Sambal Oelek and Gochujang are two chili-based condiments that add a delicious kick of heat and flavor to dishes. With their bright red color and spicy taste, it's easy to assume these pastes are interchangeable. But while they share some commonalities, they have notable differences that impact how they're used in cooking.
This guide will compare Sambal Oelek and Gochujang to help you understand when to use each paste. We'll cover everything from ingredients and taste to texture and best uses. Read on to become a chili paste expert!
Origins and Ingredients
Sambal Oelek comes from Indonesia, while Gochujang originated in Korea. Their distinct origins are reflected in the ingredients used to make them.
Sambal Oelek contains:
- Chili peppers - Typically red chili peppers like bird's eye chilies. They provide heat.
- Vinegar - Adds tanginess.
- Salt - For flavor.
- Korean red chili pepper powder (gochugaru) - Provides signature smokiness and heat.
- Glutinous rice - Thickens the paste and adds sweetness.
- Fermented soybean powder (meju) - Results in intense umami flavor.
- Salt - For flavor enhancement.
- Barley malt powder - Contributes sweetness and rich color.
So while both contain chili peppers, Gochujang has more ingredients that lend unique flavors like sweetness and umami.
Texture and Consistency
This makes sense based on how they're produced:
- Sambal Oelek - Ingredients are mashed into a chunky puree with a mortar and pestle.
- Gochujang - Ingredients are slowly fermented, resulting in a dense, sticky paste.
The thickness of Gochujang makes it ideal as a dipping sauce. Sambal Oelek's thinner texture lends itself to mixing into dressings, marinades, and sauces.
Since Sambal Oelek contains just three main ingredients, its flavor profile is straightforward:
- Spicy - Thanks to the chili peppers.
- Slightly sweet - If made with some added sugar.
- Tangy - From the vinegar.
- Salty - Due to the salt.
Gochujang's taste is more complex due to its diverse ingredients and fermentation:
- Savory umami - From the fermented soybean powder.
- Sweet - The glutinous rice and barley malt powder.
- Spicy and smoky - The Korean red chili pepper powder.
- Salty - To balance the sweetness.
So while both deliver heat, Gochujang has a deeper, more well-rounded flavor. The fermentation gives it an almost funky, cheese-like taste.
In terms of heat, Sambal Oelek is considered spicier than Gochujang.
Sambal Oelek provides a moderate, chili-focused burn. Gochujang's heat is mellowed out by the paste's other ingredients like rice and sweeteners.
However, Gochujang can be found in five grades of spiciness:
- Slightly Hot
- Medium Hot
- Very Hot
- Extremely Hot
So you can choose a Gochujang with more heat if desired. Check the Gochujang Hot Taste Units (GHU) on the label to determine the spice level.
Sambal Oelek shines when you want the pure flavor of chili peppers. It can be used in place of fresh chilies in many dishes. The vinegary heat complements anything from eggs to chicken to dressings.
Gochujang's sticky texture makes it perfect for:
- Marinades - It adheres nicely to meat and vegetables.
- Dipping sauces - Great paired with dumplings or spring rolls.
- Stews and soups - Adds depth of flavor.
- Stir fries - Mix with soy sauce for quick sauce.
You can also use it to make Gochujang mayo for burgers or sandwiches.
Unopened Gochujang has a longer shelf life - lasting for years compared to Sambal Oelek's 6 months.
Once opened, both should be refrigerated. Gochujang keeps for up to 2 years while Sambal Oelek lasts about 1 month.
So Gochujang has better longevity if you don't use it frequently. But both can last in the fridge for quite a while.
Can They Be Substituted for Each Other?
Since Sambal Oelek and Gochujang both offer chili flavor, you can substitute one for the other in a pinch with a few adjustments:
- Use less Gochujang - About 1/2 teaspoon for every 1 teaspoon of Sambal Oelek to account for its stronger flavor.
- Thin Gochujang - Add water so it has a looser texture like the Sambal Oelek it's replacing.
- Loosen Sambal Oelek - Add a little starch or rice flour to thicken it up to Gochujang's consistency.
- Boost Sambal Oelek's flavor - Add a sweetener like sugar and a little miso paste to approximate Gochujang's sweet/umami taste.
With these tweaks, you can swap these pastes and still achieve great flavor. But for best results, use each condiment as intended by the recipe.
A Quick Comparison
|Chili peppers, vinegar, salt
|Korean red chili pepper powder, glutinous rice, fermented soybean powder, sweeteners
|Loose, like hot sauce
|Thick and sticky paste
|Spicy, tangy, salty
|Savory, sweet, spicy, salty
|Mild to very spicy
|Dipping sauce, stews, marinades
|6 months unopened, 1 month opened
|Years unopened, 2 years opened
Is Sambal Oelek spicy?
Yes, Sambal Oelek has a medium level of heat from the chili peppers used to make it. It provides a pure, chili-focused spiciness.
What does Gochujang taste like?
Gochujang has a complex flavor profile thanks to its fermented ingredients. It tastes savory, slightly sweet, spicy, and salty. It provides more depth of flavor compared to Sambal Oelek.
Can I substitute Sambal Oelek for Gochujang?
You can use Sambal Oelek in place of Gochujang in a pinch, but you may need to adjust the amount and add other ingredients to approximate Gochujang's flavor and thickness. For best results, use the specific chili paste called for in a recipe.
Is Gochujang spicy?
Gochujang ranges from mild to very spicy depending on the product. Check the GHU units on the label to determine the heat level of a particular brand. In general, Gochujang provides less heat compared to the spicier Sambal Oelek.
How do you use Sambal Oelek?
Sambal Oelek can be used anywhere you want to add chili flavor. It's great in marinades, dressings, sauces, and dishes like stir-fries or scrambled eggs where you want extra heat.
How do you use Gochujang?
Gochujang's thick, sticky texture makes it ideal for marinades, dipping sauces, stews, and soups. You can also mix it with mayo or soy sauce to make flavorful sauces.
With their chili pepper base, it's easy to see similarities between Sambal Oelek and Gochujang. However, their differing ingredients and production methods make them unique condiments that excel in different applications.
Sambal Oelek brings pure chili flavor that spices up anything from stir fries to scrambled eggs. Gochujang's fermented complexity takes dishes to the next level, especially Korean classics like bibimbap.
The next time a recipe calls for one of these pastes, you'll know just how to use it. But we also encourage experimentation - try Sambal Oelek or Gochujang anywhere you want extra heat and dimension. You may find some new favorite uses for these flavorful chili pastes.