Korean Beef Bulgogi (Whole30 Compatible)
Prep Time: 120+ minutes Cook Time: 5 minutes Servings: 2-4
After a long day in the office and a hard workout at the gym (such as yesterday’s heavy lifting session focused on shoulders and biceps), it’s nice to have something hearty and comforting for dinner. Korean beef bulgogi is one of my favorite dishes for that.
The Korean word ‘bulgogi’ (불고기) literally translates to “fire meat.” It is used to described any dish made using thin, marinated slices of beef or pork that are grilled on a barbecue or a stove-top griddle. The dish is ubiquitous in South Korea, served from the Seoul’s top restaurants to the street-side market stalls in Pusan.
The recipe for the marinade varies from region to region on the Korean peninsula, but usually consists of a mixture of salt, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, and pear juice. To make this dish primally-aligned and Whole30-compliant, however I have omitted the sugar and swapped out the soy sauce for gluten- and soy-free coconut aminos.
One key to making a really good beef bulgogi is to use a tender cut of good quality meat like sirloin or ribeye, although flank steak will work just fine if you marinate it long enough. I always use grass-fed pasture-raised beef when I make bulgogi, either sourced from my local farmer’s market or through some other reputable source (to understand why, see my blog post on sustainably-raised beef). The other key is to make sure you cut the meat against the grain as thinly as humanly possible.
For the marinade:
1 – 1 1/2 lbs. hanger, flat iron, or ribeye steak (in the pictures below I used a ribeye from Butcherbox)
2 tablespoons olive or avocado oil
1/4 cup coconut aminos (or gluten-free tamari if you tolerate soy)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1/2 Asian pear, grated (you can also substitute another type of firm-fleshed pear or apple; enzymes in the pear or apple help tenderize the meat as it marinates)
1 teaspoon Red Boat fish sauce (optional, but kicks up the umami to give the resulting dish that special savory taste)
1 1/2 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon freshly peeled and grated ginger (about 1″)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional; add more if you like heat, less if you don’t)
Salt and pepper to taste
For serving (per taste):
Lettuce leaves or gluten-free soft taco shells
Kimchi (I make my own using a recipe like this one)
Green onions, sliced
Red onion, sliced
Gochujang (a sweet and spicy fermented red chili paste that is a common Korean condiment, usually available in Asian markets or the Asian food aisle of larger grocery chains)
Trim off excess fat then slice the beef into long, thin strips (approximately 1/4″ wide). Be sure to slice against the grain as this makes for a more tender bite of meat. In addition to using a sharp knife, another trick to get nice thin strips is to place the beef in the freezer for 15 minutes before you cut it. This makes the meat a little firmer and easier to slice.
Mix all of the remaining marinade ingredients and add to the beef. I tend to use a single-serve blender in order to get a good emulsion. I also vacuum seal the meat and marinade mixture together in order to speed up the tenderization process and impart deeper flavor into the meat.
Marinate the beef in the refrigerator for a few hours. If you use a vacuum sealer like I do, you really only need to marinate it for an hour or two. If you marinate the meat in a ziploc bag or bowl, you should let it go at least four hours. The longer the better, up to about 12 hours. After that point, however, the acid and enzymes in the marinade will break down the protein fibers in the beef a little too much, resulting in a more ‘mushy’ bite of meat.
You can either cook the bulgogi on an outdoor grill or on the stove using a cast iron or non-stick pan. Since it was only about 29 °F (-2 °C) when I made this, I opted to cook indoors using a non-stick stovetop grill pan. Either way, use high heat or high flame to make sure that your grill or pan is nice and hot .
Shake off the excess marinade and cook the beef in batches, about 2 minutes (or less) each side. The thinner the slices of meat, the less time it will take to cook. You want it to get a nice brown sear but still be medium to medium rare (i.e. still have a little pink or red color in the interior).
Let grilled meat rest for a couple of minutes, then serve taco-style in lettuce cups or gluten-free soft taco shells with the Korean-style toppings and condiments of your choosing. I used homemade purple kimchi, pickled radishes, and gochujang, but the sky’s the limit. Plate with your favorite side, like the low-carb twice-baked cauliflower casserole you see in the pictureabove.