In the world of Korean cooking, if there is one classic dish, it’s kimchi. But after that, it’s bulgogi.
Bulgogi, literally translated, means “fire meat.” Anyone who has had Korean barbecue knows that all of the KBBQ meats go on fire, but for something to be called “bulgogi,” it requires that the meat be marinaded, and there are a few requirements, but after those – nothing is off-limits.
Korean Bulgogi Recipe Requirements
The first thing required in Korean bulgogi recipe is the marinade. As mentioned, there are three requirements. You can have a perfectly delicious dish without all three–but it’s not “bulgogi” without these three things. Also, there are plenty of Korean meat dishes that are seasoned with salt, but that’s not “bulgogi.”
First, the marinade must be soy sauce based.
The second requirement for a Korean bulgogi recipe is sugar. While there are ways to incorporate honey to sweeten the dish, traditionally — it must be sugar-based.
Lastly, and I don’t know if this is a must by the Korean Cooking Follow-or-Die Rulebook, but you need garlic for bulgogi. There’s no way two ways about it. Without it, you simply have sugar meat.
Korean Bulgogi Recipe
So this recipe is one of the most asked for, but in my house, bulgogi is just about the quickest meat dish you can make. Furthermore, I make a relatively big batch at once and freeze the rest in single or double portions, as this defrosts better than virtually any other meat and tastes identical despite having been frozen. So when I make this dish, it’s never one of those days where I have a lot of time and am ready to measure, take photos, and be meticulous. I never measure when I cook this – and anything I have too much of, I can easily fix with this or that to balance it out (though I really should use a recipe for consistency). When I make it, it takes me about 10 minutes prep time, and then I divide into the portions I want, freeze some batches, and after 30-60 minutes marinade time, I fire up the pan and cook dinner.
What’s shown above are essentially the items I have to have on-hand to make a good bulgogi. As I said, anything with sugar, soy sauce, and garlic qualifies to be bulgogi — but to be a really good bulgogi, you want the above ingredients.
First, I have 2.25 pounds of sliced ribeye. You can make it with a lesser or greater meat, but the real flavor of bulgogi comes to life with ribeye meat. This recipe should work for any meat amount ranging from 1.5-2.5 pounds, adjusting only if you have much more or much less than that.
Definitely use fresh garlic and fresh ginger, mince them and put aside. I put carrots or red pepper slices in — just for color. The Korean peppers are also included more for color than taste; Korean peppers have a lot of flavor but not necessarily a lot of heat, at least not always. The green onions are for the end, used as garnish and a little freshness.
The half apple and half onion, I’ll be tossing into the food processor to make into a slush of shorts, shown below.
I use Pink Lady apples if I can because they’re so crisp, have a slight tangy hit with a distinct sweetness, and a good amount of juice. I toss the apples into the food processor, skin and all, along with the half onion, and puree them until they’re a slush.
Note: if I have Asian pears or kiwi on hand, I’ll use those instead of the apple, or a little bit of each. All we’re doing here is adding a fruit that will (1) sweeten the marinade naturally, and (2) tenderize the meat. Any of the above will work.
For this amount of meat, I prepare 1 cup each of soy sauce, purified water (any drinking water – I avoid tap water), and sugar. While it’s sort of a fail-safe to use 1 cup of each, how much sugar and water you need depends on how much water came out of the puree, how sweet your apples are, etc. For this particular dinner, I used about 5/6 of the water and 3/4 of the sugar, but when in doubt, you can use 1 cup of each and you should be golden.
NOTE: you can use soju, sake, or even white wine to replace some of the water, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick to water. The purpose of the water is solely to control how salty your soy sauce mixture becomes, so what the liquid is matters less as long as it balances out the marinade. Sometimes, I use half soju and half water.
Toss in all of the carrots and peppers, and half the green onions, saving the other half for garnish. Add about 2 tablespoons of sesame oil. You can add sesame seeds here, but I add those at the end as a garnish. Let this sit while you prepare the meat.
NOTE: this is where you taste the marinade. The taste you want depends partly on your own preference of sweetness, and what you plan to do with the meat.
- For example, if you’re making one batch to cook up in the next half hour — then you want the marinade to be a little saltier since it won’t be sitting there soaking up the flavors for long. Sweetness is up to you.
- If you’re making batches to marinade for a day, then freeze — then you want the marinade to taste a tad saltier than “just right,” accounting for the juices in the meat to release into marinade.
The sliced meat should be available at every single Korean market, and the mass majority of Chinese markets like 99 Ranch. Note that this is not the same as meat labeled “shabu shabu meat” which is very thinly sliced to accommodate swirling in boiling water and cooking quickly. For Korean bulgogi recipe, the meat should be approximately 2-3mm thick.
It’s key here to make sure you take apart each slice to dunk into the marinade! If you toss the whole thing in, you’ll be shredding apart the meat trying to get each piece marinaded, or each piece won’t be evenly seasoned.
Take each individual slice, dunk into the marinade, swirl around and lift out. Then lightly squeeze the meat so that extra marinade drips off, and put aside in a bowl. This squeezing part is critical if your marinade happens to be too much soy sauce and it tastes too salty. If your marinade is on the less saltier side — then see below.
My marinade is almost never on the saltier side because I’ll use enough water, sake, or soju to control for that — mostly because I don’t like soy sauce (yes, it’s an issue, and yes, we’ll discuss it one day–and yes, this means I don’t actually like bulgogi, but I cook it because everyone else loves it). So once I individually dunk each piece of meat into the marinade, I pour all of the marinade back into the bowl to let the meat sit in it.
IF your marinade is really salty — you want to ensure that your meat sits in its squeezed form, and do not pour the marinade back in.
For the next 30 minutes or so, I will turn the meat to ensure each piece is getting covered.
I’ve taken about a pound of meat out and am saving the rest for another day. When you take this out of the bowl of marinade, give it another good squeeze without destroying the meat.
Heat up a skillet at your max heat and use a little bit of oil. I’m using canola oil, but olive oil or vegetable oil works fine, too.
Once the oil is hot, toss in a handful of meat at a time. You don’t want to put in too much into one pan if you want them to cook and brown nicely.
If you’ve done this right and in a really hot pan, then you should have a minimal amount of liquid. For real bulgogi, if you have a lot of liquids coming out while cooking — that’s not “fire meat” but “boiled meat.” So you definitely want to minimize the amount of liquids, and if you use a really, really hot pan and have squeezed out the marinade from the meat– it should be minimal.
Simply cook on high heat, then I usually lower to medium as I brown some but not others, and only ensure that I unfold the crumpled up meat to cook all visible sides.
And that’s it — you simply plate and serve.
At our house, for at least three generations, bulgogi is consumed with a raw egg dip, sort of like Japanese sukiyaki. I just crack two eggs into a small dipping bowl per person, and mix it up. I am guessing this is something my grandfather picked up when he attended university in Japan, but I’m really not sure.
If you’re totally grossed out by this — then, well, grab a bowl of rice and go to town with meat.
But if not — then definitely give this a try. The first time Mr. K tried it, he was ecstatic. Bulgogi and raw egg. Now, he never eats bulgogi without it.
You heard it here first, thanks to PAPA KEH!
- 2 lbs. Sliced meat (ribeye preferred)
- 2 T Garlic
- 2 T Ginger
- 1 C Soy Sauce
- 1 C Purified Drinking Water
- 1 C White Sugar
- 1 Serrano, Jalapeno, or Korean pepper
- ½ Onion
- ½ Apple (or other fruit - see post)
- ½ Carrot - julienne
- 2-3 Green Onions -- half in marinade, half for garnish
- 2 T Sesame Oil
- 1 T Sesame Seeds
- Sliced red peppers
- Thinly sliced mushrooms
- Slice and prep all ingredients according to recipe post.
- Toss ½ onion and ½ apple into food processor to puree to a fine slush
- Combine apple/onion mix with 1 C soy sauce, water and sugar (see post for how to adjust water and sugar to taste)
- Add remaining ingredients (saving half the green onions for garnish) into marinade; stir.
- Take apart each slice of meat, dunk in marinade, squeeze lightly, put aside until all meat is marinaded.
- Read post for details on what to do with leftover marinade.
- Let the meat sit in marinade for at least 30 minutes.
- Heat frypan on high with canola oil.
- When pan is hot, put in meat and fry thoroughly on both sides of the meat.
- When fully cooked, plate, sprinkle with remaining green onions and sesame seeds.
- Serve immediately with rice.
Two eggs into individual dipping bowls, mix well and serve immediately.