What Is Bulgogi?

Get to know this quintessential Korean dish with tips on how to enjoy it the authentic way.

What Is Bulgogi?

Bulgogi, or Korean beef barbecue, is undoubtedly one of the most quintessentially Korean dishes there are: gorgeously thin slices of ribeye, tenderloin, or sirloin marinated in a savory-sweet sauce and quickly cooked over flame. Bul, meaning "fire," and gogi, meaning "meat," originated in Korea's Goguryeo era (the 1st century BCE to the 7th century CE), and once you taste these perfectly caramelized morsels of sweet and savory meat, you'll understand why this dish has stood the test of time. The tables at Korean restaurants even feature built-in charcoal or gas grills for guests to enjoy this iconic communal dining experience, combining meat and fire served with rice, lettuce leaves, and sumptuous sides (more on that below) in handmade bites, personalized to delight your own unique taste buds.

Bulgogi Beef (Korean-Style Barbecue)
Photo by Chef John.

The Meat of the Matter

While you can prepare your Korean barbecue with a variety of meats like pork ribs, brisket, beef tongue, pork belly or chicken, the definitive version is beef bulgogi. Ribeye, sirloin, or tenderloin are the recommended cuts, but if you're cooking on a budget, try flank steak or skirt steak with a few extra hours of marinating time. Look for a hunk of meat with nice consistent marbling throughout. This beautiful marbling paired with the mouthwatering marinade is what gives you that melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.

Next, you will want to cut the meat, against the grain, into paper-thin slices. Some recipes suggest slicing the beef while frozen for uber-thin uniformity. You can also just have your local butcher pre-slice them for you.

An authentic bulgogi marinade combines soy sauce, white or brown sugar, and sesame oil with minced, grated, or blended garlic, onion, and Asian pear. The true authentic Asian pear—a sweet fruit that is more like an apple—is a must. So, head to your local Korean market for the good stuff. Some recipes also call for sweet rice cooking wine, apple juice, or even Coca-Cola for added sweetness. If you want some added depth of flavor, incorporate gochujang, a fermented red chili pepper paste that is ubiquitous in Korean kitchens. The thick, crimson condiment features a sweet, savory, slightly spicy, smoky, funky taste that is to-die-for. It's got a little kick, but if you're looking for even more heat, go with a classic Asian chili garlic sauce. Mix up your marinade, then douse your paper-thin beef slices in the tasty sauce. Let it marinade for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Try Chef John's version of Beef Bulgogi, which features a marinade made with Asian pear and Korean chili flakes (gochugaru). Watch Chef John make bulgogi:

Once you're ready to cook, remove the marinated beef and let it come to room temperature—about 30 minutes. The actual barbecuing process hardly takes any time at all. Let the grill, cast-iron skillet, or wok get very hot before searing begins, so that the meat sizzles and caramelizes with crispy brown edges and a tender center. Once you see moisture forming on the top side, flip the slices. It only takes a few minutes—you don't want to cook it too long or it will be dry and tough. If you're looking for a juicier result with a sauce-like effect, you can pour all of the marinated beef and its juices into a skillet or wok. Some prefer this so that the savory-sweet sauce can flavor their rice. Common garnishes include chopped scallions and toasted sesame seeds.

How to Eat Bulgogi

Bulgogi's charm lies not only in its incredible flavor, but also in the hands-on, communal experience with handmade bites that can be tailored to dazzle each diner's palate.

Just picture it: To start this iconic meal, an authentic Korean table is laden with an assortment of small side dishes known as banchan, which are meant to be enjoyed as appetizers and complements for the barbecue bites throughout the meal. There are hundreds of different types of banchan—spicy cucumber salad, seasoned egg in soy sauce, stir-fried spicy fish cake, dried seaweed, candied sweet potatoes, enoki mushroom pancakes, pickled jalapeno-radish, stir-fried anchovies, seasoned mung bean sprouts, stir-fried zucchini, steamed eggplant, or seasoned greens like spinach, cabbage, or watercress, to name a few.

Oi Sobagi (Korean Cucumber Kimchi)
Banchan: Oi Sobagi (Korean Cucumber Kimchi). Allrecipes

The thinly sliced raw marinated beef is brought to cook on the table's center grill before everyone's eyes. If you want to create this authentic Korean restaurant experience in your own home, get a portable Korean BBQ grill for your home table, and cook the raw slices of meat for all to enjoy the sizzlin' sounds and tantalizing aromas. Another option for serving is on a sizzling fajita platter—most Korean markets will have multiple options available. The beautifully seared beef is most often paired with steamed white rice, lettuces, and kimchi.

Ssam, meaning "wrapped," refers to the Korean culinary method in which rice, meat, or other fillings are wrapped in leafy vegetables. Any combination of lettuces that you love can be used to form your lettuce wraps. Popular ones are Koran perilla leaves, red-leaf lettuce, kaenip, Boston lettuce, or steamed or parboiled cabbage. The wrap is meant to be a bite-sized morsel, and everyone has their favored method. Some use multiple lettuce leaves and place a little rice inside with their meat. The addition of kimchi is par for the course. Then any manner of spicy sauces or banchan bites can be added into the mix, as well as ssamjang—a beloved Korean barbecue sauce that is tangy, fermented, and absolutely delightful when paired with the sweet-and-savory beef bulgogi.

Korean Bulgogi with white rice and lettuce

While ssam is a popular method for eating a bulgogi feast, others prefer to eat their beef atop or mixed into rice, adding in any desired banchan and sauces. And if you want to pair these incredible bulgogi flavors with a beverage, try Korea's national drink: soju—a clear rice wine similar to Japan's sake. Geonbae! (That's "Cheers!" in Korean!)

Now gather a group of your favorite people and create a bulgogi experience that will truly wow them.

Here are some top-rated bulgogi recipes to get you started:


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