Bulgogi, meaning “fire meat” in Korean, is thinly sliced marinated meat, typically beef. If you eat bulgogi at a nice Korean restaurant, you will be able to grill the meat on one of those grills built into the table. It’s a really cool experience. However, this beef bulgogi recipe is adapted to home-cooking in a cast iron skillet. It’s also the beef bulgogi recipe I grew up eating with my siblings. So, it has a special place in my heart and taste buds.
Now, I’m sure every Korean family has their own marinade recipe. The one in this post is the one I grew up with. I’m sure you’re thinking, “but you’re not Korean”. And you’d be right. I’m not. But my step-brothers are part Korean on their mom’s side. (My mom married their dad). While my stepdad was stationed in Korea and married to their mom, he picked up a few Korean recipes. Bulgogi was one of them.
Most marinades are a combination so savory and sweet; made with soy, garlic, and a sweet element of some kind, like Asian pear, apple, pineapple, sugar, etc. Now, my brothers liked things spicy. Very spicy. So, that’s the kind of bulgogi my stepdad made.
The first time he made it, I was not accustomed to spicy food. My food experiences to that point consisted of Irish and German midwestern food. Since I wasn’t accustomed to spicy food, I had a lineup of things to cool the palate: ranch dressing (I’m from the Midwest after all), sour cream, and milk. I think I drank half a gallon of milk that night, and I don’t like to drink milk!
From then on, my stepdad would make two different types of bulgogi: a spicy one for the boys, and a mild one for my sister and I. The four of us kids love bulgogi so much, my parents would marinate it in gallon ice creams buckets. I remember being a kid and getting to stick my hands in the bucket to toss the meat in the marinade.
When I was in college, I hadn’t had bulgogi in a few years and I was craving it. So, one weekend I called up my parents and got the recipe from them. I’ve since made it for college potlucks and dinners with friends and family since college. In college I would sometimes make it with chicken or pork because beef can be expensive, and I was on a college budget.
Anyway, back to the recipe. This is the spicy bulgogi version my stepdad described to me on the phone. To make this post, I actually had to measure the amount of each ingredient I was putting in. I had never done that before when making bulgogi. It was more of a go-by-sight and go-by-taste recipe.
For bulgogi for 3-4 normal servings thinly slice 1 pound of beef. You can use whatever kind of beef steak or roast is on sale. Just make sure you thinly slice it against the grain. Also thinly slice 1 yellow onion and julienne a carrot (or matchsticks).
Like I said, my family makes a spicy bulgogi marinade. Maybe consider it a different type of “fire” in the fire meat. Anyway, it starts with gojuchang, or a spicy pepper paste. You can find it at most grocery stores in the Asian aisles nowadays. Then add soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil, and some sweet midwestern barbecue sauce (or hoisin sauce).
Once the marinade is mixed together, add the meat and vegetables and toss everything together. You can use tongs or some other utensil, but I prefer to get in there with my hands like I did when I was a kid. Hands are really the best kitchen tools anyway.
Cover and refrigerate for at least a few hours, but preferably overnight. The longer the meat marinates, the better it’s going to taste. I normally make it the night before I plan to eat it. Or at least make it first thing in the morning so it can marinate all day while I am at work.
Like I mentioned earlier, you would normally grill this meat over fire. But, it’s also common to cook it in a skillet when making it at home. A wok would work great here. But, I normally use a cast iron. If you don’t have either of those, a regular skillet works just fine too. No need to go out and buy any special equipment.
So for those of you at home keeping track, we’ve deviated from most bulgogi recipes in a couple of ways: making it spicy and including carrots in the mixture. Now for serving. I’m not sure how bulgogi is traditionally eaten. I imagine it is served with some sort of rice. But, I serve it the same way my parents served it to me and my siblings; with rice, lettuce, and a little extra dipping sauce.
- 1 lb beef roast or steak thinly sliced
- 1 onion thinly sliced
- 1 carrot julienned
- 1 tbsp gojuchang
- 1 tbsp barbecue or hoisin sauce
- 3 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- Prepare the meat and vegetables by thinly slicing the beef and onions and julienning the carrot (matchsticks).
- Combine marinade ingredients in a large bowl.
- Mix the meat and vegetables into the marinade.
- Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.
- Heat a wok or cast iron skillet with a drizzle of neutral oil over medium high heat.
- Add the marinated meat and vegetables in 1 layer. Depending on the size of your skillet you may need to cook in batches.
- Saute the meat until it is just cooked through, about 5-7 minutes.
- Serve with sticky white rice and lettuce leaves.