Quite a long time ago, I read a post by Aki and Alex about making gochujang with their sourdough starter. Since at the time I didn’t have any experience with koji, it seemed like a great way to get some of the umami-dense, viscous, funky heat that gochujang is justly renowned for. But I forgot about it, because I am old and forget things, until I remembered it last year.
This memory was largely spurred by the glut of chilies we had; it was super hot and dry and they ripened early and in huge numbers. (This year is looking to be just as good, but that’s because it’s November and we haven’t had a freeze yet so they’re still going strong). So sometime last fall I took a bunch of starter and stirred in some ground-up cayenne peppers (fresh, not dried) along with some salt and a little maple for good measure. And I put it in a jar with a loose lid and put that on a shelf in the basement and forgot all about it again.
Until recently, when the part of my deep brain that keeps track (usually) of the many ferments in progress woke up and reminded me to take a look in the jar. The contents held promise: a dull vermillion paste topped with a brick-colored liquid, it smelled sharp and sour and funky and decidedly good to eat. The flavor was all of those things, but complex and harmonious—a little heavy on the sour, but within acceptable parameters—and with some pretty significant lingering heat.
One of my first thoughts was to use it as a thickener for gumbo. Because of the water content, it’s not well suited for making roux; I tried it and it sort of formed curds which fried in the duck fat I used. These turned out to be awesome, so I whisked them into the gumbo (they weren’t super cohesive and broke apart easily). The best method was just to stir it in, after diluting it a little with some stock; it’s a goopy tangle of broken-down starch and denatured gluten, after all, and it handsomely transformed a soup into a stew.
It’s also great as a component to all sorts of sauces, as a thickener and bringer of lactic sourness, funky depth, and serious heat. Those qualities also make it well suited to marinades; most recently I combined it with toasted and ground star anise, allspice, cinnamon, cumin, caraway, and coriander and slathered the resulting paste all over a bowl of goat. I let it sit in the fridge all day, then browned the meat hard in lard in the iron Dutch oven with quartered turnips. I threw in half a head of garlic, unpeeled for insulation, a handful of herbs, and a whole ripe jalapeño (or unsmoked chipotle, if you will). This, lidded, went in a hot oven (425˚) for an hour or so, then I lowered the heat to about 250 for a couple more. It’s a lovely way to roast chunks of meat so they get super tender without drying out.
The un-rouxly aspect of this paste (see what I did there?) wherein it got crispy and granular rather than silky in hot fat turns out to be an asset when it comes to coating meat. It formed a magnificent crust on the goat, much as if I had tossed the pieces in seasoned flour before browning them. My next idea is to use some of the fauxchujang in a beer batter, like for onion rings or fish. That probably won’t suck. Underneath the goat, leftover brown rice cooked in chicken/duck stock with the turnip greens. In back, looking blurry, are a couple of cloves of sticky, caramelized roasted garlic. Improvised DIY fermentation projects don’t always succeed. When they do, though, you get better at life.