After all that talk of the best commercially made gochujang, I can’t avoid discussing the best commercially made doenjang.
What is Doenjang?
With gochujang, spicy red pepper paste, and ganjang, soy sauce, doenjang is part of the holy triumvirate of the Korean world of condiments. Condiment actually is too weak a word, as it implies something that’s spread thinly or dabbed lightly. Doenjang, though, is thrown in by the generous spoonful. It’s essentially fermented soybean paste, and much more central to Korean cooking than ketchup or mustard. It’s the main seasoning in doenjang-jjigae, or soybean paste stew; it’s prominent in ssamjang for wrapping meat and rice in lettuce; and it’s gets mixed into any number of banchan or small side dishes. It’s lazy seasoning, a quick and easy way to add depth and flavor to almost anything, meat or vegetable. Except, of course, if you make your doenjang from scratch.
The process of making doenjang is closely related to the process for making ganjang or soy sauce. The word “jang” means soybean sauce. “Doenjang” is “thick soybean sauce,” while “ganjang” is “salty soybean sauce.”
The basic ingredient for both is soybeans. The beans are boiled, mashed, and then shaped into blocks, called meju. They’re left to hang in a warm place to dry and ferment for up to three months. According to My Korean Diet, you really have to baby these blocks, taking them outside to see the sun, bringing them in at night, and putting them to bed on a warm floor nicely covered with a blanket. When a bacterial fuzz starts to appear on the blocks, you know you’re doing the right thing.
My mom made her own doenjang, but she never made these blocks — the smell they emit as they dry is unbearable in a modern home. Instead, she started at the next step, which is to take the blocks and place them in large earthenware pots full of brine. Grains like rice, wheat, or barley are added, the exact mixture depending on the region and its preference, as are hot peppers. The whole mixture ferments for two months, meaning the whole process can take five months. The whole mixture will eventually separate into a liquid and a solid. The liquid becomes soy sauce; the solid becomes doenjang.
The flavor of doenjang has that distinctly umami flavor of soy sauce. It’s comparable to miso, except it’s a hundred times more assertive. While soy sauce is used in Japan and China, doenjang was associated so uniquely with Korea, the Chinese called the smell of doenjang “the smell of Korea.” I have a feeling it was not meant as a compliment. But for me, the stinkiness of doenjang is like the stinkiness of a strong blue cheese, an aroma I will follow until I find the source.
And doenjang has “five virtues“! Devotion, because it maintains its flavor even when mixed with other ingredients. Steadfastness, because it keeps practically forever. The merciful heart of Buddha, because it removes fishy odors and oily flavors(!) Generosity, because it neutralizes spicy flavors. And finally harmony, because it harmonizes well with other foods.
The fact that people in the past used it as a poultice for bee stings and minor scrapes is clearly the least of its stellar attributes.
Like gochujang, most brands of doenjang sold outside Korea do not have prominent English-language labels. But most of them will say “soybean paste” somewhere, and they tend to be sold in brown tubs, to indicate the color of the paste inside.
In addition to the brands we tasted for gochujang, we also tried 해오름 or Haioreum, which means “Rising Sun.” Hence, the sort of abstract sun rays coming out of an arc.
And Choripdong, which is written in English and has a memorable cartoon character of a man in a traditional outfit giving you a big thumbs up.
Unfortunately, there was little drama here. No outstanding winner, no close race between worthy contenders. Even more than the gochujang, all of the commercially available doenjang was decent. Diane did have a favorite, and we had a least favorite, so we’ll start there.
1. Brand: 쳥정원 (Chung Jung Won)
Special Claims: 순창 (Sunchang), meaning from the city of Sunchang, which is famous for its gochujang. Nutty and made with beans, which doesn’t make any sense to me since aren’t they all made with beans?
Diane liked best the intensity of this one, which she described positively as reminding her of socks. It tasted “real” and smoky. Perhaps that’s what her socks smell like.
6. Brand: 쳥정원 (Chung Jung Won) O’Food, Organic
Special Claims: 순창 (Sunchang), meaning from the city of Sunchang, which is famous for its gochujang. Organic.
The one we liked least was again the O’Food organic brand, which didn’t have much flavor. It was noticeably drier and grittier than the other ones, and on top of it, more expensive.
2.-5. The rest more or less were equal in rank. In no particular order:
Special Claims: Traditional Thatch-Roofed House, Country-Style Doenjang, with Nutty, Deep Flavor.
This was nicely not too salty, with a slightly syrupy flavor of molasses.
Special Claims:Korean-Made Traditional Bean Doenjang
The Choripdong brand had little chunks of beans in it and was saltier than the Haioreum, but still good.
Brand: 해찬들 (Haechandle)
Special Claims: Nutty, House-Made, Country-Style Doenjang
This one was earthy and rather cheesy in flavor.
Brand: 해찬들 (Haechandle)
Special Claims: Standard Doenjang, Nutty and Bright
So what does all this add up to?
I wish I could say.
There are so many more types of doenjang out there. We tasted six, but there were probably at least 15 kinds crammed into the shelves of Hmart on 32nd Street. Each brand makes multiple types, some of which claim to be best for stew, some of which boast a chunky, beany paste. Your choice, like the way you can choose between smooth or crunchy peanut butter. Many of the ones we tasted, and some we didn’t, are available online here.
Luckily, like gochujang, no doenjang will fail you. There is doenjang out there that will blow your socks off, but it’s probably not in a plastic tub. Until you can find a Korean grandmother to sell you some of her homemade stuff, at least you know more or less any doenjang will do.