in Korean food

Gochujang chili paste is a staple in Korean cuisine, known for its distinctive spicy kick. This article dives into some fiery facts about the spice level of gochujang, exploring its heat, composition, and how it compares to other chilis.

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1. The Heat of Gochujang Paste

Gochujang and gochugaru, korean pepper paste

Gochujang chili paste delivers a moderate to high level of heat that can vary depending on the recipe and brand. The spiciness of gochujang is not just about the intensity but also the depth of flavor that it adds to dishes. The heat is gradual and complex, often described as a warming sensation that builds up as you eat.

The spiciness in gochujang comes from the red chili peppers used in its production. These peppers are carefully selected for their heat and flavor profile. The paste’s heat is balanced with other ingredients, such as fermented soybeans, glutinous rice, and salt, which add layers of flavor beyond just spiciness.

2. Scoville Scale and Gochujang

Korean chili paste on white background.

The Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) scale is the standard measurement of spiciness, and gochujang typically ranges from 1,000 to 10,000 SHU. This places it in the mild to moderate range when compared to other chili pastes and sauces globally.

However, the Scoville rating for gochujang can be misleading as it doesn’t account for the paste’s complexity. The fermented components and umami flavors in gochujang interact with the chili’s heat to create a more palatable and less sharp spiciness than raw chili peppers might suggest.

3. Gochujang’s Unique Spice Blend

Top view of Red chilli pepper seedless flakes in wooden bowl and dried red chili pepper on white background. ingredients in Korea known as Gochugaru. used for kimchi, spicy fermented condiment in Korean food

Gochujang is not just about chili peppers; it’s a harmonious blend of various ingredients contributing to its unique spice profile. The spice comes from a combination of Korean red chili powder, called gochugaru, which is mixed with fermented soybeans and glutinous rice.

This blend of ingredients creates a deep, rich, spicy, slightly sweet, and umami-packed flavor. The fermentation process also contributes to the development of gochujang’s unique spicy flavor, as it deepens and enriches the taste over time.

4. The Role of Capsaicin Levels

Gochujang (red chili paste), spicy and sweet fermented condiment in Korean food, Table top view

Capsaicin is the active component in chili peppers that provides the sensation of heat. In gochujang, the capsaicin levels are influenced by the type and quantity of red chili peppers used in the paste.

The fermentation process can also affect the capsaicin levels, as it can break down some of the compounds in chili peppers, potentially mellowing the heat. Nevertheless, the capsaicin in gochujang is still sufficient to produce a noticeable spicy kick that is beloved in many Korean dishes.

5. Fermentation Fires Up the Flavor

Fermentation is a key process in making gochujang, and it plays a significant role in both the flavor and spice level of the paste. As gochujang ferments, usually over months or even years, it develops a richer and more intense flavor profile.

The fermentation process can also alter the heat level of the chili peppers in the paste. While it can mellow out the raw edge of the spice, it simultaneously enhances the overall pungency and depth of the gochujang’s heat, making it a complex and layered spiciness.

In the video, The Korea Society explains –

  1. Fermentation has existed in Korean cuisine for thousands of years, with foods like kanjang (soy sauce), gochujang (red pepper paste), and kimchi being integral.
  2. Fermentation was historically important for preservation before refrigeration, as well as enhancing flavors and nutrition.
  3. Meju, made from dried soybeans, is the building block of many fermented Korean foods. It provides enzymes that start the fermentation process.
  4. Traditional onggi clay pots are well-suited for fermentation with their porous material. Many Korean homes had them buried in the ground.
  5. There are regional and household variations in fermented foods based on local ingredients and microbes present during fermentation.
  6. Commercial production has made some fermented products, like kanjang, more standardized based on Japanese methods starting in the early 20th century.
  7. Gochujang can be easily made at home by mixing meju powder, glutinous rice powder, chili powder, and other ingredients.
  8. Kimchi can be made with many different vegetables with the key being salt brining to remove moisture before adding seasonings.
  9. There is a spectrum of kimchi fermentation from the fresh, funky kochujang to the very aged, tangy mugenji kimchi.
  10. Small-scale artisanal production of traditional fermented foods in Korea persists today but has required preservation efforts.

The Korea Society

6. Comparing Gochujang to Other Chilis

Hot Spicy Red Sriracha Sauce in a Bowl

When compared to other chili pastes such as sriracha or harissa, gochujang has a unique position on the heat spectrum. It’s generally less fiery than the Thai-inspired sriracha, which can range from 1,000 to 2,500 SHU, and more akin to the warmth of North African harissa.

However, it’s important to note that gochujang’s heat is not just about the Scoville units; it’s about the way the heat is delivered. The balance of sweet, savory, and spicy elements in gochujang makes it a versatile and milder option for those who are sensitive to heat but still enjoy a touch of spice.

7. The Impact of Gochujang’s Red Peppers

gochujang -korean red chili paste, spicy and sweet fermented condiment in Korean food

The type of red peppers used in gochujang can significantly affect its heat level. Korean red chili peppers used in the paste are typically sun-dried, which concentrates their flavor and heat.

These peppers are ground into a fine powder known as gochugaru before being used in gochujang. The quality and heat of the gochugaru can vary, which in turn influences the final spiciness of the gochujang paste. Therefore, the choice of peppers is crucial in determining the heat profile of the paste.

8. Balancing Spice with Sweetness

Gochujang paste Korean food

One of the remarkable aspects of gochujang is its ability to balance spice with sweetness. The inclusion of glutinous rice in the paste contributes a subtle sweetness that complements the heat from the chili peppers.

This balance is what makes gochujang so versatile in cooking; it can be used to add a spicy-sweet flavor to marinades, sauces, and soups without overpowering the dish. The interplay between the heat and the sweetness defines gochujang’s unique taste.

9. How Aging Affects Gochujang’s Heat

gochujang -korean red chili paste, spicy and sweet fermented condiment in Korean food

Aging is another factor that influences the spice level of gochujang. As the paste ages, it undergoes chemical changes that can enhance its flavor and potentially alter its heat.

Traditionally, gochujang is left to ferment in earthenware pots called jangdok, which can be exposed to seasonal temperature variations. This aging process allows the flavors to meld and mature, often resulting in a more mellow heat that is deeply integrated into the complex flavor profile of the paste.

10. Tips to Handle the Heat Factor

Gochujang (red chili paste) in bowl prepare for cooking, spicy and sweet fermented condiment in Korean food

For those who are new to gochujang or sensitive to spicy foods, there are ways to enjoy its flavor without being overwhelmed by the heat. One method is to start with small amounts and gradually increase as your tolerance builds.

Additionally, pairing gochujang with ingredients that can temper the heat, such as dairy products or sweeteners, can help manage the spiciness. Mixing gochujang with mayonnaise or yogurt can create a milder sauce, while adding a bit of honey or sugar can balance the heat with sweetness, making it more palatable.

Gochujang chili paste’s spice level is a complex and nuanced experience that goes beyond sheer heat. With its unique blend of ingredients, fermentation process, and ability to balance spice with sweetness, gochujang adds a deliciously warm depth to any dish it graces.

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