How to Make Daeji Bulgogi
Perhaps the best part of working the “roast” (or “meat”) station in a restaurant kitchen is that you often end up with a steady supply of delicious meat scraps on your cutting board to snack on over the course of night’s service. These morsels are the casualties of anatomical or culinary imperfection—things like the tapered end pieces of hanger steak, which cook up a little too chewy, or the tenderloin I’d intentionally leave on the underside of a duck breast to protect it from overcooking while basting the skin side. These bits are deemed unfit to be served to paying guests, but they’re prized bites for cooks throughout the grind of a night on the line. Work in restaurant kitchens long enough and some of these little snacks become your favorites, and they stick in your mind for a long time.
I still crave the irregularly shaped bits of miso-chocolate crémeux that one kind pastry chef would save for me after portioning out perfect circles with a ring mold, as well as the small pieces of lobster knuckle meat that would be left swimming in a butter-bath pot of beurre monté at the end of the night when I worked the fish station at a fine dining restaurant in Boston.
But one of the scraps that I miss snacking on the most are juicy, spicy-sweet, charred end pieces of daeji bulgogi-style pork from my time working the roast station at Parachute, a modern Korean-American restaurant in Chicago.
Daeji bulgogi, which translates to “pork fire meat,” is a Korean barbecue dish that shares some similarities with another one of my “fire” favorites: buldak. Like “fire chicken,” daeji bulgogi is made by marinating pieces of meat in a gochujang-spiked sauce and then charring them on a grill. Unlike buldak, daeji bulgogi generally doesn’t get crowned with a layer of gooey melted cheese. Instead, the grilled pork is served, like galbi, with Korean barbecue ssam accompaniments like lettuces, perilla leaves, sliced garlic and chilies, and ssamjang for wrapping.
While LA-style galbi is about the sweet and savory interplay of soy sauce and sugar, daeji bulgogi leans into the spicy-sweet realm of buldak and tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), and dials up the heat with a heavy dose of chili heat from gochujang and finely ground Korean chili powder, gochugaru. The sauce cuts through the fattiness of the pork, and its sugar content helps the meat char on the grill.
The Cuts of Pork to Use For Daeji Bulgogi
For daeji bulgogi, you have some flexibility when it comes to choosing the cut of meat. Unlike other Korean barbecue stalwarts like galbi (“ribs”) or samgyeopsal-gui (“grilled pork belly”), “pork fire meat” does not prescribe a specific part of anatomy. Daeji bulgogi is often made with thin pieces of pork from the neck and shoulder area, as well as from the belly and loin.
For the version of daeji bulgogi that I cooked at Parachute, we used pork “secreto,” a delicious “butcher’s” cut that can be cooked to a rosy medium; it’s also something of a mystery cut, since butchers don’t agree about which part of the animal it comes from. One thing that we collectively should agree upon is that whatever cut you choose for making daeji bulgogi, make sure it has some fat on it.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Lean cuts of pork, like chicken, can quickly and easily dry out over the high heat of the grill, and they are also less flavorful than fattier pieces of meat. Sure, dripping fat can cause grill flare-ups that require some meat maneuvering in order to avoid charring your dinner to a crisp, but I am more than willing to do the hokey porky if it will lead to a tastier dinner. For this reason, I avoid lean loin pieces of pork when making daeji bulgogi, and turn instead to cuts with a higher proportion of fat, like Boston butt or belly.
The pork will need to be cut into large bite-size pieces, between 1/4- and 1/2-inch-thick, before getting marinated. If you live near a Korean market, you can easily pick up packages of pork that have already been portioned into barbecue-size pieces. Otherwise, it’s very easy to buy a large piece of pork butt or belly from your local butcher counter, which you can then portion yourself at home.
During recipe development, I tested daeji bulgogi with thin, pre-sliced pieces of pork butt, thicker-cut slices of meaty pork belly (the Korean term for pork belly, samgyeopsal translates to “three-layer-flesh,” in reference to the cut’s layering of meat and fat), and pork butt that I portioned myself (these were actually scraps themselves, left over from recipe development for al pastor and Thai-style pork skewers). I found that the thinly sliced pork butt wasn’t well-suited for grilling; it stuck to the grill grates, and the meat cooked through before it had time to take on any char. Both the pork belly and thicker, hand-cut pieces of pork shoulder fared much better, and yielded fantastic results.
Marinating the Pork
Once you’ve picked out and portioned your pork, you need to marinate it. I start the daeji marinade in the same way as my galbi marinade, by processing onion, Asian pear, scallion whites, garlic, and ginger to a coarse paste in a food processor. This mixture gets stirred together with a healthy amount of gochujang and gochugaru, along with a little soy sauce, Korean rice syrup, mirin, sesame oil, and black pepper. It’s a very simple marinade that’s a breeze to make, and packs a ton of flavor. The pork gets tossed in the marinade and popped in the fridge for at least an hour, but ideally overnight.
Grilling the Pork
When you’re ready to feast, fire up the grill. If you are using fatty pork belly for your daeji bulgogi, I recommend setting up a two-zone charcoal bed, so that you can move the meat away from flare-ups as it cooks. To that end, I also like to set a wire mesh rack or two on top of the regular grill grates to cook the meat on.
The mesh racks prevent the small pieces of pork from falling through the cracks of the grates and onto the coals, and also make it easier to manage flare-ups; if dripping fat is causing fire to lick up onto your pork, you can simply pick up and move the entire wire rack away from the flames with a grill mitt or pair of tongs, rather than having to move the pork one piece at a time.
Cook the pork through, turning the pieces frequently to help them pick up some char on all sides while making sure they don’t dry out. Once they’re done, get them off the heat, and serve them up with garnishes and banchan for a Korean barbecue cookout feast that is decidedly more substantial and satisfying than a handful of meat scraps plucked off a cutting board.
But I’ll take those, too, if you aren’t going to finish them.
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