Is there gluten-free gochujang?

Gochujang is a popular Korean condiment made from chili peppers, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt. It adds a savory, slightly sweet kick to many Korean dishes like bibimbap and bulgogi. However, gochujang traditionally contains wheat, which means it is not gluten-free. For people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, finding a gluten-free alternative to gochujang can enable them to enjoy traditional Korean cuisine.

What is Gochujang?

Gochujang is a thick, pungent fermented Korean condiment made from chili peppers, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, and salt. It ranges in color from deep red to brownish-red. The name “gochujang” combines the Korean words for pepper (gochu) and sauce or condiment (jang).

Gochujang has been an essential element of Korean cooking for centuries. Historic records reference a condiment made of chili peppers dating back to the 1500s during the Joseon Dynasty. The chili pepper was likely introduced by Portuguese traders traveling from Japan. Over time, Korean cooks combined the chili peppers with sticky rice and soybeans to create the thick, sweet and spicy paste known today as gochujang.

This fermented condiment adds a savory, slightly sweet kick to dishes. Along with umami flavor from the fermented soybeans, gochujang also contributes a subtle tinge of salty taste. Its distinctive flavor profile has made it a beloved condiment in Korean cooking. Gochujang is most commonly used in staple dishes like bibimbap, tteokbokki, and bulgogi. The condiment can transform a bowl of white rice into a delicious meal. It is also used in dipping sauces, stews, soups, and marinades.

Does Traditional Gochujang Contain Gluten?

Yes, traditional gochujang recipes call for wheat or barley which contain gluten. These glutinous grains help thicken the gochujang paste and add a sweet flavor.

Specifically, traditional gochujang contains the following gluten-containing ingredients:

  • Glutinous rice (Oryza sativa var. glutinosa) – Glutinous rice gets its name from its sticky, gluelike texture when cooked. Despite the name, it does not contain gluten. Glutinous rice adds stickiness to the gochujang paste.
  • Wheat flour or barley malt powder – These ingredients contain gluten and help thicken and sweeten the gochujang. Wheat or barley are often toasted before adding to the paste.
  • Soybean powder – Soybeans are naturally gluten-free. But soybean powder may be processed in facilities that also handle wheat, potentially introducing cross-contamination.
  • Meju powder – Meju is a fermented soybean brick that serves as the basis for soy sauce and gochujang. Since meju is made from soybeans, it does not intrinsically contain gluten. But like soybean powder, it risks gluten cross-contamination during processing.

So in summary, while the main ingredients of gochujang (chili pepper, rice, and soybeans) are gluten-free, traditional recipes include wheat or barley as thickeners. This means most mainstream brands of gochujang contain gluten and are not safe for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Is There a Gluten-Free Alternative to Traditional Gochujang?

Fortunately, there are a few options for gluten-free gochujang alternatives:

Purchase Pre-Made Gluten-Free Gochujang

As awareness of gluten intolerance increases, a handful of brands now offer pre-made gochujang that is labeled gluten-free:

  • Chung Jung One Gochujang Gluten Free Premium Hot Pepper Paste
  • Kikkoman Gluten Free Gochujang Sauce
  • Masan Gluten-Free Gochujang
  • Sempio Organic Gochujang Sauce Gluten Free

When purchasing, be sure to double check the ingredients list and look for a gluten-free certification label to verify the product is gluten-free. The gochujang should use rice flour, tapioca flour, or cornstarch instead of wheat to thicken the paste.

Pre-made gluten-free gochujang provides the most convenient option for enjoying traditional flavors without the hassle of making it yourself. The main downside is that availability may be limited based on geographic area and grocery store. Always check the label closely.

Make Your Own Gluten-Free Gochujang

For more customization and control over ingredients, consider making homemade gluten-free gochujang. This allows you to avoid questionable thickeners and preservatives sometimes found in store-bought brands.

Most homemade recipes use the following basic method:

  1. Combine rice flour, sweet rice powder, or cornstarch with water or broth to create a thick slurry that will add body to the gochujang.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix red chili pepper flakes, rice syrup, fish sauce, and soy sauce or tamari.
  3. Combine the wet ingredients and slurry then mix thoroughly to create a thick paste.
  4. Transfer gochujang paste to an airtight jar and allow to ferment at room temperature for 2-3 days.

The fermentation process allows natural probiotics to develop, creating the unique flavor of traditional gochujang. Refrigerating the paste after fermentation helps extend its shelf life.

When making your own gluten-free gochujang, take extra care in selecting safe ingredients:

  • Use certified gluten-free tamari instead of soy sauce, or verify your soy sauce does not contain wheat
  • Ensure all ingredients and equipment are free of gluten cross-contamination
  • Check that your rice flour, tapioca flour, or cornstarch does not contain added wheat-based thickeners

Homemade gluten-free gochujang takes more time and effort than buying pre-made. But it allows for total control over the ingredients. You can also customize flavors to suit your taste preferences.

Use Gochujang Alternatives Like Sriracha or Harissa

In a pinch, swapping in similarly flavored hot sauces like sriracha or harissa can provide a quick substitute:

  • Sriracha – Made from chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt, sriracha has some tangy and sweet notes reminiscent of gochujang.
  • Harissa – This North African hot chili paste contains spices like coriander, caraway, and garlic. It makes a bolder, more aromatic substitute.

Keep in mind that these alternatives lack the rich umami flavor that comes from gochujang’s fermented soybeans. So the overall taste profile won’t have as much depth and complexity. But the spicy heat and hint of sweetness can mimic some of the flavors you expect from gochujang in a pinch!

Start with small amounts of sriracha or harissa and add more until you achieve the desired flavor and heat level. This technique prevents overpowering the dish with too much hot sauce.

Should You Avoid Gochujang Entirely If You Are Gluten-Free?

Eliminating an ingredient as foundational to Korean cooking as gochujang feels unsatisfying for most gluten-free eaters. Thankfully, with the growing awareness of gluten intolerance, more avenues exist to enjoy traditional flavors in a gluten-free diet.

While gluten-containing gochujang does not pose an absolute medical danger to those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, here are some factors to consider:

Cross-Contamination Risk from Shared Equipment

Even brands labeled gluten-free can pose some risk if equipment is shared with gluten-containing products during manufacturing. Extremely sensitive individuals may react. Opting for homemade gochujang reduces this risk.

Trace Amounts of Gluten

Pre-made gluten-free gochujang relies on wheat-free thickeners like rice flour instead of barley or wheat. However, checking labels shows that certain brands use a mix of rice flour and wheat starch. These products likely contain traces of gluten even if below the 20 parts per million threshold to qualify as gluten-free. This could be an issue for highly sensitive people.

Importance in Korean Cuisine

For lovers of Korean food, eliminating gochujang feels highly limiting and difficult. The unique sweet, spicy, and umami flavors of gochujang are difficult to replicate precisely with other ingredients. Finding a truly gluten-free version of this essential Korean staple makes enjoying traditional dishes like bibimbap and bulgogi more satisfying.

Flavor and Heat Preferences

Alternatives like sriracha and harissa capture some of the heat and sweetness, but not the full complexity of gochujang’s flavor. And homemade versions take time and effort compared to the ease of store-bought. So for those who love the balance of flavors in authentic gochujang, seeking out a gluten-free option can be worthwhile.

Cultural and Social Factors

Given its significance in Korean cuisine, avoiding gochujang entirely could cause a sense of missing out on cultural traditions and meaningful food memories for some. Having access to a gluten-free gochujang alternative facilitates a more inclusive food culture.


While traditional gochujang recipes contain glutenous wheat or barley, gluten-free alternatives fortunately exist:

  • Purchase pre-made gochujang verified gluten-free through careful label reading and occasionally certification labels
  • Make homemade gluten-free gochujang with rice flour or tapioca starch as a thickener and other verified gluten-free ingredients
  • Use substitute seasonings like sriracha and harissa in a pinch, keeping in mind the different flavor profile

Avoiding gochujang entirely proves challenging for many Korean cuisine lovers. Thankfully, with some care reading labels and inquiring about manufacturing processes, those with gluten intolerance can find safe options. This allows people on a gluten-free diet to continue enjoying the beloved flavors of gochujang as part of Korean food traditions and memories.

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