How many delicious recipes I have introduced to you that use soybeans? I showed you how to make key Korean ingredients with them like fermented soybean paste and soy sauce, and I also showed you how to make soy milk and ground soybean stew with them, too. Today I add one more thing: extra-strong fermented soybean paste, called cheonggukjang in Korean and one of my favorites
Cheonggukjang is soybean paste that has been fermented for a couple of days, unlike doenjang, which is fermented for a few months or more. Both processes use the bacteria bacillus subtilis found in the the air around us, but there’s no salt involved in the process of making cheonggukjang, it’s made from just soybeans only, and the process is much simpler and less time consuming. Cheonggukjang is similar to Japanese nattō, except nattō uses only bacillus subtilis var that’s injected from a culture or already fermented natto. Cheonggukjang has stronger smell but they taste similar.
I used to make huge amounts of cheonggukjang when I lived in Korea, at the same time of year that I made winter kimchi. I made enough to last my whole family through the winter. My house in Korea had traditional Korean underfloor heating (ondol) that was powered by charcoal briquettes. The room next to the boiler was consistently warm and toasty and the perfect temperature and condition for fermenting cheonggukjang!
I missed cheonggukjang ever since I left Korea. You can buy it in Korean grocery stores in the West but it can’t be compared to homemade. There’s a restaurant in New York that serves cheonggukjang stew but every time I ordered it there, it made me miss my homemade cheonggukjang even more. So when I was planning my cookbook I decided to definitely include cheonggukjang in the book, which meant I needed to figure out how to make it in a modern American apartment. I needed to recreate the large, consistently warm heated surface of my old Korean underfloor heating. The beans need for 2 days so they can ferment properly. I experimented with an electric mat on the floor, which worked great except the beans on top of the pile would get dried and wrinkly. I tried adding a cup of water to the middle of the mound and it worked perfectly! I cried a single tear in happiness when I first saw those fermented beans! I’ve been making them ever since.
Korean researchers have done many studies on the health benefits of cheonggukjang. They say the fermented beans provide good protein that can be digested easily and are good for controlling blood pressure, fighting cancer, and improving your complexion. For me, I just love the taste and smell. The smell is unique and hard to describe. It’s similar to good, stinky cheese I had in France, but even better! Probably because I was raised on it.
- A shallow bamboo basket (or plastic basket), about 12 to 14 inches in diameter
- An electric mat.
- Cotton cloth (or a few layers of cheesecloth) and blanket
- An instant-read thermometer (optional)
- 2 pounds dried soybeans (about 5 cups)
- A few green and red chili peppers, sliced (optional)
Soaking the beans:
- Put the beans into a colander or strainer basket and pick out any broken beans. Wash and scrub them under cold running water and then transfer them into to a large bowl.
- Fill the bowl with cold water. The ratio of the beans to water should be 1 to 4.
- Let sit at least for 12 hours up to 24 hours. The beans will expand to about 13 cups.
2 cups soybeans (left) dried soybeans expand to 13 cups soaked soybeans (right) in 24 hours.
Cooking the beans:
- Drain the beans and rinse them in cold water. Transfer them to a large pot. Add 16 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. It will take about 25 to 30 minutes and there will be a lot of foam floating on top.
- Stir with a wooden spoon. Reduce the heat to medium low. Cover and simmer for 3½ hours until the beans are very soft and crushable.
- Place a thick blanket under the electric mat and a large cotton cloth on top of it.
- Drain the hot beans and put them in the basket and reserve the bean water.
- Place the basket on a large tray (I used my 14 inch pizza pan). Smooth out the top of the beans evenly.
- Set 1 cup of water into the center of the beans to maintain the humidity during fermentation.
- Spread about 1 cup bean water over the top of the beans evenly to moisten them. Wet a cotton cloth (or a hemp cloth or a few layers of cheesecloth) in cold water and cover the bean basket with it. And then cover it all with another cotton cloth.
- Put the beans on the electric mat. Cover the mat with large blanket.
- Set the temperature to low (I used level 2 on my mat) and let the beans ferment for 48 hours between 110°F (43°C) and 130°F (54°C). You can use an instant-read thermometer to check them during fermentation if you want, but if your blanket temperature is set low enough it should be all right.
- After 48 hours, uncover the beans. Remove the cup of water and stir the beans with a wooden spoon. You should see thin, translucent threads when you stir the beans.
Process & pack:
- Working in batches, pound the beans using a mortar and pestle or process them for 10 seconds in a food processor until the mixture is partially smooth with a few chunky beans.
- Pre-cut 8 pieces of plastic wrap about 9½ inches square.
- Divide the paste into 8 portions about 1 cup each.
- Put a piece of pre-cut plastic wrap into a 1 cup measuring cup and add sliced chili pepper (if using) into the bottom. Push in a portion of the paste to fill the cup, wrap the edges of the plastic wrap together, pull it out of the cup, twist it, and form it into a ball. Repeat with the rest of the bean paste and pieces of plastic wrap.
- Put the balls in a zipper-lock bag. Use immediately, or freeze for up to 3 months. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator or a few hours on the kitchen counter before using.