Thu Jul 1, 2010
It wasn't that long ago that I was answering to the stunned responses I got when I admitted that I had never had Korean BBQ. As such a meat enthusiast, it was dumbfounding to others that I had not experienced the greatness of the cuisine. I had no excuse for not trying it, it was just one of those things that never happened, until this winter, when the wait for Korean fried chicken was too long for my rumbling tummy and Korean BBQ was the inevitable back-up in an area of the city dominated by Korean joints.
Maybe it's the fact that I had put Korean BBQ on a pedestal after so many enthusiastically sold it to me, but I was not totally blown away. Don't get me wrong, it was damn good, just not life changing as fabled stories had led me to expect. This rang most true for the bulgogi—marinated thin slices of steak—so much so it never crossed my mind to make it at home, but during last weekend's Korean meat feast, it made the cut, and what came off the grill was not only heads and shoulders above what I experienced at the restaurant, it immediately stole the show from all other meats that day.
When shopping for the Meat-a-thon, I came across the required thin strips of beef for bulgogi, looking specifically cut for this application. I was tempted to take the easy route and pick up a few packages, but being a self-described Meatmaster, I much prefer to attempt the butchering myself.
The bulgogi I knew has some beautiful marbling, so I started with a search for a steak that would have a right balance between beefy and fatty, with the fat evenly distributed throughout the meat. That led me to a rib steak, which is cut from the rib primal and is incredibly well marbled, making it tender and flavor and able to withstand some high heat, like the coals on the grill.
With an assured feeling I had the perfect cut, the next challenge was getting it sliced super thin. This wasn't going to be easy without a meat slicer (wish list), but from past experience I knew a firmer steak would aid in the process. So to get this steak into a good slicing condition, I stuck it in the freezer for about an hour, after which, I was able to cut it into 1/8-inch strips fairly easily.
Next came the marinade, and without any previous Korean cooking experience or friends to rely on, I was left scouring the internet to piece together a recipe that seemed reliable. This was not terribly difficult, as most recipes tended to have similar ingredient lists with just some variations on exact amounts. The part that caught me up was marinade time. I found a lot calling for a quick dip—one to two hours—while others saying overnight baths would give the best results. I went with the later, letting my meat soak up all those delicious flavors overnight, which I believe was the path to success here.
Grilling was a no brainier for bulgogi, I wanted hot and fast. In the restaurant it seemed like it cooked in no time, so it should be the same on the grill. It took only about a minute or less on each side over the high heat on the grill for the thin strips of beef to cook to perfect doneness—when just cooked through, keeping it still nice and tender.
In the end I got something not so familiar—a much darker and caramelized bulgogi as opposed to the rather plain looking meat I had previously been served. Along with the difference in appearance came a taste that also didn't match up—this bulgogi exploded with the excellent flavors of the marinade, while I questioned if the one that left me underwhelmed in the restaurant was marinated at all. There was nothing lackluster about the beef here, it was tender and deep with tastes of soy sauce, sugar, sesame, and onion. Still being a Korean BBQ newbie, it's possible that the restaurant bulgogi was really "authentic" and mine may be some weird bastardization, but give me a choice between two and I'll have no problem being labeled a bastard.
1/4 cup Japanese or Korean dark soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
3 scallions, minced
2 pounds well marbled rib steak
1. Place the steaks in the freezer until they firm up, about 1 hour. While the steaks are in the freezer, combine the soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, mirin, sesame seeds, garlic and scallions together in a small bowl and set aside.
2. Remove the steaks from the freezer and slice into strips 1/8 inch thick against the grain, removing any large areas of fat. Place the steak in a large Ziploc bag and pour in the marinade and seal. Toss to evenly distribute the marinade, then open and reseal the bag, removing as much air as possible. Place in the refrigerator and let marinate for at least one hour to overnight.
3. Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread coals out evenly over the charcoal grate. Clean and oil the cooking grate. Place the steak on the grill and cook until the meat is seared on both sides, about 1 minute per side. Remove from the grill and serve immediately with bibb lettuce and kimchi.