The Sweet Korean Bulgogi Joanna Gaines Grew Up Loving

May 10, 2018
Sweet, succulent Korean bulgogi. YUM. Photo by Rocky Luten

Fans of HGTV’s Fixer Upper are quite familiar with the home renovation show’s lovable hosts, Chip and Joanna Gaines, but they may be less acquainted with the home cooking that keeps their gang together. In Magnolia Table: A Collection of Recipes for Gathering, Joanna (or “Jo,” as she’s known) Gaines shares all of her family classics, including her Korean mother’s recipe for bulgogi (literally "fire meat"), thin slices of marinated beef meant for grilling over a fire.

I recently had the chance to talk to Jo about the book and her mother’s version of the classic Korean dish, which she adapted along the way, making it sweeter to suit Joanna and her sisters’ American palates. “When we were growing up, we didn’t like ginger, and that’s what you’ll find; people typically use ginger in bulgogi,” Jo explains. “And my mom, just for us, she adapted it, and that’s now literally Chip’s favorite, and my kids’ favorite. I mean, when my mom cooks that, we’re all over there in a heartbeat because we love it so much.”

You know it’s a good dish when both adults and children are clamoring for it. Below, find the story behind Jo’s mother’s famous bulgogi. Try the crowd-pleasing recipe for yourself; this version definitely runs sweeter than traditional Korean bulgogi, so if you’d prefer it less sweet, start with half the amount of brown sugar called for and adjust up or down according to your preference. Enjoy alongside steamed rice and her simple, spicy, refreshing cucumber kimchi “salad” that comes together in no time.

Excerpt from Magnolia Table: A Collection of Recipes for Gathering

My mom grew up in Seoul, South Korea, with a mom who was an amazing cook. I can personally vouch for this because in the 1980s my grandmother and uncle moved in with us in our home in Wichita, Kansas, where I grew up. What I remember most about that time is my grandmother cooking amazing food nonstop. When my grandmother passed away I know my mom regretted never having really learned from her how to cook proper Korean dishes.

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She ended up adopting a much more American style of cooking and by the time my sisters and I were on the scene, she had long since perfected a few dishes for my steak-and-potato-loving dad. But around that same time she had a lot of Korean friends living nearby, and she learned enough from them that by the time my kids were born, she was often preparing traditional Korean dishes for them, like seaweed soup.

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“Bulgogi fan here. I think bulgogi is a gateway food to Korean cuisine. Even the original less sweet version is quite eater-friendly :)”
— HalfPint

It’s funny to me that they’re growing up eating much more authentic Korean food than I ever did. Mom’s bulgogi, though, is more of an American-Korean hybrid, much sweeter than traditional bulgogi, and she serves it on a bed of white rice. Mom has us over once a month and this is what she always makes. It’s my kids’ very favorite food in the world, so I knew I had to include it in this book.

Joanna Gaines’ mother’s bulgogi runs sweeter, but no less delicious, than traditional recipes. Photo by Rocky Luten

Getting the recipe on paper was a bit of a challenge. My mom had no idea what the measurements were or how to describe what she does, because, as she said, she just does it. (Writing this book made me realize just how alike we are in this way.) But eventually, we figured it out, and I’m so glad we did because now I’ve captured the blueprint to what will always be a beloved meal for my kids.

We’ve never had Mom’s bulgogi with anything other than her cucumber kimchi salad, which has a clean, fresh flavor that perfectly complements the sweet barbecued beef.

From Magnolia Table by Joanna Gaines. Copyright © 2018 by Joanna Gaines. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Are you a fan of Korean bulgogi? Let us know below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • SumG
  • greg t
    greg t
  • HalfPint
  • Hana Asbrink
    Hana Asbrink
Hana is a food writer/editor based in New York.


SumG May 16, 2018
The use of sparking wine is new and cool. Another recipe I have tried before uses Coke instead. Same idea of Soda + sugar. Here is another variation that I have tried which uses Bulgogi seasoning to make Korean spice Chicken in an Instant Pot (super easy to do):
greg T. May 12, 2018
Just read the whole cookbook from library. I think it’s incredible and will be buying shortly.
Hana A. May 14, 2018
How great! The book is full of gems (try her biscuits, wow). Thanks for commenting, greg t!
HalfPint May 10, 2018
Bulgogi fan here. I think bulgogi is a gateway food to Korean cuisine. Even the original less sweet version is quite eater-friendly :)
Hana A. May 10, 2018
Couldn't agree with you more, HalfPint! That is definitely the first dish that got offered to non-Koreans at our house growing up! ;)