How to Cook Korean Barbecue at Home
With some simple setup, you’ll be salivating over your spread in no time.
Text by Irene Yoo for Food Network Kitchen
Recipes by Jackie Park for Food Network Kitchen
The allure of Korean barbecue is undeniable – once you see that smoke rising and smell the aroma of meat grilling, you must have some for yourself. It’s long been a mainstay of Korean food culture: a way for friends and family to gather and celebrate birthdays, job promotions or just have a good time. And its inherently communal nature makes it fun and low-stakes – you can try a little bit of everything to learn what you like.
At its core, Korean barbecue is pretty straightforward. You cook razor-thin cuts or bite-sized pieces of meat tableside to minimize both cooking time and the distance from cooktop to plate – something that’s key for people who love to eat their food piping hot. The spread of banchan, or side dishes that fill out a traditional Korean meal, that surrounds the central grill serve as a choose-your-own-adventure map for perfectly embellishing your meats of choice.
While Korean barbecue is a popular choice for dining out, it’s just as easy and fun to set up at home. Growing up, my parents would set up a portable camp stove in the middle of the dining table, and my dad would grill pieces of meat to order. My mom doled out fresh leaves of red leaf lettuce, which we would use as ssam to wrap the piping hot morsels of beef, or pork, and adorn with pieces of crunchy kimchi before popping the whole wrap into our mouths.
Here’s how you can create your own Korean barbecue experience, right at home.
You can cook on a cast-iron pan, nonstick pan or any similar griddle on your stovetop. Or – upgrade your tableside setup with a portable camp stove and butane cans. Fire it up with a Korean-style grill pan – its special grooves keep meats from sticking and help drain grease. These tongs are a personal favorite of mine for grilling, but you can also easily use any chopsticks you might have on hand.
Once the hardware is sorted, head to the grocery store. Most Asian grocery stores will have everything you need: short grain white rice, fresh red leaf lettuce and/or perilla leaves (my personal favorite!), premade banchan and barbecue-ready meats. I prefer frozen, thinly sliced beef brisket or pork belly – it’s easy to break off what you need and store the rest for later. At more Western-style grocery stores, you can easily procure sushi rice and romaine lettuce as substitutes, and ask your butcher to thinly slice your chosen meats for you.
Set Up for Success
Korean barbecue can be put together in a flash – the only real prep you’ll need to do is cook or steam your rice in advance and marinate your meats if your chosen recipes call for it. You can also make some banchan to go with your meal. My favorites are pamuchim, a scallion salad commonly found at Korean barbecue houses, and musaengchae, a radish salad banchan that can be made spicy or sweet and sour. Both sides are super refreshing and work well to cut through the richness of barbecued meats. Plus, neither requires cooking.
Round out your spread even more with store-bought banchan – many Asian grocery stores, or even local bodegas or markets have a section dedicated to a wide range of side dishes that are often homemade and delicious. I usually pick up some seasoned bean sprouts or stir-fried anchovies to have on hand for impromptu table settings.
Once your table is ready, heat up your grill on the burner – use a small piece of fat to oil your grill, or a paper towel lightly soaked in vegetable or sesame oil.
There are three general types of Korean barbecue meat: thinly sliced beef or pork (or duck!), thicker cuts of steak or pork belly and pre-marinated meats. Start with the thinly sliced non-marinated meats first, beef before pork or poultry. This helps to avoid cross-contamination. Beef cooks quickly and can be grilled to your liking, whereas pork and chicken need to be cooked thoroughly. I like to start with thinly sliced beef brisket, which crisps up quickly, and then move onto slabs of pork belly, cutting into smaller strips as they cook.
Keep sliced meat frozen until cook time – you can take it out about five to ten minutes beforehand to help separate the pieces. Lay out each piece on the grill so they don’t overlap, and cook on one side until the edges start to curl. Flip and cook until your desired doneness, being careful not to overcook. Since it’s your barbecue, it’s your call!
Once your non-marinated meats are cooked, get the marinated ones on the pan. Beef bulgogi, or thinly sliced ribeye marinated in soy, is quite popular, but I’m partial to L.A. Kalbi, especially this recipe that yields a more tender and saucy version of the classic soy-marinated, quick-cooking short ribs. Dweji Bulgogi (spicy marinated pork belly) is also ideal for a Korean barbecue night at home – the gochujang-based sauce requires a minimal number of ingredients and, with just 30 minutes of marination, results in great heat and flavor.
Build Your Ssam
As the cooked meats get plucked off the grill, prepare your lettuce wrap in one hand (you can rip large leaves in half) and place the meat in the leaf’s center. Next, I like to dollop a bit of ssamjang on pork. Ssamjang is a Korean barbecue must-have – this salty, savory paste brings bright flavor and crunch, thanks to fresh chiles. For beef, I just dip the meat in a bit of sesame oil mixed with salt and pepper. Marinated meats don’t really need extra saucing. Top with whatever other accoutrements float your boat, whether it be a little spoonful of rice to fill out your bite, some pamuchin to add crunch and acid, or any banchan or kimchi. Then, just fold the leaf over your stack and enjoy!
Jazz It Up
You can also grill some vegetables on the side as you cook, like a ring of onion, mushrooms or garlic cloves. Once the meat is cooking, I also like to put some kimchi in the pan, especially if there is fat rendered from cooking pork.
And to make it extra fun? Try creamy corn cheese with fresh sweet corn. It’s a more modern and seriously addictive side, traditionally brought to the table in a sizzling hot pan or cooked in special pans right alongside the meat.
I also like to chop up any remaining meat and banchan, and fry it with leftover rice directly on the pan, making a perfect end to the meal.
Once you have the basics down, it’s easy to adjust the experience to your taste, or try something new every time. That’s the great thing about K-BBQ!