Bulgogi – My Korean grandmother’s family beef bulgogi recipe is made of thinly sliced beef (usually rib-eye), pre-soaked in bulgogi marinade. Bulgogi is then grilled on a barbeque or pan-fried. Tender caramelized beef bulgogi is what Korean BBQ is all about! This bulgogi recipe is authentic and best served with steamed rice.
POPULAR TRADITIONAL KOREAN FOOD DISHES YOU HAVE TO TRY
There are three traditional Korean dishes most people are familiar with. The most popular and my personal favorite beef bulgogi and kalbi – types of Korean BBQ, cooked over charcoal or an open flame. Both types of Korean BBQ tastes slightly sweet, full of savory flavors of garlic, sesame sauce, soy sauce, black pepper, and onions. Bulgogi is one the most flavorful barbecue beef dishes you will ever experience and enjoy.
If bulgogi is the most popular, the most recognizable and beloved Korean dish is kimchi. A fermented spicy side dish made from Napa cabbage or other vegetables, kimchi is served at every meal as banchan – a collection of small side dishes served with rice.
BULGOGI AND KALBI ARE NOT THE SAME
The primary difference between authentic bulgogi and kalbi are the cuts of beef used as well as the cooking method. Bulgogi is made from thinly sliced tender beef – rib-eye is the most common and flavorful cut of bulgogi beef, although some people will use sirloin. Kalbi are short-ribs. Korean BBQ recipes for both types of beef dishes are nearly the same. You could easily use the bulgogi marinade on the short-ribs, but they will taste slightly different due to the cut of beef. Still.. both are good—really good!
Two more things I want to mention about bulgogi and kalbi, grilling both will produce the best tasting Korean BBQ. However, when grilling is not an option, bulgogi is pan-fried. Whereas kalbi is broiled in the oven – never pan-fried.
Beef Bulgogi and kalbi can be served as a stand-alone Korean BBQ main dish but bulgogi can be used as a component in other Korean food such as kimbap, bibimbap, japchae, or Korean lettuce wrap.
I have so many found memories of our Korean congregants cooking both bulgogi and kalbi over a grate covered fire pit they dug on the beaches of Puget Sound in the summer for our annual church summer picnic.
BULGOGI SAUCE DOESN’T NEED SODA OR ASIAN-PEARS
Every Korean person has their own authentic bulgogi recipe. It all boils down to the bulgogi marinade. When making bulgogi sauce, you will find plenty of bulgogi recipes calling for Asian pears, kiwis, 7-Up, Coke Cola, honey, or brown sugar. Using soda or grated / pureed Asian pears or kiwi are often used to help tenderize the beef. However, I find this unnecessary when using thinly-sliced rib-eye for beef bulgogi. Using these ingredients makes a lot more sense for making Korean BBQ short-ribs.
First off, rib-eye is plenty tender especially when cut bulgogi-thin. How much tender does it need to be? This is why I love our family’s easy bulgogi recipe because we like to keep it simple. Coke or 7-Up is also used as a sweetener in bulgogi marinade but it’s my personal opinion other sweeteners you probably have on hand work just as good. If anyone tries to tell you a bulgogi recipe needs these things, use this bulgogi recipe to prove them wrong.
The use of sodas and pureed fruit to tenderize and sweeten bulgogi is not necessary but is better suited for tenderizing Korean BBQ short-ribs – although this is also debatable.
TO MAKE BULGOGI YOU WILL NEED THESE RECIPE INGREDIENTS:
- thinly sliced rib-eye (You can purchase bulgogi rib-eye beef pre-sliced from a Korean market. The package will be labeled bulgogi beef. They actually sell it as “bulgogi” beef. If you don’t see it, ask the butcher behind the counter for bulgogi beef and he’ll grab you some. Or you can slice your own rib-eye or sirloin steak across the grain in 1/8”-thick slices. Tip: If you partially freeze the bulgogi, you will be able to cut the beef much easier than if you don’t. You’ll be much happier being able to cut clean slices without much resistance.)
- yellow onion
- green onions
- sesame oil
- soy sauce
- roasted sesame seeds
- red pepper flakes
- black pepper
- *optional fresh ginger, agave syrup or honey
BULGOGI MARINATING TIMES
This bulgogi recipe has been updated to reflect the change in recommended marinating times. I used to recommend marinating the bulgogi overnight. The good news is, if you buy the type of bulgogi beef I suggested, you can make the most delicious bulgogi after 30 minutes of marinating. Because the slices of rib-eye are so thin (the Korean market slices are slightly less than 1/8-inch thick), the bulgogi doesn’t need as long to absorb the bulgogi marinade. I still believe the longer the beef can soak up the marinade, the better it will be but after making this bulgogi recipe for over 25 years, I no longer believe overnight is best. 30 minutes is enough time to make delicious bulgogi and up to overnight. If I had to pick the perfect amount, I would say 1-2 hours – but only if you use the rib-eye bulgogi beef from the Korean store I recommended in this bulgogi recipe.
I always have sliced bulgogi rib-eye in my freezer for making Korean BBQ whenever I want. What I usually bring it out from the freezer to the counter and will put it in the microwave on defrost mode for 3 minutes after I’ve removed it from its packaging. Three to four minutes on defrost mode is just enough time so I can cut through the sliced rib-eye without much resistance. From there I will make the bulgogi marinade and have found the beef is usually thawed out enough (it doesn’t take too long since it’s thinly sliced) by the time I’ve made the bulgogi marinade. Once I add the beef I give it a good massage.
Massaging beef? Say what? Yes, that’s right. I pride myself in this very simple and easy bulgogi recipe because good Korean BBQ doesn’t need to be complicated. But, there are things we can do to help the bulgogi process along – and this means massaging the bulgogi. You know how I mentioned the bulgogi will taste amazing after 30 minutes of marinating? Well, that’s because right when I add the beef to the marinade I immediately massage the bulgogi. This really helps the thinly-sliced rib-eye absorb the bulgogi sauce. I’ll massage the bulgogi for about 2-3 minutes really good. If you don’t mind a little raw beef, like steak tar-tar, you should taste the beef bulgogi after you’ve massaged it. It is incredible! It’s like beef poke!
PAN-FRYING BULGOGI – DO’S AND DON’TS
This bulgogi recipe calls for pan-frying the rib-eye in a hot pan. However, not all pans are the same. You need to know this if you expect kick-ass authentic bulgogi. The pan and method totally matter. Like, it can make or break this bulgogi recipe. And if your bulgogi tastes anything other than awesome because you didn’t apply these suggestions, I’m going to be very sad. Because eating awesome bulgogi is an experience everything should be able to do at home.
My sister was in Shanghai for business many years ago and she brought back a hand-hammered wok. As much as I love it, especially for stir-frying noodles, nothing beats pan-frying bulgogi in a cast-iron skillet like this Lodge L8SK3 10-1/4-Inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet. At nearly half its retail price, this is the same cast-iron pan I bought and still use from 10 years ago. At under $15, it is a bargain. I paid close to $30 when I bought it. The only criticism I have is that sometimes I wish I had a 12 inch pan, but I like how the whole entire base of the 10-inch pan is nearly covered by the gas burner when it’s turned on high heat.
A well-seasoned cast-iron pan does an amazing job at searing meat at high heat – enough so that it often burns off excess liquid as it sears the meat. All of this while retaining its non-stick properties. Because of this, cooking in a cast-iron skillet imitates the same type of restaurant-quality stir-fries normally cooked in crazy hot woks. Many Korean restaurants cook their bulgogi in cast-iron for this reason. And the flavor can’t be beat, too. Cast-iron makes all beef, especially steaks, taste better. Whatever you do, do not use a non-stick coated pan. I mean, you could. It won’t taste as awesome though.
The literal word bulgogi means fire meat. Bul translate as fire, and gogi means meat. Bulgogi is traditionally cooked over open fire, although many bulgogi recipes call for grilling bulgogi on a barbeque. This is usually done using a grill pan meant for grilling vegetables with lots of holes in it. This is so the juice from the mean can escape and the meat can sear and caramelize a bit.
When a pan is overcrowded, this leaves little room for the bulgogi juices to burn off and instead will start cooking in its own juices. You don’t want this. What you’re aiming for is simulating the same results as if you cooked it on the grill where the juices would fall or burn away from the meat. The only way to do this is to pan-fry the beef bulgogi in small batches. When you do this, you also get the benefit of seasoning your pan further with each batch of bulgogi you cook for more delicious Korean BBQ. What you’re looking for is cooked and seared meat with caramelization happening on the surface area of the bulgogi so it’s nice and browned.
ADDING TOO MUCH SUGAR OR SWEETENER TO BULGOGI
The last time I made this bulgogi recipe in my cast-iron pan my 10-year-old son was super excited. The kitchen smelled incredible and he could hardly wait for the first batch to be done frying. After I spooned some of the bulgogi onto a plate with some steamed rice, I saw him take a bite and walk away without saying a word. This alarmed me because I thought it tasted awesome. My bulgogi recipe is one of his favorite foods and he always offers immediate feedback on dishes I made if it’s good.
When I asked him if the bulgogi tasted okay, he said, “Shouldn’t this be more sweet?” I asked him to bring me back his plate and told him to wait a minute.
Since I had a batch of bulgogi almost done cooking in my pan, I move the bulgogi over to one side of the pan and added roughly a teaspoon of agave syrup to the empty side. The agave was glistening and the pan was smoking. Using my tongs, I immediately started mixing the beef and agave syrup while pan-frying the bulgogi. A minute later I saw more caramelization on the meat, and then removed the bulgogi from the pan. I took a quick bite of the slighter sweeter batch and it was exactly restaurant-style bulgogi. This was the flavor I know my son was expecting.
What does restaurant-style bulgogi mean? Most restaurant bulgogi and kalbi dishes tend to lean on the sweeter of side. Heck, even Costco makes and sells bulgogi now. Although Costco bulgogi is decent it is way too sweet to be considered authentic.
How sweet should bulgogi be? Well, this is subjective and debatable. My easy bulgogi recipe is authentic and awesome. I find it the perfect amount of sweet. However, some people like their bulgogi sweeter than others. Here’s my thoughts about this. It is much easier to add a little bit more sugar at the end of the cooking process to make bulgogi sweeter than it is fixing a marinade that was too sweet to begin with.
I also use my bulgogi to make bibimbap an kimbap. So, I don’t like my bulgogi too sweet. Most bulgogi recipes seem excessively sweet. My method of making bulgogi a little sweeter at the end works really well. Just add a little bit of agave or honey and work it in in batches (if necessary) tasting the bulgogi until you have it the way you like it.
If you don’t have agave or honey, you can use a tiny bit of brown sugar. Just add a little, like a half a teaspoon and see how you like from there. I don’t recommend white sugar because it’s like table salt – a little bit goes a long way but its concentrated flavor overpowers too easily. As an FYI, in Korea, they will often add sugar syrup (aka corn syrup). I find agave is not too sweet, even less concentrated than honey. Using a liquid sweetener tends to work better. But use whatever you have on hand. Just use precaution when adding sugar or your favorite sweetener to your bulgogi dish.
A Korean BBQ dish of thinly sliced beef marinated and grilled on a barbecue.
- ½ medium yellow onion sliced into slivers
- 2 green onions more if you want to garnish your completed bulgogi dish
- 3 cloves minced garlic
- 1/3 cup soy sauce for gluten-free, use Tamari wheat free soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
- 2 pinches black pepper
- 2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds yellow or black
- Optional: ¼ tsp ginger finely minced
- Optional: Up to a tablespoons of agave syrup or honey for additional sweetness
- Vegetable oil
- 1-1.5 lbs. of thinly sliced rib-eye steak purchased from a Korean market cut into strips. You can also slice your own rib-eye or sirloin steak across the grain in 1/8-inch slices. Partially freezing the beef will help with cutting the bulgogi beef in clean slices.
- Add the onions, green onions, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, red pepper flakes, pepper, and sesame seeds to a medium bowl. Feel free to add the optional ginger if you would like. Whisk all the ingredients for about 10 seconds.
- Add the sliced beef to the bowl and gently massage the beef with the bulgogi marinade for approximately 2 minutes.
- If cooking the bulgogi immediately, allow the beef to soak in the bulgogi marinade for at least 30 minutes before cooking. If you plan on cooking later, cover the bowl in plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator until ready to cook.
To cook the beef bulgogi, drizzle 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oi to a hot pan – a cast iron pan works the best.
- Add the marinated bulgogi to the pan and cook the beef in batches, not to overcrowd the pan. The beef only needs about three minutes to cook. The bulgogi should be cooked through, no medium rare beef.
- Taste the Korean bulgogi and if you would like it a tiny bit sweeter, drizzle a little bit of agave syrup or honey in the pan. Add the cooked bulgogi back to the pan as well. Stir and cook the beef for about 10 seconds making sure the agave syrup is evenly coating all the pieces.
- Repeat this process with each batch.
- Serve the bulgogi with steamed rice.