My mom is a great cook, but like many people with her depth of experience, she never measures anything. By the time I came of age and really wanted to learn how to make some of the nostalgic Korean dishes I ate growing up (and was enjoying at fancy Korean restaurants), I was living in New York City, nearly 3,000 miles away from home.
I enlisted the help of my older sister, Yong Woo, who lives near my mom, in Portland, Oregon. Like me, she grew up baking, so she appreciates the exactness of a leveled measuring cup and the preciseness of a gram of sugar. When she married into a very traditional Korean family, she found herself needing to know how to make authentic Korean dishes, including the most iconic of them all, beef kalbi (grilled beef short ribs).
During her newlywed years, she often cooked with my mom, taking careful notes, and also got feedback from well-traveled Koreans until she landed on what I think is the best kalbi recipe. It’s a crowd-pleaser, and it’s certainly better than any version I’ve had in a restaurant.
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I first made a variation of this recipe when I appeared on an episode of Grill It! with Bobby Flay on the Food Network back in 2012. At the time, I was working as a pastry chef in fine-dining restaurants, writing for a national food magazine, and half-heartedly pursuing a career in food television. The recipe, which you can still find online, is very good, but it was modified for television. At home—and in this recipe for Cook’s Country—we puree the solid ingredients for the marinade before combining them with the liquid ingredients, but chopping looks better on camera.
Kalbi marinade gets its characteristic sweetness from sugar and typically some fruit. Asian pear is often used, but finding a very sweet, juicy Asian pear year-round can be a challenge. Canned pineapple serves as a reliable substitute because it’s consistently sweet and readily available. Ripe kiwi contributes additional sweetness, but its real function is to tenderize the chewy meat; the enzymes found in green kiwi have natural tenderizing power. Just be sure not to add too much, or you’ll get mushy short ribs.
As for the meat, the word “kalbi” literally means “rib” in Korean. The dish is typically made with beef short ribs cut flanken-style, across the bones, ideally 1/4 inch thick. You can find this cut at Asian markets, especially ones that specialize in Korean ingredients. Kalbi is most often made with beef, but it can also be made with pork.
Aside from making sure to marinate the meat for at least 24 hours, my next important tip for success is to cook the kalbi for longer than you might think. I often see people sear kalbi quickly on the grill, as they would a thin steak. But short ribs are by nature a tough cut—that’s why you often see recipes for braised (English-style) short ribs cooked low and slow in the oven. The last thing you want is rare kalbi.
Using thin flaken-style ribs certainly speeds up the cooking time, but to achieve tender results, you still need to allow the fat to render and the connective tissue to break down. You should maintain a moderately hot grill and cook the ribs for about 6 minutes per side.
The result will be tender meat with nice char resulting from the caramelization of the sugars in the marinade. You’ll know when the kalbi are done because the bones will pull away cleanly from the meat with just a little bit of resistance.
Kalbi (Korean Grilled Flanken-Style Short Ribs)These sweet, savory, charred flanken-style short ribs might be the most irresistible food that comes off your grill this summer.
Beef kalbi is traditionally served with steamed white rice; some pickled vegetables, including kimchi; and an assortment of Korean side dishes and accompaniments known as banchan. Do like Koreans do and snip each rib into thirds with kitchen scissors, which makes them easier to pick up and eat with chopsticks.
This marinade can easily be doubled; you can use half for this recipe and save the rest for another time. It lasts for several weeks in the refrigerator or even longer in the freezer. This kalbi marinade is delicious on any cut of beef that benefits from a marinade. If you don’t want to deal with bones, use it to marinate tri-tip, skirt, or flank steak. It’s even great with chicken. It might be called kalbi marinade, but it’s our go-to, universal meat marinade at home.
Judiaann Woo is a Korean-born, American-made food and marketing professional currently living in Portland, Oregon. Find out what she’s been eating and cooking by following her latest adventures on Instagram at @judiaann.