For anyone with a passing interest in Korean cuisine, it’s no secret that more than a few dishes you find on popular Korean food lists are spicy. Or, at the very least, they look the part with their bright red color. Even fusion cooking utilizes pepper: peperoncino in pasta and pizza, chili oil for salads and steak, and copious use of famous gochujang pepper paste in sauces, dips, and marinades.
And, of course, when it comes to traditionally popular Korean food, the most popular warning is to watch out for the spice (or at the very least order what you want with cheese if that’s an option, so that dairy can cut through the heat). From teokbokki to stews, to kimchi, to ramyun, if a dish can be spiced up, it’s very likely to come with more heat than an average American is used to.
What can we say? Koreans love spicy food. Some companies, like Samyang, have even made manufacturing extra-hot products their brand signature. But even among those few who prefer their food on the milder side, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t add just a bit of gochugaru to their dishes, be it in the form of seasoning, or in a sauce, or a marinade.
Which brings us right to the topic of this article: what is gochugaru and why you need to know more about when and how to use it if you plan to take up cooking traditional Korean food every now and then.
What is Gochugaru?
First things first, let’s get the primary source of confusion out of the way. It’s common to confuse gochugaru with gochujang, the latter being a much more popular product among non-Koreans these days. So much so that even Word and Grammarly recognize the word, while I’ve yet to convince either that gochugaru isn’t a typo.
The confusion is understandable. The names are, after all, very similar, and there’s a reason for that. The terms are fairly direct and indicate that both products are made with gochu - a variety of red chili pepper, often straight-up called Korean chili pepper. The Korean word jang can be translated either as sauce or paste. Gochujang, accordingly, means red chili pepper paste (similar to how doenjang means thick sauce or ssamjang means sauce for wraps, i.e., ssam).
As for the Korean word garu, it can be translated either as flakes or powder.
So gochugaru could refer to either red chili pepper flakes or red chili pepper powder. As the name indicates, gochugaru indeed comes in both varieties. It can be ground very coarsely like standard flakes, a bit more finely but still resembling flakes, or very finely to make powder. Most manufacturers don’t differentiate between flake sizes, so they’re either labeled as Korean chili flakes or Korean chili powder.
Regardless, whether it’s Korean chili flakes or Korean chili powder you’ve decided to add to your pantry - it’ll be gochugaru either way.
How is Gochugaru Made?
Once the gochu (Korean chili pepper) becomes vibrant red in color to indicate it’s ready, it’s harvested and thoroughly cleaned. There’s no definite time for gochu harvesting. They can be picked right after they turn red, or they can be fully ripened until the color starts getting darker. The more mature the peppers, the spicier the final product.
An interesting tidbit about gochugaru is that it’s always made solely from the pepper’s flesh, no matter how spicy it’s supposed to be.
Once the peppers have been harvested and cleaned, they’re carefully opened on the side to shake out all the seeds.
After de-seeding them, the peppers are dried. Traditionally peppers for gochugaru are supposed to be dried in the sun, taking between 3 to 4 weeks, depending on the humidity and temperature. The sun-dried peppers are once again thoroughly cleaned after fully drying to ensure there are no dust particles in the final product. Then they’re milled to the coarseness of the maker’s desire.
In the busy modern world, when manufacturers need to produce Korean chili flakes and Korean chili powder by the ton every single day, some of them resort to drying their gochu in the industrial dehydrators, which have them fully dry in hours (the longest a dehydrator takes is up to 12 hours).
Many Korean households, especially in the rural areas, prefer making their own gochugaru to this day. There’s a belief that gochugaru made with sun-dried peppers is more flavorful than one produced through industrial means.
Those who share this belief but live in urban areas (and have no space and time to dry their own chili and grind their own powder) usually seek out Korean chili flakes or powder labeled as taekyung or taeyangcho. This indicates that the manufacturer has sun-dried the peppers used in their gochugaru. These varieties typically cost a bit more than those made with non-sun-dried peppers, and many Chefs agree that overpaying for the good stuff is worth it.
There is, by the way, a Korean company by the name of Tae Kyung that produces both sun-dried Korean chili flakes and powder.
That said, it seems the majority of Koreans are perfectly fine with industrially produced gochugaru. Korean chili flakes (or powder) are well-known for their intense, complex, smoky flavor. You can safely use packaged gochugaru for traditional recipes without worrying about sacrificing the flavor.
How Many Types of Gochugaru Are There?
Depends on how you’re trying to differentiate between the types of gochugaru.
Firstly, there’s the grind. There are two major types: Korean chili flakes (coarsely ground gochugaru) and Korean chili powder (finely ground gochugaru).
Secondly, there’s the drying method. Again, there are two major types: the peppers can either be sun-dried (in which case the label will be marked either as taekyung or taeyangcho) or dried in industrial dehydrators (in which case the label likely won’t indicate the drying method at all).
And lastly, there’s the level of spiciness, which can be a bit more complicated.
In a very rough way, gochugaru can, once again, be divided into two major groups by the spiciness level: dol maewoon indicates moderately spicy gochugaru, while maewoon is spicy gochugaru.
In reality, it can be a bit more complicated. Gochugaru spiciness can vary from 1,500 Scoville Heat Units up to 10,000 Scoville Heat Units, depending on how mature the gochu was when harvested. This is mainly dependent on the manufacturer. Certain dol maewoon varieties can be very mild, while others can be overwhelmingly hot for those who aren’t used to spicy food. Maewoon gochugaru, on the other hand, is a touch more dependable. You can pretty much always count on it to be made from mature peppers and close to 10,000 SHU than not.
What is Gochugaru Used for?
Gochugaru is, quite possibly, the most oft-used seasoning in popular Korean food, aside from maybe salt and perhaps, soy sauce.
Korean chili flakes are used with overwhelming frequency both as an independent seasoning for traditional dishes like soups and stews, like kimchi-jjigae (kimchi stew), doenjang-jjigae (soybean stew), sundubu-jjigae (tofu stew), yukgaejang (spicy beef stew), buddae-jjigae (Korean army stew), noodle soup broths like jjampong (Korean seafood soup).
But they are also frequently used as an additional flavoring for sauces, marinades, and dips, as well as a flavoring element for kimchi, and one of the main ingredients in the famous gochujang it so often gets mixed up with.
The powder variety of gochugaru is most often used for these purposes. Though, aside from gochujang flavoring (flakes are seldom used in gochujang), flakes can almost always be used to substitute for the powder. The only other exception that comes to mind is Nabak Kimchi (a variety of mild and refreshing water kimchi made with radish and cabbage).
Sometimes Korean chili flakes are even used alongside gochujang for stew bases and marinades, despite gochugaru already being used to flavor gochujang.
How Long Does Gochugaru Last?
While your gochugaru packet will most likely have a “best by” date labeled somewhere on there, it’s not a good idea to drag the use out for very long.
Gochugaru, like most other spices, doesn’t expire per se. At least, if you consume it after the best by date has gone by, it isn’t very likely to make you sick (unless, of course, you consume the stuff by the fistful, but that would wreak havoc on your digestive system regardless of how old it is).
That said, it does fall into the same trap as other spices. The quality of its flavor and aroma components degrades over time, and after a certain threshold, it becomes too noticeable to be enjoyable. Using up the entire pack of gochugaru would be most optimal in the first couple of months after opening. In this time period, the flavor and aroma are the most intense, and there’s no quality degradation noticeable at all.
But, if properly stored, you can stretch your open pack of gochugaru for up to six months. By the end of this deadline, the degradation in spice quality will become noticeable to more sensitive palettes that know what to look for when tasting Korean chili flakes, but most people add them to dishes to amplify spiciness and sparing little thought to more complex undertones gochugaru provides, will notice little if any difference.
How to Store Gochugaru:
Like most other spices, gochugaru is sensitive to high temperatures and humidity. It will need to be protected from air currents and stored in a cool, dark place.
Ideally, after opening the pack of gochugaru, you’d transfer it to an airtight container and store it either in the pantry (if your kitchen is cool) or the fridge.
If you have no containers to spare for gochugaru, at least make sure to thoroughly clinch the top part of the pack where you’ve made the hole, and preferably use a clip to hold it closed.
Maangchi, possibly the most famous internet-Chef that has been teaching English-language audiences how to cook popular Korean food for years, advises dividing gochugaru into smaller portions, placing them in ziplock bags, and storing them in a freezer to prolong the shelflife.
Can I Substitute Gochugaru With Other Peppers?
Frankly speaking, this has been a topic of debate for quite some time now. Some chefs believe that gochugaru is irreplaceable if we want to achieve authentic Korean flavors in our cooking (unless we’re replacing it with gochujang, and even that can be iffy depending on the recipe). Others believe there is no single seasoning that can replace gochugaru, but a combination of a few may work. Others, still, find several other pepper varieties to be close enough to gochu that they can substitute Korean chili flakes without much fanfare.
Let’s break down the most common pepper flakes and powders to see how they compare.
Standard chili powder is usually made by combining several pepper varieties. It can often include cayenne, paprika, and Aleppo peppers (when not used interchangeably for either of them, which can happen quite often). Chili powder is often mild, with a flavor profile that can be unidentifiable. It can be used as a substitute for dol maewoon gochugaru if you’re adding it for heat only, not for flavor complexity.
Red Pepper Flakes
Crushed red pepper flakes are similar to chili powder in that they can either be made from a mix of several pepper varieties or be interchangeably used for different dried peppers, like jalapeno, cayenne, Fresno chili, etc. Typically, European and American red pepper flakes do not have the complex, smoky aroma of gochugaru (especially the sun-dried gochugaru), but they can be used to up the heat. It will change the final flavor of the dish, but not critically.
Paprika powder is a good option if you care about the visual of your dish. It will provide the same vibrant red color as gochugaru.
As for the taste, there are three different types of paprika, and each of them brings different flavor notes to the dish.
Sweet paprika probably has the least to do with gochugaru flavor-wise. It’s also relatively mild, milder than dol maewoon gochugaru, so it wouldn’t make a good substitute.
Smoked paprika has spicy and smoky flavor notes similar to gochugaru and thus can be a good substitute if you need to amplify the complexity of flavors in your dish, but can be on the milder side.
Hot paprika is typically considered to be the best alternative among the three due to the heat element, but it lacks the complexity of smoked paprika. Honestly, combining the latter two would likely work out the best.
Cayenne pepper is not the best substitute, primarily due to the heat. Even maewoon gochugaru is 10,000 SHU at max, while cayenne pepper spiciness varies between 30,000 to 50,000 SHU.
Aleppo pepper flakes use Halaby peppers and can be a tad spicier than gochugaru. However, they have a robust, complex flavor profile and vibrant red color that can work well as a gochugaru substitute if the chef is careful with the amount used.
Chipotle seasoning is made with smoked and dried jalapeno chilies and is characterized by a smoky aroma and mild heat, similar to dol maewoon gochugaru. It can be an excellent substitute for dishes that don’t prioritize heat over flavor complexity.
Where to Buy Gochugaru:
You can look for most of the gochugaru varieties described in this text in your local Asian or, specifically, Korean grocery store. But if you want to spare yourself time and effort, you can browse through the gochugaru selection here at Yummy Bazaar, where we provide multiple options for Korean chili flakes and powders.