Thinly sliced and quick to cook, Korean bulgogi is served in lettuce wraps with toppings to create a fun and flavorful meal.
By Emily Clifton
My favorite Korean dish is Bulgogi (in Korean, literally “fire-meat”) which is very thinly sliced beef that has been marinated in a delicious sweet soy mixture and then grilled or pan-seared. For some reason I always thought of this as a complicated restaurant-only dish. I was wrong. Turns out Bulgogi is not only delicious, it’s also super easy to make.
The marinade is really pretty simple. It’s a mixture of soy, sugar, sesame oil mixed with aromatics like ginger, garlic and scallion. One traditional ingredient that might come as a surprise is grated pear. Round, yellow Asian pears are traditional but you could use Bosc or any pear you like. It may seem odd but pear contains an enzyme called calpain that helps to tenderize the meat. If you’re using an incredibly tender cut like ribeye the pear isn’t really necessary but for the chewier cuts, it’s helpful. Speaking of meat, you have a lot of choices for what cut of beef you use. Some recipes call for sirloin, tenderloin, skirt steak or rib eye. (If you have access to an Asian specialty store, they often sell pre-sliced ribeye for Bulgogi). Whatever you choose, you want meat that has plenty of marbling. Lean cuts like brisket will be too tough.
We used a mixture of rib-eye (purchased pre-sliced from the Korean market), and boneless short ribs that we sliced ourselves. Both were great but I was surprised to find that we preferred the short rib. It had more flavor and a wonderful texture. Whatever cut you use, if you’re slicing it yourself, freeze it for 15 minutes (to make it easier to slice) and then cut it as thinly as you can against the grain. This is important because it makes chewy cuts of meat much more tender.
One of the nice things about this dish is that, once the meat is marinaded to your liking it literally takes minutes to cook. This is ideal for a dinner party because you can do all the work in advance and then just sear off the meat and you’re done.
You can serve Bulgogi just with a bowl of hot rice but I like to make lettuce cups and serve them with lots of vegetable side dishes. These are not the traditional dishes that come with Bulgogi (called banchan) but they are delicious nonetheless.
Kimchi (not homemade, yet, but we like Bing Gre Kimchee Pride brand)
- Radishes with Sesame Oil and Maldon Salt
- Quick Pickled Cucumber
- Red Cabbage Salad with Spicy Miso-Ginger Dressing
I love to cook and learn about food. I was born and raised in New York City and I was exposed to a lot of different food cultures as a kid though I was weirdly picky. I hated mashed potatoes but I loved kim chee. Hated fish, loved escargot. I said I was weird, don’t judge me. My mom is a great cook but I definitely don’t have any “passed down from grandma” types of recipes. Both my grandmothers were horrible cooks. I mean really, truly bad. I give my mom a lot of credit for knowing that string beans are not actually supposed to be gray. In real life I’m a film/TV editor which just might be the most fun job in the world. Occasionally it can be the most annoying job in the world which is why I really appreciate it when I get to take a break and do my other favorite things which is cook, take photographs and write.