What’s bulgogi made of?

Bulgogi, also known as Korean barbecue beef, is a popular Korean dish that typically consists of thin slices of beef marinated in a sweet and savory sauce. The term “bulgogi” literally means “fire meat” in Korean. While there are many variations of the dish, bulgogi is most commonly made with thin slices of sirloin or ribeye beef that are grilled or pan-fried. The sweet, umami-rich marinade gives the beef a delicious caramelized flavor. So what exactly goes into this iconic Korean dish? Here’s a look at the main ingredients that make up traditional bulgogi.

Thin Slices of Marbled Beef

The key component of bulgogi is ultra-thin slices of well-marbled beef, usually ribeye or sirloin. These cuts have just the right ratio of fat to meat, which allows the slices to cook up quickly while remaining tender and juicy. The thin slicing is also important, as it allows the marinade to penetrate the meat thoroughly. Strips are typically cut across the grain of the meat to a thickness of 1/8 to 1/4 inches. While beef is traditional, chicken, pork, or squid can also be used to make different variations of bulgogi.

Sweet Soy Marinade

The marinade is what really makes bulgogi stand out. It strikes a perfect balance of sweet and savory flavors that complement the beef wonderfully. The base is typically a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, ground black pepper, and Asian pear purée. The soy sauce provides a rich, umami backbone, while the sugar balances out the savoriness with sweetness. Sesame oil adds a lovely aromatic quality. Garlic and black pepper spike the marinade with pungency and heat. And the Asian pear purée lends a subtle fruitiness while also tenderizing the meat. Other ingredients like mirin, ginger, onions, scallions, and various fruits are also commonly added to the marinade.


In addition to the marinade, bulgogi is usually served with fresh aromatic vegetables that provide texture and bright, fresh flavor. The most common additions are onions, button mushrooms, carrots, bell peppers, and garlic cloves. They are either grilled alongside the meat or used as flavorful garnishes. The vegetables soak up the tasty marinade and add delicious bites to balance out the rich beef. You can get creative with the veggie additions based on what’s fresh and in season.


Bulgogi is rarely served on its own. It is almost always accompanied by a variety of banchan (small Korean side dishes) and sauces. Here are some of the most popular pairings:

  • Steamed rice – Bulgogi is usually served with a bowl of hot, fluffy white rice. The rice soaks up the sweet marinade deliciously.
  • Lettuce leaves – These act as edible wraps for assembling lettuce leaf “sandwiches” with rice, meat, veggies, and sauces.
  • Ssamjang – A spicy, savory sauce made with gochujang (Korean chili paste) and doenjang (soybean paste). It adds a lovely heat and umami boost.
  • Gochujang – The classic Korean red chili paste often served as a condiment to add some spice.
  • Doenjang – A thick, savory fermented soybean paste.
  • Kimchi – Spicy, funky fermented napa cabbage is a staple Korean side dish.
  • Pickled radish – Tart pickled daikon radish balances out the rich meat.

These accompaniments provide even more flavor dimension to the dish and allow you to customize your bulgogi experience with layers of spicy, crunchy, cooling, and savory elements in each bite.

Cooking Methods

Bulgogi has a few common cooking methods. The most popular is grilling, where the marinated meat is cooked on a barbecue grill on medium-high heat. The char and smoky flavors from the grill amplify the bulgogi’s rich, sweet and umami notes beautifully. Pan-frying is another great option, especially for home cooks without an outdoor grill. The meat is cooked in a skillet over high heat to get that delicious caramelized exterior. A tabletop grill pan is also very effective at mimicking the charred flavors of an outdoor grill. Finally, broiling is a simple hands-off cooking method where you place the bulgogi under a preheated broiler to cook. Regardless of the cooking method, the key is getting that flavorful sear on the marinated meat along with lightly charred veggies.

Putting It All Together

To make authentic bulgogi that highlights all the components, here are some tips:

  • Use high-quality, well-marbled beef for flavor and tenderness.
  • Slice the beef paper-thin so it cooks quickly and absorbs the marinade.
  • Let the meat marinate for at least 30 minutes, or up to overnight in the fridge.
  • Include aromatics like onions, mushrooms, and peppers.
  • Use a very high heat cooking method like grilling or pan-searing.
  • Allow the meat to caramelize but don’t overcook it.
  • Serve with steamed rice, lettuce leaves, kimchi, and ssamjang.

By using top-quality ultra-thin beef, creating a well-balanced marinade, including fresh veggies, and searing over high heat, you’ll end up with perfection bulgogi that’s sweet, savory, smoky, and downright addicting. Adjust the specific ingredients to your taste, but the basic template will ensure you get authentic Korean barbecue flavor in every bite.

Frequently Asked Questions

What cut of beef is best for bulgogi?

Ribeye or sirloin are the most common cuts used. They have great marbling which keeps them tender and juicy. Other good options are flap meat, brisket, chuck flap, or chuck roll.

Is bulgogi spicy?

The marinade itself is not spicy, but bulgogi is often served with spicy condiments like gochujang and kimchi to add heat. How spicy it ultimately is depends on which condiments you use.

What is the white part of bulgogi marinade?

The white puree is usually Asian or Korean pear. The pear tenderizes the meat and adds a mild sweet fruitiness.

Can you make bulgogi without pear?

Yes, you can omit the pear purée. The marinade will still be flavorful, though the meat won’t tenderize as much. Substitute with pineapple juice or puree if you want some fruitiness.

Is bulgogi Keto friendly?

It can be if you skip the sugar in the marinade and the rice/noodles as a side. Focus on the meat, veggies, and low-carb condiments like ssamjang and kimchi.

Is bulgogi gluten free?

Yes, traditionally bulgogi does not contain any gluten. As long as you avoid soy sauce that contains wheat and use tamari instead, it is a gluten free dish.

The Origins of Bulgogi

Bulgogi has a long and storied history in Korean cuisine. Some records show that people in the Goguryeo era (37 BCE – 668 CE) ate grilled meat marinated in soy sauce. However, the dish really became popular nationwide during the Joseon Dynasty era (1392 – 1910). Known as “neobiani” or “fire meat” at the time, it consisted of thin slices of beef marinated in galbi marinade (soy sauce, sugar, black pepper, garlic, sesame oil). The meat was grilled over open fire pits and served to wealthy aristocrats. Eventually, bulgogi spread to the common people as well. Korean immigrants brought bulgogi to other countries like the United States in the 1970s, leading to its worldwide popularity today.

Regional Variations

While the basic ingredients of bulgogi are consistent, the dish takes on subtle regional differences across Korea:


Tends to have a strong sweet flavor from more sugar in the marinade. Often includes pear, onion, and shiitake mushrooms.


Tends to be spicier from gochujang chili paste in the marinade. Uses more green onions compared to other regions.


Uses the local hallabong citrus fruit in the marinade for tangy flavor. Includes sliced halabong oranges as garnish.


Adds an acidic zing with rice wine vinegar and chopped kiwi fruit in the marinade.

Popular Bulgogi Variations

While the classic version uses beef, bulgogi has expanded to include many creative variations using different main ingredients:

Pork Bulgogi (Dweji Bulgogi)

Uses thin slices of pork tenderloin or pork belly instead of beef.

Chicken Bulgogi (Dak Bulgogi)

Made with sliced chicken thighs or breast meat, which gets super juicy and flavorful.

Squid Bulgogi (Ojingeo Bulgogi)

Replaces beef with thin strips of marinated squid, which cook up tender.

Tofu Bulgogi (Dubu Bulgogi)

A vegetarian/vegan version made with sliced firm tofu tossed in bulgogi marinade.

Shiitake Mushroom Bulgogi (Pyogo Beoseot Bulgogi)

Substitutes meat with flavorful, umami-packed shiitake mushrooms.

Serving Suggestions

Here are some tips for serving bulgogi and taking your meal to the next level:

  • Set up a DIY taco bar with flour tortillas, romaine lettuce leaves, and tons of toppings.
  • Stuff bulgogi into a baked potato along with kimchi and cheese.
  • Mix it into fried rice or noodle stir fries for a protein boost.
  • Pile it on nachos and melt cheese over the top.
  • Toss it into romaine salad with sesame dressing and peanuts.
  • Layer it into a sandwich or wrap with veggies and ssamjang sauce.

Simple Bulgogi Recipe

Ready to make your own restaurant-quality bulgogi at home? Here is an easy recipe to try:


  • 1 lb ribeye or sirloin, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp minced onion
  • 1 tsp minced or grated Asian pear
  • Vegetable oil for cooking


  1. In a bowl, combine soy sauce, sugar, garlic, sesame oil, black pepper, onion, and Asian pear.
  2. Add beef slices and mix well to coat. Let marinate for 30 mins – 1 hour.
  3. Heat a skillet over very high heat. Add a drizzle of vegetable oil.
  4. Cook bulgogi in batches if needed, 1 minute per side until caramelized.
  5. Serve immediately with steamed rice and banchan.

In Conclusion

With its irresistible balance of sweet and savory flavors, melt-in-your-mouth beef, and addictive charred bits, it’s easy to see why bulgogi has become so beloved around the world. The dish brings together soy and pear, meat and aromatics, fire and spice in perfect harmony. While the specific ingredients may vary, bulgogi at its core combines thin slices of tender protein with a flavor-packed marinade and high heat. Following the basic blueprint will allow you to experience the magic of true Korean barbecue, whether you make the classic beef or fun new fusions. Give bulgogi a try, and get ready to fall in love with the irresistible Korean flavors.

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