Bulgogi is a Korean dish of meltingly tender, thinly-sliced beef seasoned in a delicious soy and sugar marinade. We serve it in lettuce cups with lots of bright vegetable side dishes.
I was a pretty picky eater as a kid. If I could smother something in ketchup it was usually safe but I wasn’t what you would call adventurous (no fish of any kind, nothing mushy). Kids are so weird though. My favorite after-school snack was crackers smeared with cream cheese, sprinkled with garlic powder. I thought I was such a gourmet. Matt liked condensed milk sandwiches. And weirdest of all, my brother’s favorite snack was smoked oysters dipped in Thousand Island dressing. This was when he was ten, and no, we didn’t live on the set of Dynasty.
Anyway, the point is that I was a picky little brat except when it came to Korean food. I wouldn’t eat mashed potatoes for all the money in the world but give me seaweed and a bowl of kimchi and I was set. In fact to this day, my comfort food is toasted seaweed with rice, avocado and kimchi.
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.
- Homemade Kimchi (or your preferred brand; we like Bing Gre Kimchee Pride)
- Radishes with Sesame Oil and Maldon Salt
- Quick Pickled Cucumber
- Red Cabbage Salad with Spicy Miso-Ginger Dressing
Don’t forget to check out our Asian Pantry Basics page for descriptions and links to many of the ingredients used in this dish.
Bulgogi (Korean Grilled Beef) Lettuce Wraps
- 1-1.5 lbs. of boneless English-style short ribs rib-eye or sirloin (or thinly sliced rib-eye steak purchased from a Korean market).
- 1 ⁄4 of a medium yellow onion halved and sliced into medium moon shaped slivers
- 2 scallions sliced into 2 inch pieces
- 1-2 tablespoons neutral oil like grapeseed or peanut for pan frying
For the marinade
- 1 ⁄3 cup of soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons white sugar
- 1 tablespoon mirin or increase sugar by 1 tablespoon
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 1/4 Asian pear coarsely grated (about 1/4 cup) *not necessary if using tender rib eye
- 4 garlic cloves minced or grated
- 2 teaspoons ginger. minced or grated about 1 inch piece
For the lettuce wraps:
- 1 head butter lettuce or romaine, cleaned and leaves separated
- 2 cups cooked rice
- 1 scallion finely sliced
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- 1 cup Red Cabbage Salad with Spicy Miso-Ginger Dressing optional
Prep the meat: If slicing your own meat, placing it in the freezer for 20-30 minutes makes slicing easier. Trim the meat of excess fat and slice it as thinly as you can cutting against the grain. If using pre-sliced meat, just separate the pieces and dry them.
- Whisk all the marinade ingredients together in a large bowl. When the sugar has dissolved, add the beef, scallion and onion slices to the bowl and toss very well (I find using my hands is the best way to ensure every piece gets coated). Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to overnight.
- Take meat out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before you plan to cook it to take the chill off. Heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet on medium high heat and add a tablespoon of oil. Working in batches, place a few slices of beef into the pan and quickly maneuver them so they are laying flat and in a single layer. Cook on one side for 1-2 minutes and then flip and cook the other side, 1-2 minutes longer. It’s not really traditional but I like each piece to get brown and crisp at the edges.
- Once beef is cooked, you can serve it right away with a bowl of hot rice or make lettuce wraps.
- For the lettuce wraps, spoon a little rice into each lettuce leaf. Top with a slice or two of Bulgogi, and garnish with sesame seeds, sliced scallions and a bit of Red Cabbage Salad with Spicy Miso-Ginger Dressing, if using.