Korean food is having a very nice moment, and deservedly so. The flavors are at once comforting and exciting, and Korean ingredients are some of my very favorite foods to cook with these days.
Many of the ingredients that star in Korean cooking are used in other Asian cuisines to be sure, but it’s the way that they are combined that result in dishes that are the hallmark of this country’s food. And of course you can apply these flavors to dishes that are perhaps not quintessentially Korean, but that benefit from some of these seasonings and give them a Korean flair.
The first word to know when getting started in Korean cooking is the word “jang” which signifies a type of fermented soy. Jang features in the names of many quintessential Korean ingredients, such as ganging (soy sauce), gochujang (chili paste) and doenjang (soybean paste). These soy-based foods are part of the underpinning of this umami-filled cuisine.
There are also plenty of prepared Korean sauces on the market, including many barbecue sauces and marinades. Obviously these are potential shortcuts to get to dishes like classic Korean bulgogi.
Some brands to look for when choosing Korean ingredients: Chung Jung One, Sempio and Mother In Law’s.
Gochujang is a classic Korean hot paste, traditionally made with chili peppers, fermented soybeans, brown sugar, glutinous rice and salt (much more delicious than that list of ingredients would have you believe). Take a glance at the ingredient list to make sure there is no corn syrup in the container you choose. Put a bit into salad dressings, marinades, sauces, chilis, stir fries, anywhere you need a bit of slightly fruity heat.
Use gochujang in:
Gochugaru is the chili powder of Korea, again with a bit of fruitiness blending in with the heat. It is available in coarse ground and fine ground, and while novice Korean cooks would be fine with either one, in Korea there are specific uses for each version. The coarse ground is the most commonly used version. Look for a bright red color, which indicates the chilies were sun dried vs. oven dried.
Add some gochugaru to this Spicy Sesame Asian Marinade.
Doenjang is basically the Korean version of miso paste, a fermented paste made from soybeans. It is rich and salty with a deep umami flavor (umami is the fifth taste, which translates roughly to the word savory). It is often processed with wheat, which adds a light note of sweetness to the paste, so be aware of that if you have a gluten intolerance.
Use doenjang in:
- Shrimp, Sugar Snap Pea and Scallion Stir Fry with Miso Sauce
- Blistered Green Beans with Miso Butter
- Carrot, Cabbage and Kohlrabi Slaw with Miso Dressing (but sub doenjang for the miso!)
Ganjang (Soy Sauce)
Soy sauce is pretty much the backbone of any type of Asian cooking, and it features heavily in Korean food. It’s extraordinarily versatile, a very dark colored sauce that is brewed from soybeans and wheat, with a rich, salty taste. You can use soy sauce for dipping, on its own or as part of a more complex sauce, marinating and cooking. It is often used in Korean soups as well.
Korean soy sauce might be labeled ganjang, and may be a bit lighter in color than Japanese soy sauces. There are different types of ganjang available, as serious Korean cooks use different types for different purposes. Sempio and Chung Jung One are two popular brands of Korean soy sauce.
Try soy sauce in:
Made from toasted sesame seeds, this beautifully amber colored oil has a distinct, nutty and aromatic flavor. Don’t buy raw or untoasted sesame oil — it will not have the same deep rich flavor. It's used as a condiment or seasoning, often added at the end of cooking a dish to preserve its wonderful flavor. It’s quite strong, so use it in small amounts. In Korean cooking it is often used in stir-fries, rice dishes and dipping sauces. Store it in the fridge after opening.
Use sesame oil in:
Kimchi is essentially salted, preserved, fermented cabbage, perhaps mixed with other vegetables, most frequently Korean radish. Fermentation is a big part of the Korean food world, as the country has major temperature swings throughout the year, and fermented products were an essential way to store perishable foods in extreme heat and cold. Kimchi was (and is) traditionally stored in ceramic containers buried in the ground to keep it cooler in the summer, and prevent it from freezing in the winter.
It is usually spicy, sometimes extremely spicy, seasoned with gochugaru, and often includes other seasonings such as garlic or ginger. There and thousands of types of kimchi varying from region to region, house to house. Many Koreans make it themselves, but you can easily buy it. Kimchi is served with pretty much every meal as a side dish. Store in in the refrigerator.
Use kimchi in these dishes:
- Try it in Spicy Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Kimchi Dressing
- Serve itwith Korean-Style Grilled Short Ribs
- Or, try making Watermelon Rind Kimchi!
- Korean dishes to try tonight
- Indian dishes you can make at home
- Better-for-you versions of your Chinese favorites
- Thai dishes you'll love