What is Korean rice syrup for?

Korean rice syrup, also known as ssal yeot or malt barley syrup, is a natural sweetener commonly used in Korean cuisine. It is made from cooked rice or malted barley that has been fermented with yeast. The starch in the rice or barley is broken down into natural sugars, creating a thick, amber-colored syrup with a sweet, earthy taste.

Korean rice syrup has been used for centuries in traditional Korean foods and beverages, both for its sweet flavor and its nutritional benefits. But what exactly is Korean rice syrup used for? Here is a look at the many uses and benefits of this unique ingredient.

Sweetening agent

One of the primary uses for Korean rice syrup is as a natural sweetening agent. The glucose content gives it a sweetness similar to corn syrup or honey. Because it comes from rice and barley, it is considered a whole food sweetener, rather than a refined sugar.

Korean rice syrup contains complex carbohydrates that break down slower than refined sugars, resulting in a more gradual release of glucose into the bloodstream. This helps prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels. For this reason, Korean rice syrup is sometimes used as a replacement for refined sugar by people looking to moderate their sugar intake.

The syrup’s thick, viscous texture also makes it ideal for sweetening beverages and glossy glazes without thinning them out too much. A small amount can provide ample sweetness for roasted nuts, fresh fruits, porridges, and other dishes where subtle sweetness is desired.


One of the most popular uses for Korean rice syrup is sweetening traditional beverages like sujeonggwa (cinnamon-ginger punch), subak sikhye (sweet rice drink), and misutgaru (grain beverage). The syrup’s malted flavor enhances these grain-based drinks.

The syrup is also commonly added to coffee and tea. It integrates well into both hot and cold coffee- and tea-based drinks, rounding out bitterness and adding sweetness that isn’t overpowering. A dash of the syrup in milk teas is a favorite way to add flavor.

Rice syrup’s viscosity allows it to thicken up cocktails and smoothies pleasantly while also providing its signature sweet-malty taste. It brings out flavors well in citrus, chocolate, and nut-based shakes and frozen drinks.

Baking and desserts

The mild sweetness and moisture that Korean rice syrup contributes make it a useful ingredient in many baked goods and desserts. It can be used to add flavor, provide sweetness, help retain moisture, and improve texture.

In baking, rice syrup can be substituted for up to half of the white sugar or honey in recipes for cookies, cakes, muffins, breads, and more. This reduces the overall sweetness while adding malted nuance. The higher moisture content keeps baked goods like brownies and fruit crumbles moist and fudgy.

Rice syrup is also commonly swirled into porridges, drizzled over shaved ice desserts like patbingsu, and used to gloss traditional Korean rice cakes. Its thick consistency helps bind ingredients like nuts to rice cake batter. The syrup’s faint saltiness balances sweeter ingredients like chocolate or fruits.

Savory dishes

While best known as a sweetener, Korean rice syrup also has applications in balancing flavors in savory Korean dishes.

It can be drizzled over salads, roasted vegetables, and grilled or broiled meats. The syrup helps counter salty, spicy, sour, and bitter flavors.

When cooking meat in sweet and spicy Korean bbq marinades, a dash of rice syrup helps round out the spices, garlic, sesame, and soy sauce. It balances spicy stir-fries and stews in a similar way.

The syrup also gives a glossy glaze to grilled short ribs or bulgogi without burning. For chicken wings or fried foods, it can be thinned with a little water to make a quick glaze.


Korean rice syrup contributes more than just sweetness – its enzymes help kick-start fermentation.

The amylase enzymes in rice syrup break down starches into fermentable sugars. This allows yeasts and bacteria to thrive, speeding up the fermentation process in kimchi, makgeolli (rice wine), soy sauce, and other fermented Korean staples.

The syrup’s nutrients feed the fermentation cultures while its sweetness balances sour flavors produced. This gives fermented foods like gochujang (chili paste) and doenjang (soybean paste) their characteristic sweet, salty, and sour profiles.

Nutritional benefits

In addition to its culinary usefulness, Korean rice syrup boasts an array of nutritional benefits:

Low glycemic index – Rice syrup has a glycemic index of 25, significantly lower than white sugar. This means it does not spike blood glucose levels as dramatically.

High in selenium – Rice is naturally high in selenium, an essential trace mineral. Selenium supports thyroid hormone production, reproductive health, and liver function.

Contains vitamins and minerals – Rice syrup provides small amounts of B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, iron, and calcium.

Prebiotic effects – The carbohydrates in rice syrup may help stimulate growth of healthy gut bacteria. Prebiotics support digestive health.

No additives or preservatives – Most brands of Korean rice syrup contain just one ingredient: fermented rice. It is free of artificial additives.

In moderation, enjoying traditional Korean rice syrup provides a source of vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics on top of its great taste.

How it’s made

Korean rice syrup has a time-honored production process that builds complex flavors. Here is a brief overview:

– Grains of rice or barley are soaked, then steamed.

– The steamed grains develop enzymes that break down their starches into sugars.

– The grain is combined with nuruk, a Korean fermentation starter that contains yeasts and bacteria.

– The mixture ferments for several weeks in warm conditions, developing a rich, sweet liquid.

– The liquid is filtered and simmered down into a thick syrup.

– After cooling, the syrup is ready for use. It is commonly packaged in glass jars.

The long fermentation time allows complex nutty and malty flavors to develop beyond basic sweetness. Enzymes in the nuruk break down proteins and starches that contribute to the syrup’s viscosity and sweetness. Traditional rice syrup contains no additives – just rice and the fermentation culture.

Popular brands

There are a handful of major brands producing high quality Korean rice syrup:

Chung Jung One: The most popular mass-produced brand, Chung Jung One makes an affordable syrup from rice and rice malt. It has a malted flavor that works well in both cooking and beverages.

OM Foods: A Canadian brand using organic rice, OM Foods is known for its smooth, clean flavor. It has a lighter color and viscosity.

Wooden Spoon: This artisan brand from Korea makes syrup using traditional nuruk fermentation in earthen pots. It has a deep, rich flavor with hints of pine and oak.

Organico: A family-run company, Organico’s rice syrup is less processed and viscous than major brands. It has a bold, molasses-like taste.

Zeroodle: Zeroodle focuses on low-glycemic sweeteners, including an organic brown rice syrup. It has a pronounced nutty, roasted flavor.

These trusted brands can usually be found in the international food aisle at major grocery stores or online. Always check the ingredients list for additives like corn syrup or preservatives, which traditional rice syrup does not contain.


While Korean rice syrup offers unique flavor, you can substitute it in a pinch:

Barley malt syrup has the most similar malty, earthy flavor. Reduce liquids slightly to account for barley malt’s thicker consistency.

Brown rice syrup is less sweet with a more pronounced rice flavor. It does not have the enzyme activity of malted barley syrups.

Maple syrup can mimic the texture and deep flavor notes. The flavor will lean more towards maple than malt.

Honey replicates the viscosity and sweetness. However, it lacks malted complexity and has a stronger flavor of its own.

Molasses offers deep, bittersweet notes similar to rice syrup. Use blackstrap molasses for cooking savory dishes, or regular molasses for sweeter applications.

While not exact substitutes, these alternatives can produce good results when you’re in a pinch. But Korean rice syrup truly shines through in traditional recipes!


Korean rice syrup is a unique natural sweetener that adds complexity and flair beyond just making things sweet. Its nutty, earthy flavor enhances all kinds of Korean cuisine, from beverages to baked goods and savory dishes. Traditional production methods yield a wholesome, nutrient-rich syrup containing enzymes that aid fermentation. Moderately enjoying this syrup made the old-fashioned way offers benefits ranging from stable energy to digestive health. Korean rice syrup is a versatile ingredient that brings sweetness and tradition to the table.

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