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 salty, sweet, and spicy 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.
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.
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.
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 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 yielded better results in my tests, as pear and other fruits turned the surface of the meat mushy during the 30-minute marinade (for details, see “Try a Little Tenderness”).
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.
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 complexly 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, acidic 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.