The New Smoke

Weekend Project: Korean BBQ at Home

Sizzling meat without the fiery heat of a tabletop grill.

Korean BBQ
Photo: Cole Saladino; Illustration: Maitane Romagosa

We all love that wonderful experience of going to a Korean BBQ joint with friends. There’s the camaraderie of sharing rounds of soju and beer while cooking seasoned meat over the fiery heat of a tabletop grill. Then going home and smelling like barbecue and garlic. This summer might not be the best time to sit around sharing food at a smokey restaurant, but don’t fret. You can still have that happy, communal experience at home with family or just a few friends.

If you don’t have a table top grill, you can use a tabletop burner fueled by butane, your propane camping stove, or even a plug-in electric frying pan. It’s best to do this outdoors so that your house doesn’t smell like an all-you-can-eat BBQ joint. But if you love being the pit master, by all means, just fire up your barbecue and do the cooking for your guests.

Start at a good Korean market for most of your ingredients. If you have an H-Mart or Galleria Market nearby, you’re good. Even if you don’t have a Korean or Asian market nearby, all is not lost. You can still get all the ingredients you need at a regular supermarket, too.

The Marinade:

The most important ingredient is the marinade, which will help tenderize the meat. There’s no need to go with an expensive cut like a filet mignon or tenderloin.

Easy Korean BBQ Marinade
1 medium onion, halved
1 garlic bulb, peeled
1 cup pineapple or tart apple juice
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sugar, Korean malt syrup (mool yeot), honey, agave, or whatever sweetener you like
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon black pepper

Add everything to a blender or food processor and pulse until processed. If you don’t have a food processor, just mince the garlic and grate the onion before combining.

For a spicy version (good for pork and chicken), add 1 cup of gochujang and a piece of ginger, about an inch in length (to make 1 tablespoon).

The Meat

You’re going to want plenty of meat, since that’s the star of the meal.

The best known cuts are galbi (beef ribs), samgyeopssal (sliced pork belly) and dak (chicken). You can choose LA-style galbi, which is the flanken ribs, sliced with 3 bones attached. But a rib-eye, hanger steak, skirt meat, or even a chuck work fine, as long as it’s a bit marbled and not tough. You’ll only want to choose boolgogi (thinly sliced marinated beef) if you have a griddle surface or a grill pan. The meat is just too small and thin for a regular grill.

For pork, you’ll want a cut that has some fat to it, like a Boston butt or spare ribs. But a lean cut like a loin works fine too, as long as it’s cut thinly enough to cook quickly, but not too thin to fall in the cracks. The secret to pork is the fiery flavor of gochujang combined with ginger and garlic in the marinade.

For chicken, thighs are the easiest to season and cook. The traditional way is to have it with the bone, roughly chopped, but you may want to go boneless just for the ease and speed of cooking and eating. If you like the spice of gochujang, you can marinade it with the same marinade you use for your pork and make booldak (literally “fire chicken”). Otherwise, use the same seasoning you do for the beef, but just grate some ginger into it.

If you plan on making your own marinade, you can prep it all in a blender and soak the meat overnight before your meal. Otherwise, you can buy bottles of marinade in your friendly neighborhood Asian market or an online purveyor of Korean foods, like SFMart.com. Even the big box grocers sometimes have them in their “Asian” or “International” aisle. There are a handful of marinade makers, like “We Rub You” Korean BBQ marinades, which are good despite the punny name.

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Banchan

Sure, the meat varieties are the stars, but the background players, the banchan (side dishes), are just as important for that authentic Korean experience. They add a balance of flavors and round out the meal.

Your friendly neighborhood Korean grocer’s deli section will have plenty of pre-made banchan to grace your table. But if you want to try your hand at making your own, just grab some vegetables (like eggplant, zucchini, even celery works), some sesame oil, and more garlic than you think you’ll need. You can make banchan quickly and easily by just sautéeing each vegetable over medium high heat with some garlic until they’re soft and slightly charred. You can finish them with some salt and sesame oil. Be sure to cook in a neutral oil like canola and just add the sesame oil for flavor after cooking, since it has such a low burning point. Make sure you get the toasted sesame oil for that extra umami (if you can see through the bottle, it’s no good!).

The beauty of the banchan is that they can be served hot, cold, or at room temperature. So you can prep everything the day before and serve them straight from the fridge. To avoid having to wash multiple dishes, use an appetizer serving platter, or a large cutting board or tray to serve your banchan.

Pick up a jar or two of kimchi as well. Of course, the traditional napa cabbage kimchi is the way to go, but a summery oi (cucumber) kimchi as well as ggakdoogi (cubed radish kimchi) are also lovely friends for the barbecue table.

Sure, you may be tempted to get all the spicy kimchi you can get your hands on. But remember that what you’re striving for is balance at the table. So choose some spicy and mild and salty along with banchan of different colors. Just be sure to get an odd number of side dishes, since even numbers are considered bad luck, especially the number 4, which is considered the number of death.

Extras

You’ll also want some greens and lettuce for wrapping or making a side salad. A curly leaf lettuce or some mixed greens are good, or try some perilla leaves (they look like shiso, but are larger and more peppery in flavor).

Lay out the greens for wrapping or just toss them in a salad with a light sesame vinaigrette. For other garnishes, you can serve sliced raw garlic, jalapenos, Korean peppers, or scallions, all of which can be thrown on the grill.

Do you want some dipping sauce? You can make some like a ssamjang (seasoned soybean paste) or yangnyeom gochujang (seasoned chile paste) or just pick a jar up from the store. Or for simplicity, just put some coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper in a small bowl with some sesame oil.

For added fun, you can get some frozen or canned corn, toss it in a buttered cast iron skillet and shred some mozzarella or Jack cheese on top as it melts. Toss in some chopped jalapeños or bell peppers for added color and flavor.

Koreans wouldn’t dream of getting together to eat without drinking as well. A light pilsner or a blonde wheat beer works best with Korean BBQ. Or you can go with some soju or the milkiness of Korea’s traditional liquor, makgeolli. It’s a fermented rice drink, similar to an unfiltered sake, but a little earthier and sweeter. If you’re going with a wine, pair it with the meat, such as a peppery but bright red, like a Shiraz or a Zinfandel, or if you prefer white, a crisp Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget the steamed rice.

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Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee is a food and travel writer, photographer, producer and a chef. A James Beard Award nominee, she has authored several books, including cookbooks on Mexican and Korean cuisines. When she's not climbing a mountain somewhere, she paints, cooks and gardens in Los Angeles.