Gochujang is one of the better-known Korean seasonings and is a key part of many dishes that have become popular outside of Korea. You will need it to create an authentic flavor profile in many classic dishes like dakgalbi and bibimbap. If you are out of it and can’t find it quickly, there are some gochujang substitutes that you can use to achieve similar results.
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Your best bet: Make your own gochujang
It is possible to make a traditional gochujang at home. The ingredients are relatively easy to source in much of the world. They are basic and include soybeans and chili powder as the main elements.
The problem with making a traditional gochujang from scratch is that it is time-consuming, which means it is not ideal as an emergency solution. The emergency versions will require ingredients that will provide the heat of chili pepper and the umami from fermented soybeans, along with a little sweetness. Popular options include the blending of a chili powder with a fermented soybean paste.
If you want to keep your ingredients Korean, gochugaru and doenjang are what you should use. Options using non-Korean items include cayenne powder and miso or soy sauce. You should also add a sweetener to give that slight hint of sweetness that you get from gochujang.
A decent second choice: Sambal oelek
Like gochujang, sambal oelek has an Asian origin, but it comes from Indonesia rather than Korea. The most common version of sambal oelek in many places is the bottled version made by Huy Fong foods that consist mostly of ground chili peppers with some vinegar and preservatives added. That version will do a passable job at replicating gochujang since it will have a similar heat and color. Traditional Indonesian sambals can include umami sources like shrimp paste and may be a little more like gochujang. The Huy Fong version does have the benefit of being vegan like gochujang.
Characteristics that may make sambal oelek an imperfect gochujang substitute include the fact that it is not as thick or glutinous as gochujang. It will also be lacking the distinct soybean umami of the Korean sauce.
In a pinch: Ssamjang
A blend of two fundamental Korean sauces (one of which is gochujang), ssamjang is guaranteed to share many of its flavor notes with plain gochujang. The other component in the blend is doenjang, which boosts the umami note and helps create a sauce with some of gochujang’s heat and sweetness, but that is more intensely savory.
One of the key Thai condiments, nam prik pao is a seasoning paste that includes some of the flavor notes that you would get from gochujang. It has a similar mix of heat and umami. Instead of the chili pepper and soybean combination, it gets its flavor profile by blending chiles with shrimp paste or fish sauce as well as other ingredients like tamarind and ginger. Because it will typically include animal products, nam prik pao is not vegan like gochujang. Its texture is also different from that of gochujang. It is not as sticky because it contains no glutinous rice.
Tomato paste can be used as a gochujang substitute, but only if you are desperate. It does offer the red color that you would get from gochujang, and it has glutamates to provide some umami, but it won’t give you the other intense notes that you would get from the Korean seasoning paste.