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Korean Marinated Beef

By Annie Petito Published

Served with rice, spicy sauce, and pickles, this Korean staple of thinly sliced, marinated beef comes together to make a complete meal. And it cooks up in under 5 minutes.

When I first tried bulgogi (literally “fire meat”) at a Korean barbecue restaurant, I immediately fell in love—not just with the dish but with the whole experience. Diners used chopsticks to spread thinly sliced beef, wet with a sweet soy marinade, across a hot grill in the center of the table. The meat sputtered and hissed, and after a few minutes it was lightly browned and cooked through. Each diner then piled a few pieces into a lettuce leaf, spooned on a deeply savory chile sauce, wrapped up the lettuce into a package, and ate it. Rice was served alongside to help balance the intense flavors, along with an array of different sauces and pickles collectively known as banchan.

Eating in this communal way, with each person customizing their own bites of the dish, was fun and convivial. It's no wonder that bulgogi is one of the most popular dishes in Korea, both at restaurants and at home. I couldn't wait to re-create the experience in my kitchen.

As we always do, we kicked off recipe development by comparing five different existing recipes to see what we liked or wanted to improve.

A Cut Above the Rest

Tender and/or fatty cuts are common for bulgogi so that the thin slices, which end up fairly well-done, don't turn tough or dry. Popular choices include rib eye, sirloin, tenderloin, and skirt steak. After tasting all the cuts side by side, we chose rib eye for its rich beefiness and generous marbling.

Traditionally, the steak for bulgogi is sliced razor-thin, and we've found that partially freezing the meat makes this task much easier. I divided a single rib-eye steak into 1½-inch-wide pieces and then froze them for 35 minutes before slicing them thin. As I worked, the steak was transformed into an impressively large, wispy pile of shaved meat (see “One Steak, Four Servings”). It was now time for the marinade.

One Steak, Four Servings

Sliced paper-thin and served with rice and other accompaniments, a single rib eye is plenty to serve four people.

  • Divide and Freeze Rib Eye

    Trim exterior and interior fat from 1¼‑pound rib eye. Cut beef crosswise into 1½-inch-wide pieces and freeze until very firm to make slicing easier.

  • Turn Pieces onto Cut Side

    Stand each piece on cut side to expose grain.

  • Thinly Slice

    Use sharp knife to shave meat as thin as possible against grain. Precise slicing isn’t necessary—it’s more important that the slices are thin than that they are perfect.

Balancing Act

The marinade for bulgogi skews sweet, but in addition to sugar, it contains a good amount of soy sauce and garlic. I put together a batch containing soy sauce, garlic cloves, sugar, toasted sesame oil, and pepper; tossed it with the meat; and let it sit for 30 minutes.

I cooked the slices (without wiping off the marinade, per tradition) in a nonstick skillet over moderately high heat, let them sit for a minute to brown slightly, and then stirred until they were no longer pink, just a few minutes longer.

Unfortunately, this beef had a sweetness that screamed teriyaki, not bulgogi. I decreased the sugar from 6 tablespoons to 4, increased the soy sauce from 2 to 3 tablespoons, and for savoriness, doubled the garlic cloves to four and added ¼ cup of chopped onion—an ingredient I had seen in some bulgogi recipes. I pureed the mixture (also common) and then marinated and cooked the beef as before. Much better: The sweetness was still apparent but much more tempered.

Treat It Right

The meat tasted great and wasn't dry, but it was a bit chewy, since the thin pieces couldn't help but be cooked well beyond medium-rare. Many bulgogi recipes address this issue by including certain fruits, such as pear, for the enzymes they contain that supposedly tenderize meat. But I found that tossing the beef with baking soda (our go-to treatment for tenderizing meat) and letting it sit for a few minutes before marinating it was more effective, as pear and other fruits turned the surface of the meat mushy (for details, see “Try a Little Tenderness [But Not Too Much]”).

Kyung-Jin Rhee, an accomplished Korean home cook, shares with us how she makes bulgogi.

But I had one more question about the marinade: The test kitchen learned long ago that marinades do most of their work on the meat's surface, and my thin slices were nearly all surface. What's more, the beef was cooking directly in its marinade. Was soaking the slices for 30 minutes superfluous? When tasting three batches—one marinated for 30 minutes, one for 15 minutes, and another just before cooking—no one could detect a difference. A quick soak just before cooking was the way to go.

I cooked up another batch of meat, this time adding a handful of scallion greens during the last 30 seconds for freshness and a vibrant green color. The salty-sweet beef was ultratender and moist.

Try a Little Tenderness (But Not Too Much)

  • Many bulgogi marinade recipes include pear or kiwi—fruits that contain enzymes that supposedly tenderize the meat. To test their tenderizing effects for ourselves, we added ½ cup each of crushed pear and crushed kiwi to separate batches of our marinade and soaked slices of rib-eye steak in each for 30 minutes. We also tossed some sliced steak in our go-to tenderizer—a solution of baking soda and water—and let it sit for 5 minutes (since baking soda works on contact, longer isn’t necessary). We then stir-fried all three samples per our recipe.

     

    While the baking soda–treated batch cooked up perfectly moist and tender, the pear- and kiwi-marinated meat cooked up mushy on the surface. That’s because the tenderizers work differently: Whereas baking soda tenderizes by unraveling and separating the meat’s protein strands, the powerful fruit enzymes (calpain in pear; actinidain in kiwi) snip the protein strands into smaller pieces that yield a mushy texture. We’ll stick with baking soda when we need to tenderize meat. 

     

    USE BAKING SODA, NOT A FRUITY MARINADE
    Baking soda leaves meat nicely tender, not mushy.

You can eat bulgogi as a plated meal with steamed rice and kimchi or wrap small portions of the beef in lettuce leaves with chile sauce and daikon pickles and eat them like tacos.

Party Time

Finally, I turned to the banchan. First up was the traditional savory chile sauce ssamjang to dab onto the meat. I combined minced scallion whites with two potently flavored Korean pantry staples made from fermented soy beans: sweet, savory, and spicy gochujang and salty, rich doenjang (see “Punch Up Your Pantry with These Korean Staples”). I also added sugar, garlic, toasted sesame oil, and a little water to loosen its consistency. Then, for a crisp, pungent element, I soaked daikon radishes in vinegar, salt, and sugar for 30 minutes to create a quick pickle.

With steamed rice, lettuce leaves, and kimchi to go with the tender beef, spicy sauce, and tangy pickles, I had a fun, satisfying meal that I couldn't wait to share.

 

 

 

Recipe Korean Marinated Beef (Bulgogi)

This popular Korean dish features flavorful strips of marinated steak that cook in minutes. Bulgogi is quick enough for a weeknight but also impressive and fun to serve to company.

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