Essentials for Your Korean Pantry

About Kimchi Rednecks’ Kitchen Adventures

Our disclaimer: We want you to know that we are simply two white Americans who love Korean food and Korean culture. We have lived in South Korea for a number of years and food has naturally become part of our lives.

We are not experts on cooking Korean food, nor are we trying to appropriate the culture as our own. If you have someone in your life (a halmoni, ajumma, chingu…anyone with more Korean experience), then please refer to their expertise. They absolutely know best. We simply want to share how Korean food exists in our lives.

We have researched and spent quite a bit of time learning from online sites, as well as some friends here in Korea, to better understand Korean cooking. We also occasionally add our own flair to a recipe as cooks tend to do, but we will let you know that this is something we are changing or adding. Our blogs document that journey of learning from others.

For more posts about Korean Cooking, check out Kimchi Rednecks’ A Year to Learn Korean Cooking series. Be sure to follow Kimchi Rednecks on YouTube for other great videos about living life in South Korea.

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Getting Started with Korean Cooking

So you want to learn to cook Korean food at home, but don’t know where to start? The key to good recipes is having quality ingredients. From our research and some trial and error, we have developed what we consider to be a list of pantry staples that you should have on hand if you are embarking on this adventure.

Access to the following ingredients may change depending on where you are in the world. Since we live in South Korea we have access to quality ingredients for our Korean food pantry. Here is what it looks like.

Our Korean Pantry Choices

The twelve Korean pantry staples discussed in the article.

In our list, we are not including what we consider to be normal pantry staples: salt, black pepper, sugar, honey, vegetable or canola oil, garlic, and ginger. Most Korean recipes will either include rice or noodles (which vary by recipe), so we are not addressing those either. Finally, we are not including perishable items such as onions, green onions, radishes, etc.

Soy Sauce (간장 Ganjang)

Since it is a well-known item, it is no surprise to find a bottle of soy sauce in many pantries. It is probably one of the most used ingredients in Korean cooking. However, there are different types of soy sauce.

Yanjo-Ganjang (양조간장) is a naturally brewed soy sauce and is a higher grade soy sauce and often more expensive. Generally, Yajo-Ganjang ferments for about 6 months.

Jin-Ganjang (진간장) is typically a mix of the yanjo-ganjang and an acid hydrolyzed soy sauce. This tends to be cheaper.

Guk-Ganjang (국간장), a soy sauce used for soups and stews, is lighter in color, has a saltier taste and is more savory. You can make your own or buy it commercially. (Maangchi has a great recipe here if you choose to make your own: )

If you want more detail regarding soy sauces and how to choose them, we recommend checking out the following article:

Doenjang (된장)

Doenjang is a fermented soy bean paste. Fermented from soy beans and salt. this has a unique, sometimes pungent smell. Most often used to make stews and soups, it has a rich earthy and savory flavor. Also, dipping sauces are created by mixing it with other ingredients. (Miso and Doenjang are not the same, more like cousins.)

Gochujang (고추장)

Gochujang is a red chili paste that is savory, sweet and spicy. This paste adds a wonderful spicy umami* to your foods. Meant to complement your dishes, gochujang will increase the heat in your dish. We recommend that you start out using smaller amounts so that you can learn what level of spicy works for you. Once you add the heat, there is no bringing that spice level back down.

Gochugaru (고추가루)

Gochugaru is the red chili pepper flakes (either coarse or finely ground). Korean chili peppers and western chili peppers are not equal. So, gochugaru is not your typical red chili pepper and should not be swapped with it’s western cousin. Many Koreans make their own by drying Korean chili peppers and removing the seeds (unless you want extra spicy, in which case you leave the seeds) and then grinding them.

Also, gochujang and gochugaru are not really interchangeable as gochujang has other ingredients mixed in to it. The flavor profile of your dish will change by using this instead. We use the same rule with gochugaru as gochujang though and add the spice slowly to the dish to determine the level of heat desired.

Sesame Oil (참기름 Chamgireum)

Sesame oil is a light or dark-colored oil made from sesame seeds. Many Korean dishes utilize it either as a marinade, part of a sauce, a seasoning, or even to complete a dish. It adds a nice smoky, savory, nutty flavor to the dish. Since the smoke point for toasted sesame oil is high, we recommend not using it to deep fry. You can get a sesame oil that is not toasted and use it for frying. However, most Korean dishes use the toasted darker sesame oils.

Rice Vinegar (쌀식초 Ssalsigcho)

Rice vinegar, vinegar made from rice, has a sour, slightly sweet, acidic taste to it. Korean cooking often uses it in sauces, pickling, with side dishes, and in marinades. This helps to balance oil/greasy flavors. Also, it will add acidity to your dish and help cleanse your palate.

Mirim/Mirin (미림 or Matsul 맛술)

Mirim is a rice wine used in Asian cooking. Though it is similar to Sake and Soju, it has a lower alcohol content and more sugar. Mirim adds sweetness to your flavors and helps to remove gamey/fishy flavors from your proteins.

Please note, rice vinegar and Mirim are not interchangeable at all.

Plum Extract (매실청 Maesil-Cheong)

Though not a traditional Korean ingredient, plum extract adds sweetness to Korean dishes. Maesil is made from Korean plums and offers a fragrant, fruity, and fresh flavor to your cooking. It also helps to tenderize meats.

This extract can be used in marinades, sauces, and dressings, but also can be diluted with water and made into tea.

Toasted Sesame Seeds (볶음 참깨 Bokkeum Cham-kkae)

Korean cooking uses toasted or roasted sesame seeds often as a finisher or to enhance flavors. In addition, they provide a nutty flavor and a crunchy texture to your dishes.

Korean Fish Sauce (액젓 Aekjeot)

Korean fish sauce is often used in making kimchi, soups, and stews. It has a strong, pungent aroma but it also adds umami* to your dishes. It is savory and salty and can be used to substitute soy sauce. When we use vegetable stock for our stews, we often add some fish sauce to boost the flavor.

MSG MonoSodium Glutamate

Over the years, MSG has gotten a bad reputation. Comedian, Nigel Ng, (aka Uncle Roger) has dubbed it as the “King of Flavor.” This is because MSG enhances the flavors in your dish. Since MSG has 1/3 less sodium than salt, some utilize it as a salt substitute. Often we add just a pinch to increase the umami* in our dishes.

Ultimate Korean Soup Stock

This soup stock is usually made from dried anchovies, Korean radishes, and kelp. You can make this at home or you can buy it in a teabag form where you simply add water and boil to make the stock. Since we have a seafood allergy in our house, we often substitute the Korean soup stock with another stock (vegetable, chicken or beef). We have found most often using vegetable stock and adding some Korean fish sauce gives us the same flavors without having to overwhelm our senses with the anchovy smell.

Please note, though this smells very fragrant when you are cooking it at home, the taste and flavor is not nearly as pungent.

Making Your Own Stock

If you want to fix your own stock, we recommend the following recipes:

Good Luck With Your Shopping

With your basic kitchen pantry staples and these Korean ingredients, you will be ready to whip up fabulous Korean dishes at home. We look forward to sharing many dishes with you in the future and would love to see what you are cooking at home too!

Link to our video:

Other videos to check out on Korean pantry staples:

Read more in our Year to Learn Korean Cooking Series

You have your ingredients now. Are you ready to start cooking your amazing Korean dishes at home? Then, check out our series A Year to Learn Korean Cooking.

A year to learn Korean cooking