When it comes to Korean cooking, you can’t get much more foundational than jang, the soy-based fermented sauces that you’ll find in almost every dish. It’s usually jang that brings that salty, spicy, umami funk to your food. While there are many kinds of jang, most Koreans will have three essential varieties in their kitchens: ganjang (soy sauce), doenjang (soybean paste), and gochujang (chile paste). You’ll find them in soups, banchan, meat dishes, marinades, dipping sauces... just about everywhere you need seasoning, really.
Jang goes back centuries. Every household made their own jang in onggi—porous, breathable earthenware jars that allow air and moisture to pass through and aid fermentation. In the decades after the war, a newly-industrialized food industry supplied new city-dwellers and working families with factory-produced jang packaged in plastic containers. Very recently, with rising incomes and renewed interest in Korean heritage and “well-being” health foods, a small market is opening up for traditionally-made jang, often sold in specialty grocery stores. This spring, I visited one of these artisanal jang-makers in a valley near Damyang, South Jeolla Province. Master Ki Soon-do has been making jang for over 40 years, ever since she married into an aristocratic family with a 360-year history of jang-making.
Master Ki is a tall, graceful woman in her seventies who speaks gently and politely with us, despite our age difference. She doesn’t talk about the fact that the government has designated her as a Korean Food Grand Master, or that she’s been featured on countless TV programs and magazines. Instead, she talks about her life’s work: making artisanal jang and keeping this tradition alive. “People need to know that traditional Korean soy sauce and doenjang have just three ingredients: soybeans, salt, and water,” she tells us as we sample her jang: amber-hued young soy sauce, ink-dark aged soy sauce, butterscotch-toned doenjang, and deep vermillion gochujang. We sit on the floor around a low table with the open doors overlooking the grounds. Classic Korean instrumental music plays on the outdoor speakers, accompanied by birdsong and the rustling of bamboo. And in the center of it all sits row upon row of onggi filled with different kinds of jang.
Making jang is a time-consuming process. After the fall harvest, you boil soybeans and shape them into large blocks called meju. The meju are hung up to age with rice straw, which helps inoculate them with microbes that begin to ferment the soy. After the aging and drying is complete, usually mid- to late winter, the meju are then soaked in salt water inside the onggi. By spring, it’s time to pull out the meju, now softened and salty, to age as soybean paste, while the brine, now dark and flavorful, ages as soy sauce. “This is what makes Korean soy sauce and doenjang different from Japanese soy sauce and miso,” explains Korean food expert Seoyoung Jung, who co-founded the website Bburi Kitchen. “We Koreans create our soy sauce and doenjang together in the same jar, like twins from one mother.”
Gochujang is a little different. You mix rice flour porridge, chile powder, salt, powdered meju, and malted barley water, then age this mixture for several months or longer. There are regional variations: People in different regions might use different grains, for example, and Master Ki’s version is extra dark, because she uses soy sauce in place of salt. But all traditionally-made jang is fermented in onggi for a year or more, using the age-old ingredients of air, sun, and time. Some aged soy sauces command hundreds of dollars. If you’re lucky enough to come across onggi-fermented jang in a Korean grocery store, it can cost double or triple the price of commercial jang.
For advice on how to choose and cook with jang, I turned to Seoyoung. We met when I took her class on cooking with doenjang in Seoul three years ago. Seoyoung first trained in classical French cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America, but found her passion in Korean food while working for years at a Korean fermentation company in Seoul. Later, Seoyoung invited me to join her on a year-long project traveling around the Korean countryside interviewing grandmothers and farmers about local food. That year turned into three years, with plenty of stops at traditional jang-makers along the way. At any given moment, Seoyoung’s fridge is stocked with dozens of jang containers battling for space, all of different ages and regions. Even in Korean grocery stores abroad, the jang aisle can be overwhelmingly well-stocked. This is a quick guide to help you get started.
Ganjang is used for seasoning meat and vegetables, in soups and dipping sauces, as well as for pickling and preserving. The ganjang selection is often the most varied in even small grocery stores. “You have to check the ingredients first,” says Seoyoung. “Traditional Korean soy sauce uses only soybeans, salt and water and has no other additives. Japanese-influenced soy sauce will have wheat, which makes it sweeter.” Though there are dozens of names for different kinds of ganjang, she recommends knowing three basic categories: guk-ganjang, yangjo ganjang, and jin-ganjang. “Guk-ganjang, or soup soy sauce (also called Joseon ganjang) is the most traditional with just the three main ingredients. This is what everyone used before industrialization. People use guk-ganjang to season their soup and vegetables, but use it carefully because it tends to be stronger and saltier than other kinds of soy sauce.”
Next is yangjo ganjang, which is one of the most commonly-used soy sauce types in Korea today. Like guk-ganjang, it’s fermented using microbes to break down the soy proteins, though there is one key difference. “Yangjo ganjang is a Japanese-influenced soy sauce that contains wheat, which makes it noticeably sweeter, so keep that in mind when you’re cooking,” says Seoyoung. “It’s good for dipping sauces and cooking, and it’s also a little less expensive than guk-ganjang.”
Finally, there’s jin-ganjang. “The name jin-ganjang is actually somewhat misleading. ‘Jin-ganjang’ used to refer to a deep and richly-flavored soy sauce that has been aged for years upon years,” she says. “But now, the jin-ganjang you’ll find in grocery stores is the cheapest soy sauce out there.” The soy proteins are broken down chemically and it doesn’t have any of the complex flavors that fermented ganjang has. “If you care about flavor, go for yangjo or guk-ganjang. But if you’re working with volume, like when pickling or braising, jin-ganjang can be a good, affordable option.”
Doenjang is another ingredient that you’ll find in every Korean fridge. It goes into all kinds of vegetable banchan, forms the base of soups and stews, and is used for dipping sauces and sometimes marinades. To those more familiar with Japanese cuisine, it may resemble miso, though traditional Korean doenjang (like soy sauce) is made with just soybeans, salt, and water. “These days, some Koreans are saying that traditional doenjang is a little bitter, so a lot of commercial products are making sweeter doenjang to appeal to a younger market. But try the simpler, traditional doenjang [without wheat],” Seoyoung suggests. “You can immediately tell that it has a different flavor profile. It’s more complex.” If you’re using doenjang as a meat marinade and sautéing, use low heat, she advises, because it can burn. She also suggests using the cloudy water poured off from washing rice when making doenjang soup. “This will offset any bitter flavors and make it a lot softer.”
Gochujang might be the most popular of the three jang in the States, but it’s not quite as essential to the Korean pantry as ganjang and doenjang are. That’s partly because chiles only became widespread in Korean cuisine by the 17th century. Nonetheless, gochujang still shows up pretty regularly in marinades, vegetable banchan seasonings, dipping sauces, soups, and savory pancakes. “Gochujang is much sweeter today than it used to be,” says Seoyoung. “Older varieties of gochujang taste saltier and spicier. They’d also be aged in the sun, which makes them darker and gives them a slightly smoky flavor.” You’re not likely to find onggi-fermented gochujang in grocery stores, but you can look for the word taeyangcho, which means the chilies have been dried in the sun. Taeyangcho gochujuang tends to have a more vivid color and brighter flavor, Seoyoung says. She also advises looking for gochujang that doesn’t contain corn syrup or flour. “You can always adjust the level of sweetness by adding your own sweetener when you’re cooking, but getting already-sweet gochujang gives you less flexibility with that.”
To make ssamjang, a popular dipping sauce for barbecued meat, Seoyoung suggests mixing one part each of doenjang and gochujang, adjusting the gochujang to your desired spice level. Her special tip: “Add some minced garlic, crushed sesame seeds, and a dash of sesame oil—this will make a huge difference!”