Step up your kimchi game with Korean kimchi pepper flakes, Korean red chile pepper (or chili pepper), Gochugaru, or simply Hot Pepper Powder — some of the many names you will encounter for the essential ingredient in amazing kimchi or Gochujang, a fermented pepper paste. First, let’s get to know what makes this pepper powder special.
In our book Fermented Vegetables, we suggest folks use standard red pepper flakes to spice their kimchi — our reasoning was that often the Korean powders contain added salt and sometimes sugar and it is difficult to navigate the packaging.
It is also difficult to figure out the source of the peppers; many are grown in China and it is often unclear where the pepper is from. However, the standard chile flakes available in market spice sections are generally much hotter than the traditional gochugaru pepper flakes. Because of the difference in the pepper flakes two things happen; one is that your kimchi will be hotter with a much smaller quantity of flakes used. (There is a about a 4- to 5-fold difference).
The other is that, unlike the standard chile flakes that often come from thin-walled cayenne peppers, the gochu peppers (the Korean chiles) have a thick wall like a pimento or paprika type pepper, which acts as a slight thickener in the kimchi as well as that crazy cool red color. Therefore they also add more than heat; they have a complex flavor and a nice sweetness.
It took me awhile to learn that the Gochugaru flakes have various heat levels. That is what I get for not being able to read Korean, and honestly, the English translations on the labels can be off or confusing. Some are quite sweet and mild, while other powders in your kimchi will make your head sweat.
If you are at an Asian market or on-line shopping for flakes maewoon gochugaru means very spicy hot pepper flakes and deolmaewoon gochugaru means milder. They also come in a flaked form and a powdered form, which is better Gochujang. However, translations can be off, and finely ground powder can come in packaging labeled coarse.
Grow your own and make a powder that is beyond anything you can buy. (You know, like the difference between commercial canned tomatoes and home-grown—once you’ve tasted you can never go back.) Last year we grew our own for the first time, well, okay, I need to be honest — our farmer friend Mary of Whistling Duck Farm grew a row for us — she is cool like that. When I test a new garden veggie I grow two or three, she grows a row. I visited the plants regularly, though.
Now that we know the difference, I already have my seeds ready to go for the upcoming season. The most difficult part happens right now — finding the right seeds. There are a number of different seed companies that carry this pepper, or peppers that they are calling Korean Hot Pepper or Kimchi pepper, or Gochu (or Go chu) which is the Korean word for pepper. Sherwood Seeds has a variety that we have found to be the most authentic. Some of these are very small peppers, but the peppers you want grow to be about 6 to 8 inches long.
Kirsten K. Shockey is a co-author, with Christopher Shockey, on the book Fermented Vegetables: Creative Recipes for Fermenting 64 Vegetables & Herbs in Krauts, Kimchis, Brined Pickles, Chutneys. She maintains the Fermentista's Kitchen's website and is a regular contributor to Taproot Magazine. Read all of Kirsten’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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