You Know Gochujang. But Do You Know Doenjang?

It seems like everywhere you go these days, gochujang, the Korean fermented red chili paste, is on the menu. Gochujang aioli for your pommes frites. Gochujang-marinated steak in your lunch rice bowl. But what about doenjang? This lesser-known, equally popular cousin to gochujang is less known in the U.S., but packs its own uniquely pungent flavor and an even longer history.

The history of doenjang dates back more than 2000 years, to the Three Kingdoms Period of Korea, from circa 57 BC to 668 AD, when fermented soybean products, including soy sauce and doenjang, defined Korean cuisine. (Gochujang, meanwhile, doesn’t find its first mention in Korean texts until 1433). In 1613, the Korean traditional medicine book, the Dongui Bogam, described doenjang’s medicinal properties. By the time of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the royal court chefs were serving sophisticated varieties of tojangguk, a doenjang stew.

To make traditional doenjang, humble soybeans go through a wondrous metamorphosis: they are soaked, boiled in salt water, pounded, ground, packaged into blocks that are dried and hung to ferment, washed and dried, soaked in brine in earthenware pots, and finally, mashed to become doenjang. (The remaining liquid becomes ganjang, or Korean soy sauce.) As you can imagine, most Korean food production companies no longer want to wait for natural fermentation, which can take around a year, so a speedier concoction of salt and a soybean, wheat, rice or barley starter is often used to flavor factory-made doenjang.

While gochujang’s primary flavor profile is dominated by red chile peppers, doenjang pushes fermented soybeans to center stage. Both pastes are thick and hearty, especially when gochujang also contains soybean paste, but doenjang is more forgiving. Diners can plop a big dollop of doenjang on ssam (lettuce wraps) without the spiciness from chile, and cooks can stir in doenjang to add a rich, earthy aroma to stews. Think of doenjang as the more introverted cousin at the party who you can handle larger doses of than limelight-loving gochujang.

Most Koreans nowadays buy their doenjang in small rectangular blackout containers at the grocery store, since making doenjang from scratch can take up to a year (try Maangchi’s recipe if you’re feeling adventurous). Store your doenjang in the fridge, where it’s dark and cool.

Once you’ve procured or made your doenjang, the possibilities are endless. The go-to recipe for this hearty fermented paste may be doenjang jjigae, a stew made with veggies, doenjang and your choice of protein (fatty cuts of pork are common, but seafood, beef or tofu are also good options), but doenjang is also versatile. The chunky paste melts easily into stews, so it melds with mouthwateringly savory gamjatang (pork neck bone soup), sweet, meaty kkotgetang (flower crab stew), ox bone hangover soup, or pungent, spicy kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew). It ties together the varied ingredients in rice bowls like bibimbap and boribap. This hearty ferment even lends heft and umami to Korean pancakes.

When barbecue grills start heating up in the U.S. (it’s always barbecue season with Korea’s indoor gas or charcoal grills), it’s time to think about meat—like maekjeok, a traditional doenjang-marinated pork believed to be the inspiration for today’s beloved bulgogi. But don’t stop there—you can doenjang-marinate any meat or veggie protein your smoky heart desires. Steak, chicken, lamb, quail, tofu, sausage and seitan are all game. Skewer your marinated protein and eat it with your hands, or grill it in small pieces and wrap it in lettuce, cabbage or perilla leaf wraps with a generous schmear of doenjang or homemade ssamjang.

Doenjang can also be used as a quick stir-fry sauce. The flavor booster can rapidly rev up blah vegetable stir-fries and blanches in a few seconds flat—just add it to your wok or pre-mix it with a stir-fry sauce. Many Korean vegetable banchan (side dish) are also fair game for the flavors of doenjang, but hearty Asian greens and herbs can stand up to its pungency. If your local store or farmer doesn’t peddle bok choy or Napa cabbage, try brussels sprouts, kale or other cruciferous veggies. Blanch or saute veggies, then squeeze out any excess water and add a paste of doenjang, garlic, scallion, sesame oil, sugar, salt and sesame seeds to your veggies. Toss with your gloved hands.

Having a party? Raw, blanched or steamed cauliflower, daikon and radish slices make for a vibrant party tray more exciting than the typical ranch-and-celery platter. Position prepared and sliced veggies on a chip-and-dip with a bowl of doenjang, which you can easily season to taste with scallions, herbs, sesame seeds or togarashi.  

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