Bulgogi Burgers: The Korean-American Mashup Worthy of Your Grill

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[Photographs: Emily and Matt Clifton]

We've all experienced fusion fails—two dishes that, individually, are perfectly delicious, but when mashed together leave you wishing for a refund. One of the safest routes to success is to combine two foods that have some fundamental elements in common. Bulgogi, Korea's world-famous grilled meat dish, uses thin strips of beef that are marinated and seared, so why not apply those flavors to a burger? We're not good at making up names like "Cronut," so we're simply calling this a "bulgogi burger."

The key here is not to mess with the flavors of bulgogi, nor to deviate from the essential techniques of great burgers. It's an approach that works. We know, because we've previously crossed bulgogi with burritos and nachos. Kenji has also played with a related idea before with his cheesy, gooey Kim-Cheese Burgers.

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Let's start with the star of the show, the marinated beef. Classic bulgogi recipes use an assertive marinade of soy, ginger, garlic, and gochujang (Korean chili paste) to flavor and tenderize strips of meat. In case of our burger, though, we don't want to mix the marinade into the ground beef; that'd change the texture of it, leading to some kind of Korean sloppy Joe (which actually does sound kind of delicious, but not what we're after here). Instead, we want to work with freshly ground beef that has a decently high fat percentage (about 20%), remains cold, and is loosely packed. We then try to handle the beef as little as possible when forming the patties. All together, these steps deliver a burger with a wonderfully loose, tender, and juicy structure. Making an indentation in the center of each patty with your thumb is another smart step, preventing them from bulging as they cook.

We set up our grill for two-zone indirect cooking, meaning the coals are all piled on one half of the grill grate (on a gas grill, just turn half the burners on high and leave the others off). We start the patties directly over the coals, which puts a nice sear on them. Once they have a good crust on the outside, and before they're fully done on the inside, we move them to the cooler side of the grill. It's at this point that we start glazing the patties with our homemade bulgogi sauce, flipping and glazing repeatedly to build up a nice coating. Once the burgers are done, about 120°F in the center for medium rare, we remove them from the grill, sprinkle them with toasted sesame seeds, and let them rest for a few minutes.

At this point, it's time to build the burgers. We go for a thick slathering of kimchi mayonnaise on both the tops and bottoms of toasted sesame buns. The mayo is as simple as it sounds—mayonnaise spiked with minced kimchi and a splash of its funky brine. It's easy and quick and loaded with flavor.

On top of that we pile some finely shredded red cabbage, which adds some great crunchy raw texture and a nice punch of color, then lay rounds of danmuji (pickled daikon radish) on that. We use our recipe for homemade danmuji—it's easy but it does require some advance prep—or you could use a store-bought version, available at most Korean markets (you also can find it in Japanese markets as takuan). If you have a lot of cabbage and kimchi mayo left over, you can mix them together to make a tasty slaw, or use the mayo as a dipping sauce for fries.

And if a name more clever than "bulgogi burger" occurs to you, let us know. We're ready to go full Cronut by trademarking this thing and turning it into a worldwide fad. A lifetime supply of these burgers could be your reward...or, you know, a cut of the profits, if you'd be crazy enough to turn down the burger offer.

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