A staple spice in Korean cooking, gochugaru consists entirely of dried chili peppers that have been deseeded. Gochu translates to chili pepper and garu means powder so the spice’s name literally means chili powder.
The best hot peppers for gochugaru are those that have been classified as taeyangcho, which means sun-dried. While sun-dried peppers are the traditional option, machine-dried peppers are more common and less expensive. Sun-drying is said to be important both for the spice’s color and heat level. The dried seedless peppers are ground to a texture halfway between coarse crushed red pepper flakes and fine cayenne powder. Because these peppers have had their seeds removed, the resulting spice is a brilliant and uniform red.
You will often see Korean chili flakes or Korean chili powder on the English labels for gochugaru. It is helpful to know what true gochugaru should look like since many of these products are mislabeled in English.
For example, it may sometimes be labeled as Korean red pepper. Korean red pepper powder is a different product from true gochugaru. Red pepper powder is the form of chili pepper used to make gochujang, another Korean condiment.
Like all hot peppers, the ones used to make Korean gochugaru most likely have their origin in Central America. The popular story is that they were brought to Europe as a part of the Columbian exchange and would make their way to Asia after that.
However, some (Korean) historians claim that they were present in Korea back in the 1200s. Other sources claim that the pepper arrived even earlier than that — millions of years earlier. The seeds were supposedly carried to Asia by ancient birds. This view is controversial and according to many experts, there is no record of Koreans having used chili peppers before the 16th century.
Gochugaru flavor profile
Gochugaru’s flavor profile is more complex than the crushed red pepper flakes that you might find in the typical grocer’s spice aisle. For one thing, those flakes are typically made with cayenne pepper. Cayenne is notorious for adding heat but not a lot else to a dish. The dried peppers used in gochugaru are fruitier and bring a touch of smokiness. In short, they offer more than just heat.
Is gochugaru spicy?
The heat level of gochugaru can vary significantly, ranging from about 1,500 SHU up to 10,000 Scoville heat units. If you want the hottest kind of gochugaru available, look for deolmaewoon gochugaru; maewoon gochugaru is the less spicy variety.
Note that some Korean recipes use gochugaru liberally. To avoid making a dish that is too hot to consume, make sure that you can identify the milder versions of the spice. That said, gochugaru should not pose much of a problem if you are familiar with East or West Indian dishes that use high levels of much hotter peppers.
If you are familiar with Korean cuisine, you already know that Koreans like spicy dishes. Gochugaru shows up in a wide variety of these dishes. It is the traditional spicy element in the most famous Korean condiment, kimchi and is responsible for the reddish hue of the fermented cabbage. That’s not the only way to use it, you will also see gochugaru in other dishes like the spicy noodle soup called jjampong and the spicy beef soup called yukgaejang.