Korean BBQ Beef or Bulgogi 불고기, literally translated as ‘fire 불 meat 고기’ in Korean, is a delectable grilled dish that is sure to turn anyone into a fan of Korean cuisine after just one bite. This recipe holds a special place in my heart as it was the very first one I shared when I started my blog back in 2010. True to its title, I have been using this authentic recipe for the past 30 years, which coincidentally is the same length of time I have been married.
What exactly is Bulgogi?
HISTORY – Bulgogi traces its origins back thousands of years to the kingdom of Goguryeo (37 BC – 668 AD), where beef was initially grilled on skewers. In the 1800s, with the advent of metal grates, Koreans began marinating thin cuts of beef and grilling them on these grates. This style of grilling was known as Neobiahni Gui 너비아니 구이, which involved using thicker slices of beef compared to the present-day practice.
One of my most cherished culinary memories takes me back to the days when my father treated our entire family to a dinner at his favorite restaurant, Wooraeok 우래옥. The original owner of Wooraeok happened to be a close friend of my father, as they both fled North Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s.
Even today, Wooraeok still operates in Seoul. They continue to cook the beef on a steel pan (as seen in the Seoul Bulgogi picture below), and my father used to add rice and crack an egg into the flavorful juices that accumulated around the rim. The result was an incredible juk that I can still vividly recall and it made me think my dad was a culinary genius!
What is the preferred beef cut for making Bulgogi
Traditionally, bulgogi is made using top sirloin, tenderloin, or rib eye cuts of beef, as shown in the picture above. These cuts are thinly sliced against the grain. However, if you don’t have access to a Korean grocery store nearby, you can thinly slice skirt steak, flank steak, or even chuck roast against the grain as alternatives. It’s worth noting that the tenderness of the meat is enhanced by the amount of marbling it has. Therefore, try to choose cuts of meat with a generous amount of marbling for the best results.
Tips for slicing beef
To make slicing easier, wrap the beef in plastic wrap and freeze it for at least 2 hours, especially if the meat piece is larger than 1 pound. Once removed from the freezer, thinly slice the beef against the grain. A helpful tip is to sharpen your knife beforehand, just like professional chefs do on TV, as this will greatly facilitate the slicing process.
Substitutions for the ingredients in Bulgogi sauce
Traditionally, the marinade sauce for bulgogi is prepared using soy sauce (jin ganjang), mirin or cooking rice wine, Asian pear, garlic, sugar and/or honey, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and black pepper.
Asian pear is the traditional and preferred choice for tenderizing bulgogi in Korean recipes, with a general guideline of using 2 tablespoons of grated pear per pound of meat. However, if you don’t have Asian pear available, you can certainly use alternative substitutes, and the results will still turn out well.
Substitute for Asian Pear:
- Kiwi – When Asian pear is not readily available, kiwi is my favorite tenderizer to use. It is so potent that 1/2 kiwi is sufficient for 5 lbs of beef, so be cautious not to overuse it.
- Onion – For 1 lb of beef, 3 tablespoons of minced onion will work its magic.
- Diet Coke: In case the meat remains tough even after marinating, as a last resort, you can add 2 tablespoons of Diet Coke to 5 pounds of beef. However, be cautious with the quantity and duration of exposure as Diet Coke is potent and should not be left for too long.
Substitute for Rice wine/Mirin:
Rice wine/Mirin/Sake Substitute: If you cannot use alcohol in your cooking, you can try the following substitutions:For 2 tablespoons of rice or red wine = 2 tablespoons of ginger ale OR 2 tablespoons of apple juice OR 4 teaspoons of grape juice + 1 teaspoon of wine vinegar + 1 teaspoon of water.
When using these alternatives, reduce the amount of tenderizer (especially kiwi) as these juices or ginger ale may have a slight tenderizing effect due to their acidity.
Approaches to cook Bulgogi
Pan frying is the easiest and most straightforward cooking method for Bulgogi. Preheat the pan on high heat and avoid overcrowding it with too much Bulgogi, as this can result in excessive meat juices in the pan. However, if you prefer Bulgogi with a generous amount of liquid to mix with your rice (delicious!), you can opt to cook it slowly on low heat.
Grilling is the most authentic and traditional way to cook Korean BBQ, including Bulgogi (as shown in the top left picture). It involves cooking the meat on an open flame using a charcoal or gas grill. To prevent the meat from falling through, use a fine steel mesh or aluminum foil on the grill. If using foil, poke holes in it to allow for proper heat circulation.
Another option is to broil the Bulgogi on the top rack of your oven using the broil setting. However, be sure to closely monitor the cooking process to prevent burning.
USING A BULGOGI PAN OVER A GAS BURNER
For a traditional Bulgogi experience, you can use a specialized Bulgogi pan placed over a tabletop gas burner (refer to the picture of Seoul Bulgogi). Cook the Bulgogi in the pan along with water or light broth added to the rim. The meat juices will mix with the water, creating a flavorful liquid that can be mixed with rice. You can enhance the taste by adding an egg and swirling it into the juice.
Tips for Bulgogi
- Cook it to your preferred level of doneness, as it can taste delicious when caramelized and slightly charred. You can refer to the video below for a demonstration of the cooking process.
- When storing leftovers (whether uncooked or cooked), keep them in the refrigerator or freezer. To enjoy them again, simply heat them up in a frying pan. Bulgogi is quite forgiving, so even if you accidentally overcook it, it will still be enjoyable.
- For serving suggestions, accompany Bulgogi with rice and Korean lettuce salad, or serve it with Ssam (lettuce wraps) and Ssamjang (dipping sauce). You can also add slices of raw garlic or chili peppers to the Ssam or grill them alongside the meat. For more menu ideas, you can explore my Korean BBQ Dinner cookbook (subscribe to my blog to receive a FREE copy!).
Seoul Bulgogi (서울불고기), also known as Yetnal Bulgogi (옛날불고기), is a unique version of bulgogi that involves using the same marinated beef. However, it is cooked in a special dome pan with a rim filled with water. As the meat juices drip down into the rim, a flavorful broth is slowly created, resulting in a truly delicious experience. Here’s an illustration of the cooking method:
Alternatively, Seoul Bulgogi can also be prepared as a stew, where all the ingredients, including the marinated beef, are cooked together in a pot with a flavorful broth. The stew often includes various vegetables such as cabbage, mushrooms, and Dangmyeon noodles. This variation is known as Bulgogi Jeongol (stew), as depicted in the picture below.
Various Types of Korean Ssam Greens – I have a blog post that provides an explanation of the different greens you can use for ssam, so feel free to mix them up!
Additions to Bulgogi:
In traditional Korean preparation, the beef is typically marinated on its own. However, you have the option to include any or all of the following ingredients: sliced raw onions, mushrooms (such as shiitake, white, or oyster mushrooms), bell peppers, carrots, and green onions. These can be added to the pan while cooking the meat.
- Prepare the sauce by combining all the marinade ingredients, excluding any optional vegetables like onions or mushrooms.
My preferred tenderizer of choice is kiwi, especially when Asian pear is not available at home (which is not always the case). Although kiwi is not a traditional Korean fruit, it has the remarkable ability to make the meat incredibly tender and readily accessible outside of Korean grocery stores. However, it’s important to exercise caution and not use excessive amounts, as it can cause the beef to become overly soft and almost disintegrate in your mouth.
- Mix the bulgogi beef with the previously prepared sauce in a bowl large enough to accommodate the beef. Ensure that the sauce is thoroughly incorporated with the beef by using your hands to massage everything together.
For advance preparation, refrigerate the marinated beef overnight. However, if you’re pressed for time (as is often the case for me), marinating it for a few hours is sufficient. Even a 30-minute marination can work in a pinch. I’ve done it many times, and most people don’t even seem to notice the difference. However, it’s important to note that allowing the beef to marinate and absorb all the delicious flavors over a longer period will result in an even better taste.
- COOKING THE MEAT – (refer to the video for visual guidance)
- STOVE TOP – Preheat your preferred frying pan over MEDIUM-HIGH heat and proceed to pan fry or stir fry the meat until it achieves a slight browning on both sides. The pan should be sufficiently hot for the meat to sizzle upon contact. Avoid overcrowding the pan, as this may result in excessive meat juices being released from the bulgogi, which may not be desirable for everyone. However, if you prefer a generous amount of juice, feel free to adjust accordingly. If desired, add any sliced vegetables to the pan approximately one minute after you begin cooking the meat. Continue cooking until the meat is thoroughly cooked and achieves a caramelized appearance (similar to what you see in the image below).
- OTHER METHODS – Please refer to the aforementioned Tips section for alternative cooking methods.
NEW!! Watch and listen to my Bulgogi cooking video!
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- 1 lb thinly sliced sirloin (top sirloin or any tender loin area)
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar (white sugar is also okay)
- 1 tablespoon honey (2 teaspoons of sugar is also okay)
- 2 tablespoons rice cooking wine or red wine (mirin works too)
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon chopped green onion
- 2 tablespoons pear puree (or 1 tablespoon kiwi puree or 3 tablespoons onion puree)
- To make the sauce, combine all of the marinade ingredients together, excluding any optional vegetables like onions or mushrooms.
- In a bowl large enough to hold the beef, mix the bulgogi beef into the prepared sauce mentioned above. Ensure that the sauce is thoroughly combined with the beef by using your hands to massage and mix everything together.
- Heat your preferred frying pan over high heat and pan fry or stir fry the meat until it becomes slightly browned on both sides.
Tips & Notes:
- Marinating: Marinate the meat for a minimum of 30 minutes at room temperature (not too hot) or in the refrigerator for several hours up to 24 hours. If you need to marinate for longer than 24 hours, freeze the meat.
- Kiwi substitute: You can substitute 2 tablespoons of pear puree with 1 tablespoon of kiwi.
- Ensure the pan is hot enough so that the meat sizzles as it touches the pan. Avoid overcrowding the pan or using low heat, as this may result in excessive meat juice leaking out and turning it into Bulgogi stew.
- The most authentic and traditional way to cook Bulgogi (Korean Beef BBQ) is on a charcoal grill. Use a fine steel mesh or tin foil to prevent the meat from falling through. Bulgogi is meant to be well-cooked and can even taste great with a slight char.
- Alternatively, you can broil the meat on the top rack of your oven using the broil temperature. Be cautious and closely monitor it to prevent burning.
- Optional vegetable ingredients: While traditionally Bulgogi is made with beef alone, if you are cooking it in a frying pan, you can add sliced onions, mushrooms (shiitake, white, oyster), bell peppers, and even sliced carrots. Cook them together with the meat.