How to Make Kickass Korean BBQ in Your Backyard
Korean BBQ is a joyful celebration of fire, copious amounts of meat, and a whole lot of chili. But let's be real: Most of us don't have those cool indoor grills they use at restaurants -- or ample ventilation -- to fire up sweet, tender kalbi, and bulgogi in our homes. Luckily, you can can use your outdoor grill to cook the kind of Korean BBQ that’d make even the humblest auntie proud.
To show you how, we teamed up with two Portland, Oregon chefs who know a little bit about the subject: Han Ly Hwang of beloved food-cart fleet Kim Jong Grillin' and Top Chef alum BJ Smith of Smokehouse Tavern, who last year combined forces to launch Kim Jong Smokehouse.
To make a great Korean BBQ spread all you’ll need is a whole lot of meat, some spices, a grill, a somewhat able-bodied person to attend to the meat, and a willingness to buck tradition here and there. No auntie required.
Step 1: Set up your gear
Really, all you need is a hot, clean grill, preferably with mesquite charcoal. Start by getting your mesquite charcoal nice and hot. You’re going to want your coals to go down to white, aiming to hit the 250-300 F range (if you have a digital thermometer handy) by stoking your coals often with a bike pump. Boom. Grill hack.
If you so desire, though, you can go to the next level by getting smokey. While traditional Korean barbecue doesn’t involve smoking, Han and BJ incorporate a smoker to infuse the meat with extra layers of flavor. Your call. Either way, you're getting some delicious meat.
Step 2: Make a shopping list
Traditional Korean BBQ calls for kalbi ribs and bulgogi (thinly marinated slices of beef or pork), but if you don’t happen to have an endless supply of bulgogi at your fingertips (or local butcher shop), short ribs and chicken will work just fine. Remember, there's still honor in going against tradition, so long as it's delicious.
Ask your butcher for boneless chicken thighs and ¼ inch cross-cut beef short rib. You’ll also want to grab some gochujang (fermented Korean chili paste) along with short grain rice, white vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, garlic, fish sauce, ginger, sesame oil and seeds, and a bunch of scallions.
The veggies you’ll need will be for your banchan, so pick whatever you like. During our cookout, we used spinach, cucumbers, pineapple, and kimchi.
For a kickass special spice blend, combine some cayenne, smoked paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper, sugar, and salt together in a bowl. While there’s no exact science to it, you can use Alton Brown’s 8 + 3 + 1 + 1 rub recipe if you’re looking for a little more structure. Han uses Korean chili powder (gochugaru) in his blend, but any old chili powder will still taste great. Once the sugar/spice blend hits the grill, it caramelizes the outer layer of the meat, producing that crisp exterior skin we all know and love.
Step 3: Prep your meat
Want to know why the $16 roast chicken you get at a restaurant is so much better than the one you make at home? It’s all about the prep work, baby. If you want to ensure that your chicken stays moist and avoid drying out at all costs, brining it in advance is a great idea. Brining involves resting your meat in a mixture of salt, sugar, and water overnight, a process that helps chicken retain its moisture.
Han and BJ prepped two different versions of Korean-style BBQ chicken: one with their dry spice rub, and one with their tangy Asian-inspired barbecue sauce rife with Gochujang. The wet rub Han used is a mixture of the vinegar, sugar, garlic, scallions, fish sauce, ginger, and plenty of Gochujang, a “Korean ketchup” that’s almost more sauce than marinade.
It’s also a good idea to marinate your ribs the night before grilling. Traditional kalbi uses Asian pear in the marinade, but Han has another trick up his sleeve: a can of Coke. “It's like the 8 Minute Abs of tenderizing meat,” he says, laughing and mixing the Coke along with chopped scallions, ginger and garlic, sesame oil, and soy to make a marinade.
Let the meat sit anywhere from 15 minutes up to 24 hours before getting it out to rest. To ensure even cooking, you’re going to want to get it to room temperature first, so take all your meat out of the fridge an hour ahead of time to get it up to speed.
Optional step: Hit the smoker
If you want to go above and beyond the call of duty -- and happen to have a smoker handy -- now’s the time to use it. Once your meat’s rested for a few minutes, heat up your smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit and throw in the chicken to get it nice and tender before hitting the grill.
Depending on the size of your meat, you’re going to want to leave it in there for 1 to 2 hours before transferring to the grill. Once you have the lid shut, do not touch or mess with it in any way. Let nature take its own course.
We also decided to slice and smoke the pineapple, a tip of the hat inspired by Chef Deuki Hong and food writer Matt Rodbard’s deliciously tangy pineapple kimchi. Be sure to keep stoking your grill coals with the bike pump in the meantime, since you’ll want them nice and hot for the main event.
Step 4: Assemble your banchan
Chowing down on banchan while the meal cooks is traditional in Korea, and Han offered up a nice and simple spread loaded with flavor: a spicy cucumber kimchi (oi-sobagi), spinach with sesame seeds, smoked pineapple with mint, and kimchi. Han makes his kimchi from scratch, but you can always cheat and buy a jarred version.
For the cukes, start out by slicing Persian cucumbers into long, chunky batons. Combine garlic cloves, gochujang, sliced scallion, and some fish sauce into a paste. Salt the cucumbers and apply the paste liberally; set aside.
Meanwhile, wash and lightly blanch some fresh spinach. Season with sesame seeds and a touch of soy and sesame oil. Last but not least, get your short grain heirloom rice on the stove since it’ll take around 40 minutes to cook through.
Step 5: Grill, baby, grill
Remember that grill you’ve been keeping nice and hot with your bike pump? It’s time to put it into action. The dry-rub chicken doesn’t need to marinate, so you can tackle it first: apply a thick layer of your seasoning mix to both sides and lay it down skin side up. Throw the wet chicken with the Korean ketchup sauce on here, too.
Lay down your meat and leave ample space between each piece, about ½ inch or so, to avoid overcrowding. This will reduce the overall temperature of your meat, and steam it instead of sear it -- which nobody wants.
The key to really great BBQ? “Don't f**k with it. Just let it sit there and do its thing. If you have to turn it too many times, it means your grill is too hot,” says Han.
Pay close attention to the meat, flipping it only once halfway through. The end temperature you’re looking for in the chicken is 160 F, while any pork should be cooked to fork-tender levels: “When you can push something through it with zero resistance, you're done,” says Han.
You’ll want to watch the kalbi as it cooks: Once the edges start curling up, give it a quick flip. There’s no exact science to it, so cooking times will vary per piece depending on size, but you can expect a cooking time of 2-3 minutes per side for the ribs and about 5-6 minutes per side for the chicken.
After that, serve it all up family. Then pour out a shot of soju for your favorite auntie... unless she's at the table, in which case, just give it to her.
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