Essential Guide to Korean Sauces and Seasonings (Part 1)

Time to read 8 min

Korean cuisine, known for its bold and complex flavors, relies heavily on an array of unique condiments, sauces, and seasonings. In Part I, here’s a look at some of these key liquid and paste sauces and seasonings. In Part II, we'll take a look at the key dry seasonings, such as gochugaru (chili powder) used in Korean cuisine.

Essential Guide to Korean Sauces, and Seasonings (Part 1 - Liquids & Pastes)

A Perfect Intro to Korean Cooking

Korean cuisine, known for its bold and complex flavors, relies heavily on an array of unique condiments, sauces, and seasonings. Here’s a deeper look at some of these key ingredients:

Key Sauces, and Seasonings in Korean Cuisine (Part 1 - Liquids & Pastes)

1. Gochujang (Korean Chili Paste)

Gochujang is a staple in Korean kitchens, known for its vibrant red color and unique combination of spicy, sweet, and umami flavors. It's made from a blend of red chili pepper flakes, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt. The fermentation process contributes to its deep, rich taste and makes it an excellent ingredient for enhancing stews, marinades, and sauces. It's a key ingredient in dishes like bibimbap and Korean fried chicken.

2. Doenjang (Soybean Paste)

Doenjang, a fermented soybean paste, is known for its rich, savory flavor and earthy aroma. It’s thicker and coarser than Japanese miso, offering a more intense taste. It's an essential component in Korean cooking, commonly used in traditional dishes such as doenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew) and as a seasoning in various other recipes. The fermentation process, which can take several weeks or even years, deepens its flavor profile, making it a crucial ingredient for adding depth to dishes.

3. Ssamjang (Seasoned Soybean Paste)

Ssamjang is a flavorful, thick paste that combines doenjang, gochujang, sesame oil, garlic, onions, and sometimes brown sugar. It's widely used in Korean barbecue, particularly as a condiment for ssam (lettuce wraps). Ssamjang’s rich, savory taste makes it a popular dip for fresh vegetables and enhances the flavors of grilled meats. It strikes a balance between spicy, sweet, and umami, making it versatile for various dishes.

4. Chunjang (Black Bean Sauce)

Chunjang is a black bean sauce made from fermented soybean. It has a distinctive slightly bitter and salty flavor profile. It's the key ingredient in jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles), where it's often fried in oil and mixed with other ingredients like pork, vegetables, and sometimes sugar to balance its flavors. Chunjang is unique to Korean cuisine, differentiating it from similar Chinese black bean pastes.

5. Chamkireum (Sesame Oil)

Chamkireum, also known as toasted sesame oil, is a highly cherished oil in Korean cuisine, renowned for its strong, nutty aroma and deep, rich flavor. Made from toasted sesame seeds, this oil is intensely flavorful, hence used in moderation. Just a few drops can transform a dish, adding a burst of flavor to marinades, dressings, and even soups. Chamkireum is often used as a finishing touch, drizzled over dishes just before serving to preserve its robust flavor and aroma. Its unique taste is not just limited to traditional Korean dishes; it's also incorporated into modern fusion cuisines, adding a touch of Korean essence.

6. Deulgireum (Perilla Oil)

Deulgireum, or perilla oil, is another staple in Korean cooking, derived from pressed perilla seeds. It has a distinct flavor profile, slightly different from sesame oil, with a lighter and somewhat minty, grassy undertone. This oil is less intense than chamkireum but still carries a unique aroma and taste that is crucial in certain Korean dishes. Deulgireum is particularly favored in dressings for cold salads and in seasoning vegetable side dishes. It's also used in marinating meats and as a base for stir-frying. The delicate flavor of deulgireum is essential in adding depth and a hint of earthiness to Korean culinary creations.

7. Aekjot (Fish Sauce)

Aekjeot, a staple in Korean cuisine, is a type of fish sauce that adds a distinctive umami flavor to various dishes. There are different kinds of aekjeot: Myeolchi Aekjeot, made from fermented anchovies and known for its rich and complex flavor, Kkanari Aekjeot, made from sand lance and offering a stronger taste, and Saeu-jeot, made from salted and fermented small shrimp and popularly used in seasoning side dishes. Each type of aekjeot imparts a unique depth and character to Korean cooking, showcasing the rich culinary traditions of Korea.

8. Mirim (and other Rice Wines)

Mirim, or Korean rice wine, is a versatile and important ingredient in Korean cooking, adding both flavor and functional benefits to a variety of dishes. Traditionally made from fermented rice, Mirim has a slightly sweet taste and is often used in marinades for meat and seafood, helping to tenderize the protein and eliminate any unwanted odors. Another type of Korean rice wine used in cooking is Cheongju, which is a clear, refined rice wine used for its subtle flavor, often added to soups and sauces for depth without overpowering the dish. Each type of rice wine brings its own unique set of flavors and characteristics to Korean dishes, enhancing them with a balance of sweetness and complexity.

9. Ganjang (Soy Sauce)

In Korean cuisine, soy sauce, known as Ganjang, is an essential ingredient with several distinct types, each serving specific culinary purposes. The main types of Korean soy sauce include:

  1. Yangjo Ganjang: This is a naturally brewed soy sauce, made by fermenting raw soybeans with natural yeast for a minimum of six months. It's considered a higher-grade soy sauce and is less salty compared to other types. Yangjo Ganjang is frequently used for seasoning vegetables in side dishes (banchans).
  2. Jin Ganjang: This type is a blend of Yangjo Ganjang and chemically brewed soy sauce, making it richer, saltier, and more affordable. It's commonly used in home cooking for various purposes, from marinating to seasoning dishes.
  3. Guk-Ganjang: This soy sauce is made from just soybeans, water, and salt. It's the saltiest among the soy sauces and is primarily used for seasoning soups.
  4. Mat-Ganjang: Known as flavored soy sauce, Mat-Ganjang includes additional ingredients like garlic, mushroom, or kelp for added flavor. It's versatile and can be used in various dishes.

10. Vinegars (Rice, Apple, Grain-Based)

Korean cuisine features a variety of vinegars, each contributing unique flavors to the culinary landscape. The most common type of Korean vinegar is made from fermented grains, predominantly rice, but it can also be made from other sources like barley or fruits.

  1. White and Black Korean Rice Vinegar: There are two primary types of Korean rice vinegar - white and black. The white variety is made from steamed rice and is known for its sweeter taste, while the black version is derived from steamed rice that has been fermented with a specific type of mold, giving it a stronger and more pronounced flavor. Both are used as condiments or flavoring agents in various dishes.
  2. Apple Vinegar: This is another popular type of Korean vinegar, characterized by its sweet and sour flavor. It's commonly used in salad dressings or as a dipping sauce.
  3. Grain-Based Vinegars: Korean vinegars made from grains like rice or barley undergo a fermentation process involving yeast and bacteria, which break down the grains to create a sour liquid. This liquid is then distilled to purify it.

11. Plain Syrups (Oligo, Corn, Rice)

In Korean cooking, various plain syrups are used for their sweetening and thickening properties. Here are some commonly used sweeteners in Korean cooking:

  • Oligosaccharide (Oligodang Syrup): A fructo-oligosaccharide extracted from vegetables and fruits, used for its dietary fiber and lower calorie content compared to sugar. It provides a neutral sweetness and glossy texture to dishes.
  • Corn Syrup (Mul-yeot): A clear, sweet syrup made from corn, often used in traditional Korean recipes for both sweetening and adding a shiny glaze.
  • Rice Syrup (Ssal-jocheong or Jocheong): Made with rice and barley malt powder, this syrup is thicker and has a malty, rich flavor. It's used for sweetening and adding gloss to various Korean dishes.
  • Honey: Occasionally used in Korean cooking for its natural sweetness and flavor, honey is sometimes substituted for other syrups in modern recipes.

12. Fruit Syrups (Plum, Quince, Ginger, Yuzu)

Korean cuisine also incorporates a variety of fruit and flavored syrups, each contributing unique flavors and sweetness to dishes:

  1. Maesil-cheong (Plum Syrup): This syrup is made from green plums and sugar, offering a sweet and tangy flavor. It's often used in marinades, dressings, and traditional Korean teas.
  2. Jocheong (Rice Syrup): A traditional Korean sweetener made from rice, Jocheong is known for its mild sweetness. It's used in various Korean dishes to add a subtle sweet flavor.
  3. Mogwa-cheong (Preserved Quince Syrup): This syrup is made from preserved quince and imparts a distinctive sweet and slightly tart flavor. It's often used in desserts and beverages.
  4. Saenggang-cheong (Preserved Ginger Syrup): Made from preserved ginger, this syrup adds a spicy-sweet flavor to dishes. It's used in both savory and sweet recipes.
  5. Yuja-cheong (Preserved Yuja Syrup): Yuja-cheong is made from the yuja fruit, a type of citrus, and is known for its unique sweet and tangy flavor. It's a popular ingredient in Korean teas and desserts.

As we conclude our exploration of the vibrant liquids and pastes that form the backbone of Korean cuisine, we invite you to continue your culinary journey with us in Part 2. Here, we will delve into the world of dry seasonings, including the iconic Gochugaru (Korean chili powder), and other essential spices that give Korean food its distinctive flavors and aromas. Join us as we uncover the secrets of these dry seasonings and learn how to use them to create authentic and delicious Korean dishes at home. Stay tuned for more insights and inspiration in the fascinating realm of Korean culinary artistry!

Peter Sung Kmeatbox

Peter Sung

Peter Sung, Kmeatbox co-founder, transitioned from over a decade in finance in 2022 with a fully-prepped Asian cuisine meal kit service. Through this venture, he met Steve Hong, a veteran in premium meat distribution, and the two decided to combine their expertise to build Kmeatbox - an innovative platform that aims to redefine the landscape of Korean cuisine by making authentic, high-quality, convenient meal solutions widely accessible. Peter, an MIT Mechanical Engineering alum, lives in NYC's suburbs with his wife and 4-year-old son, where he passionately pursues cooking whenever he can.

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