Is there dairy in Mongolian beef?

Quick Answer

Traditional Mongolian beef recipes do not contain dairy ingredients like milk, cream, butter, or cheese. The dish is made by marinating sliced beef in soy sauce, spices, and cornstarch before being stir-fried with onions and sometimes vegetables. However, some modern recipes may add small amounts of dairy like butter or cream to create a richer tasting sauce. Overall, dairy is not a standard or required ingredient in Mongolian beef.

What is Mongolian Beef?

Mongolian beef is a Chinese-American dish that consists of tender slices of beef coated in a savory brown sauce with onions and sometimes other vegetables like carrots or broccoli. It is a popular menu item at many North American Chinese restaurants.

Some key characteristics of Mongolian beef include:

– Thinly sliced beef: Flank steak or other tender cuts are sliced very thin across the grain. This makes the beef easy to stir-fry quickly.

– Aromatic marinade: The beef is marinated for several hours in a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, cornstarch, and spices like ginger and garlic. This infuses the beef with lots of flavor.

– Stir-frying: The marinated beef is stir-fried at high heat with vegetables, most notably onions. This cooking method keeps the beef tender.

– Sweet and savory brown sauce: The marinade ingredients caramelize into a dark, shiny, and slightly sweet sauce that coats the beef and vegetables.

– Crisp vegetables: Onions are the most common vegetable, providing taste, texture, and color. Other crisp veggies like carrots or broccoli are also sometimes added.

– Short cooking time: Cooking takes just a few minutes from start to finish, keeping the beef juicy and vegetables crisp-tender.

Traditional Mongolian Cuisine

Mongolian beef as we know it today was likely invented by Chinese immigrants in America as a riff on traditional Mongolian cuisine. In authentic Mongolian cooking, dairy from livestock animals plays an important role, but beef itself is not emphasized.

Common dairy products found in Mongolia include:

– Milk: Milk from cows, yaks, goats, and sheep is consumed fresh, fermented, or distilled into vodka.

– Curd: Curd is made by boiling milk and separating the curds from the whey. It has a soft, creamy texture.

– Cheese: Many varieties of cheese are made from cow, yak, or goat milk. They range from soft and fresh to aged and hard in texture.

– Butter and cream: These dairy products are derived from milk fat and used for cooking, eating, or garnishing foods.

In contrast to the frequent use of dairy, beef was historically not a dietary staple for Mongolia’s nomadic herders. Sheep and goat meat were more common. Beef has become more popular as Mongolia has urbanized and modernized in recent decades.

Ingredients in Mongolian Beef

While dairy products play a big role in Mongolia itself, they are typically not part of Mongolian beef recipes. The dish relies on just a few main ingredients for full flavor.


– Flank steak or other cuts like sirloin are most common due to their tenderness. Boneless short ribs can also be used.


– Soy sauce provides saltiness and umami flavor.
– Rice wine lends sweetness and acidity.
– Sesame oil adds nutty, aromatic flavor.
– Cornstarch helps coat the beef and thicken the sauce.
– Ginger and garlic offer spiciness and pungency.


– Yellow onions are the most important supporting vegetable, providing crunch and balancing the rich sauce.
– Carrots, broccoli, bell peppers, or green beans are also sometimes stir-fried with the beef.

Sauce Thickeners

– Cornstarch slurry is typically used at the end to give the sauce a velvety texture.
– Small amounts of water or stock are added to the wok to help form the sauce.

Flavor Enhancers

– Soy sauce amplifies the savory umami flavor.
– Rice wine vinegar brightens up the sauce with acidity.
– Brown sugar adds sweetness to balance salty and savory flavors.
– Sesame oil provides nuttiness and aroma.

As you can see, these essential ingredients contain no dairy products like milk, butter, or cream. They build deep, savory flavor without the need for added dairy.

The Role of Dairy in Cooking

To understand why dairy is not included in Mongolian beef, it helps to examine the typical roles that dairy plays in cooking:

Adding fat & richness

Butter, cream, and milk can make dishes taste richer, fuller, and more indulgent. The natural fats in dairy provide a lubricating mouthfeel and carry flavor.

Contributing moisture

The water content in milk, cream, and other dairy products can help keep dishes like soups, sauces, and baked goods moist and tender.

Providing acidity

Sour cream, yogurt, and cheese offer tangy, acidic flavors that help brighten and balance out richer ingredients.

Browning & binding

When cooked, the proteins in dairy products have browning and binding properties useful for searing meats and thickening sauces.

Adding color

Browned butter or cheese can provide an appetizing golden color to foods. White dairy products also lighten the appearance of dishes.

Imparting flavor

Cheese, butter, and cream carry intrinsic flavors that can enhance the overall taste of both savory and sweet recipes.

Reasons Mongolian Beef Contains No Dairy

Mongolian beef achieves a rich, flavorful taste using its simple ingredients alone, without needing the qualities that dairy would provide. Here are some of the main reasons it contains no dairy products:

No need to enrich the sauce

The soy sauce, sweet rice wine, and aromatic sesame oil provide plenty of flavor and richness on their own. The sauce clings beautifully to the beef without butter, cream, or milk.

Cornstarch thickens the sauce

Instead of using dairy as a thickening agent, cornstarch effectively thickens and gives the Mongolian beef sauce its velvety texture.

Beef fat offers richness

The marbling and external fat on the beef melt and lubricate each mouthful, so there is no need for added creaminess from dairy.

Onions add moisture

The natural moisture released from sautéing onions help keep the dish from drying out, replacing any need for dairy’s water content.

Short cook time retains juices

The fast, hot stir-frying retains the beef’s inherent moisture and juices without requiring dairy’s hydrating properties.

Acidity comes from other ingredients

Rice wine, garlic, ginger, and onions all supply the acidity normally provided by dairy products like sour cream or yogurt.

Possible Uses for Dairy in Mongolian Beef

While dairy isn’t typical or required, some modern recipes do incorporate small amounts of butter, cream, or milk to put a creative spin on Mongolian beef. Here are some ways they can be used:

Enriching the sauce

– Stirring in a pat of butter or spoonful of cream at the end will further enhance the sauce’s lush, indulgent taste.

Making it milder for kids

– Mixing in a splash of milk can mellow out intense soy sauce flavors for less adventurous palates.

Boosting browning

– Pan-frying the beef in butter helps it caramelize and brown faster thanks to dairy’s browning properties.

Adding to the marinade

– For a more tender, moist marinade, a touch of milk or yogurt could be included along with the typical ingredients.

Finishing with cheese

– Toppings like shredded mozzarella or cheddar cheese can provide gooey, melted richness on top.

Serving with creamy dip

– Offering creamy ranch or blue cheese dressing on the side pleases dairy-loving diners.

Nutrition Profile With vs. Without Dairy

The nutrition profile of Mongolian beef made with or without dairy products can differ depending on what and how much is added:

Calories and fat

– Dairy adds significant calories and fat. For example, 1 tbsp butter has 102 calories and 12g fat.


– Dairy products like butter and cheese can greatly increase cholesterol levels.


– Dairy foods don’t alter protein amounts very much. The beef remains the main source.


– Dairy adds minimal carbs and sugar. Thickeners like cornstarch have a larger effect.

Vitamins and minerals

– Dairy provides nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and riboflavin.

Health benefits

– Full-fat dairy may reduce risk of type 2 diabetes but increase heart disease risk.

So in general, adding dairy boosts calories, fat, and cholesterol. But it also provides useful nutrients. Moderation is key if including dairy in this traditionally dairy-free dish.

Nutrient No Dairy With Dairy
Calories 500 in 6 oz beef +100 in 1 tbsp butter
Fat 18g in 6 oz beef +12g in 1 tbsp butter
Cholesterol 145mg in 6 oz beef +30mg in 1 tbsp butter
Carbs 6g in full recipe No significant change

Substitutes for Dairy in Mongolian Beef

For those avoiding dairy due to preferences or dietary restrictions, Mongolian beef can be easily modified:

Coconut cream or milk

– Provides creamy richness to the sauce, stir-fries, and more.

Cashew cream or butter

– Made from blended cashews. Offers smooth mouthfeel.

Vegetable or chicken broth

– Adds moisture and keeps dishes from drying out.

Mushroom soup

– Provides umami savoriness and natural thickening ability.

Cornstarch, arrowroot

– Thicken and bind sauces without dairy’s properties.

Soy or oat milk

– Use small amounts for mellowing flavor if needed.

With a well-made sauce and properly stir-fried beef, non-dairy subs can mimic dairy’s effects while keeping the dish plant-based.

Worldwide Versions of Mongolian Beef

Mongolian beef enjoys popularity far beyond the Mongolian restaurants of America where it was invented. Across the globe, cooks have put their own spin on this Chinese-American classic:

Japan – Gyu nikomi

– Features udon noodles and sliced cabbage. Sometimes milk is added.

Korea – Bulgogi

– More marinade focus with pear, onion, garlic. Often no sauce.

Thailand – Pad kra pao

– Spicier with basil, chilies, oyster sauce. May add fish sauce.

Vietnam – Thịt bò xào

– Typically includes carrots, beansprouts, beef broth.

India – Gosht katakat

– Uses lamb or goat meat instead of beef for Muslim diet. Adds yogurt.

Philippines – Bistek

– Marinated in calamansi citrus juice and soy. Served with onions.

Australia – Mongolian beef stir-fry

– Most true to Americanized version. Big on frozen veggies.

As these examples show, cooks worldwide interpret Mongolian beef in creative ways based on local tastes – sometimes with dairy, and sometimes without.

Mongolian Beef in American Chinese Restaurants

For many Americans, Mongolian beef is synonymous with Chinese restaurants. The dish has been a staple on menus for over 50 years. Here’s a look at how it’s made and served today:

Cooking methods

– Wok cooking on high heat remains the standard. Enables fast, hot stir-frying.

Beef cuts

– Flank steak is most common, but some use pricier tenderloin.

Sauce ingredients

– Cornstarch, soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine dominate. Brown sugar for sweetness.


– Onions always included. Broccoli, carrots, or bell peppers often added too.

Rice or noodles

– Typically served over white rice. May be offered with lo mein noodles instead.

Dairy additions

– Not authentic, but some add butter or cream to sauce for extra richness.

Allergy information

– Dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish allergies sometimes noted on menus.

The classic brown sauce and tender beef remain unchanged on most American Chinese restaurant menus. But cooks may riff with veggies, starch, and occasional dairy based on local tastes.

How to Make Authentic Mongolian Beef at Home

You can easily recreate the classic Mongolian beef experience in your own kitchen. Here is an overview of the simple process:


– Flank steak, marinade ingredients (soy sauce, rice wine, cornstarch, garlic, ginger), yellow onion, green onions.


– Partially freeze beef to slice it very thin across the grain. Combine marinade ingredients.


– Marinate beef slices for 2-12 hours in the refrigerator.


– Stir-fry beef in batches over very high heat until no longer pink. Remove and set aside.


– Cook onions in wok. Add sauce ingredients and cornstarch slurry. Return beef to wok and toss to coat.


-Serve immediately over white rice, topped with green onions. Enjoy!

With minimal ingredients and easy technique, you can make restaurant-quality Mongolian beef at home any night of the week – with or without the dairy.


In conclusion, Mongolian beef is traditionally made without any dairy products like milk, butter, or cream. The dish relies on ingredients like soy sauce, sesame oil, beef, and onions to build deep savory flavor. While modern recipes sometimes incorporate small amounts of dairy to enrich the taste, it is not an authentic or necessary ingredient. With its thin slices of tender beef and signature velvety brown sauce, Mongolian beef satisfies cravings and hits the spot, dairy-free or otherwise.

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