Bulgogi (불고기) needs no introduction. It’s one of the most popular and well-known Korean dishes. If you search Google for “bulgogi recipe”, you’ll get over 300,000 hits (or over 2.6 million hits if you type in “불고기”). No doubt that there are numerous awesome bulgogi recipes out there. So why post another one to add to the already crowded field? Because there is no such thing as one, universal bulgogi recipe. Every household has its own variation, each special in their own right.
My bulgogi recipe was handed down from my mom. Like many of her signature dishes, she never used a recipe. She knew by feel and intuition just how much of each ingredient was needed. I mentioned before that she uses the “big spoon” and “little spoon” measuring technique – basically the same spoons from decades ago that are benchmarks for measuring how much of this and how much of that should go into what. Hey, it works for her, and as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Her methodology must’ve rubbed off on me because I find myself doing the same thing. I have my own big spoon and little spoon, which are different from hers but I know them by feel now. So the last few years making bulgogi, I never measured anything except use the spoons as guidelines. My results were always consistent, except when I changed soy sauce brands (some would be too salty, some not salty enough), which is proof that you should just stick to a brand you like.
For me, the perfect bulgogi is about getting the right ratio of sweet to savoury. Because everyone’s palates are so different, bulgogi is one of the best things to experiment with. Do you prefer your bulgogi on the sweeter side? Or do like it less sweet? Adjust the ratio until it matches your tastes. Like I mentioned above, there is no such thing as a master bulgogi recipe; you just have to get the ratio down pat. Find your ratio and you’re set for life.
The recipe I’m sharing with you has usable measurements (instead of “big spoon of this” or “little spoon of that”) and will make a big batch of bulgogi. I usually only make about 2 lbs (900 g) of bulgogi at a time, but this marinade is enough to make 3 times that amount. The reason I make a lot of marinade is because I like to have it on hand to use on other things like chicken or fish, or you can throw some into ground beef and make bulgogi burgers. Heck, it’s even good for vegetable stir fries.
For the marinade you need soy sauce, sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, black pepper, green onions, garlic, and a sweetener. I’ve been using honey these days, but plain white sugar is the traditional sweetener. Feel free to use either honey or sugar; you can even use maple syrup if you have it on hand. I picked up some incredibly thin-sliced beef for shabu-shabu (Asian hotpot) at the local Korean grocery store. It’s sliced so thin that it’s transparent. You don’t have to use beef that’s this thinly sliced; Korean grocery stores usually have beef specifically sliced for bulgogi, which is slightly thicker than the shabu-shabu slices. Go with whatever you’d like to use.
Get a large bowl and tear up the slices so that the pieces aren’t so big. When I’m making bulgogi right away, I toss the green onions in with the beef but you can throw them into the marinade as well. The rest of the ingredients go into a separate bowl and that makes up the marinade. Pretty simple, right?
I like to add a little bit of marinade at a time. You don’t want to add too little that you’re struggling to cover all the meat, but at the same time you don’t want the meat to be drowning in marinade (it would get too salty). Pour just enough to get all the pieces nicely marinated. Now, because the meat is sliced so thin, you could wait just 30 minutes and cook up some bulgogi, but I recommend waiting at least 4 hours to really let the flavours get into the beef.
Everyone has different ways of cooking bulgogi. I like to add thinly sliced onions and cook them together with the meat. You can add mushrooms if you’d like, or just leave it plain. While cooking, make sure you break up the beef so that it doesn’t get clumpy. I know that’s a weird word to describe meat, but it’s like cooking ground beef; you have to break it up while cooking so that it doesn’t cook up in a giant mass. Similarly, because this beef is so thin, it has a tendency to clump together in large pieces, so keep separating and stirring it as you cook (unless you like large clumps, which, I’m not judging). You could also grill the bulgogi (which is how it’s traditionally cooked), but pan frying means you get the most delectable bulgogi juices that you can pour over a bowl of rice and mix it up for pure delight. Mmmmm. It only takes a few minutes for this to cook – don’t overcook it!
It may just be “another bulgogi recipe”, but it’s one that I’ve relied on for many years and one that has been in my family for even longer. I’m happy to share this little piece of my heritage with you and I hope that you find it as delicious as I do.
- 3/4 cup soy sauce
- 3/4 cup water
- 3/4 cup sugar (or substitute 1/2 cup honey)
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
- 2 tbsp finely minced garlic
- 2 tbsp Korean corn syrup
- 1 tbsp cracked black pepper
- 8 green onions
Mix together all of the ingredients in a large bowl. Store in an air tight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
To make Bulgogi…
- 2 lbs (900 g) thinly sliced beef
- Approx. 3/4 – 1 cup bulgogi marinade
- half an onion (optional)
In a large bowl, tear the beef slices into smaller pieces. First add about 3/4 cup of the bulgogi marinade; add more if required. Mix well and transfer to a container. Let marinade for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
Heat up a large skillet on medium heat. Cook the beef with thinly sliced onion (if using), separating the beef slices as you cook. Remove from heat as soon as the beef is cooked and serve immediately.