Table for One

For the Best (& Easiest) Bibimbap, Cook It in a Skillet

Korea's most beloved rice dish, updated.

by:
June 21, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


Every few months, Merriam-Webster adds a new Korean word to the dictionary. Late last year they added gochujang, a staple red pepper paste found in many Korean dishes. One of these dishes, bibimbap (which in Korean means "mixed rice") was added in September 2017. (Gochugaru, a red pepper powder that's essential to kimchi making, on the other hand, has yet to find its way into the dictionary. I give it until December of this year.)

I've always felt that one way to measure a cuisine's prevalence in America is to see if you can find its ingredients and dishes in the dictionary. Gochujang is, I'm convinced, a pantry ingredient that Americans are becoming more regularly accustomed to because of the rise of bibimbap, now a popular, sought-after dish. Viral YouTuber Maangchi and the latest slew of critically acclaimed Korean restaurants (e.g., Atomix, Kawi, and Haenyeo) have probably played their part, too.

I wonder if bibimbap's popularity outside of Korea has something to do with its omnipresence on airline menus for long flights between the United States and South Korea in the '90s (Korean Air being the first to serve it as their in-flight meal in 1997). It's the perfect plane food: You can keep all of the vegetables, even the rice, together in the same vessel; the bibimbap sauce can be stored in little individual squeeze tubes. All the diner has to do is mix it up.

I remember eating bibimbap on my first flight to Korea when I was 5. Even then, I hated the dish: gray-colored beef; a heap of boring vegetables (spinach? carrots?); maybe a squirt of gochujang mixed into the dried-out rice. Bland, flavorless plane food.

It wasn't until I got older and started ordering dolsot (or "stone pot") bibimbap at restaurants that I started to appreciate the dish's full potential. A sizzling hot dolsot—filled with rice, beef, and vegetables—would come to the table like fajitas at a Tex-Mex chain. Each vegetable would deepen in flavor the longer it sat, not to mention the rice that caramelized on the bottom to form a sort of gochujang-scented tahdig. Crispy, chewy, and irresistible. The stone pot resolved all of the aspects of the dish that I had grown up hating so fervently.

Once I learned to love bibimbap and started making my own at home, I realized what a great dinner for one it is. Bibimbap is often served as a solo portion, one of a few dishes in the Korean food canon that isn't part of a shared table, or shiktak. Rather, it's a single-serving pantry meal that needs just one spoon and one bowl—or in this case, one skillet.

Yep, that's right. Because I don't (and don't expect anyone else to) own a traditional Korean stone pot, I've developed a bibimbap recipe that can be prepared in an 8-inch cast-iron skillet, the perfect pan for the solo diner.


How to Make Skillet Bibimbap

To me, the best bibimbap recipe is one in which each component has been perfected: You could be just as happy eating a single part alone without the rest. That's what makes this version even more magical to eat. There's something special—crunchy, spicy, savory, or sweet—in each and every bite.

The Meat

Most versions of bibimbap have bulgogi, aka "fire meat." But don't let its name fool you: Bulgogi is often pan-fried in its own marinade (read: boiled), which makes it the watered-down, limp counterpart to grilled kalbi's high-heat, caramelized glory. Which is why, for my skillet variation, I've called for thinly sliced strips of beef short ribs, aka kalbi. Thanks to the high heat of the cast iron plus the salty-sweet marinade, your meat should caramelize gorgeously in the skillet, leaving behind a fond—the gorgeous browned bits at the bottom of the pan—which will flavor the rest of the dish as you build it.

If you can't find short ribs, then feel free to use skirt steak, tri-tip, or another cut you like to cook.

For a better bibimbap, switch up the vegetables. Photo by Julia Gartland

The Vegetables

Here's where I'm especially irreverent to the Korean classic: In a standard bibimbap, you'll have the following vegetables, all sautéed with sesame oil and seasoned with salt (and absolutely nothing else): spinach, mushrooms, soybean sprouts, julienned carrots, and other boring things.

But because I'm not the biggest fan of spinach in my bibimbap, I've replaced it with the much hardier Tuscan kale (aka Lacinato or dinosaur kale), which crisps up and caramelizes in the skillet, tasting almost like chips. Next, I've replaced the mushrooms with umami-ridden roasted seaweed snack, which adds a savory undertone that is, for me, hard to replicate. Finally, the boring, soggy carrots (my absolute least favorite part of bibimbap) have been replaced with sliced radishes—but even these spicy-bitter beauts have their own punch, quick-pickled in rice vinegar, salt, and sugar for an agrodolce-like acidic contrast. And though most bibimbap recipes don't call for this, I like to add a bit of kimchi, for funky freshness and a bit more heat. (Plus, it flavors the rice nicely.)

At the end of the day, the vegetables you choose to add to your bibimbap should be according to your own tastes, what you like. These are the ones I prefer.

The Bibimbap Sauce

Apparently, 8,000 people type "bibimbap sauce" into the Google search bar every month. I'm here to let you in on a secret: That sauce is just gochujang. Sure, you could doctor up the pepper paste with, say, vinegar, garlic, and sugar, but most Korean home cooks and restaurants serve it plain, usually in a squeeze bottle. Even Maangchi's bibimbap recipe doesn't call for a separate "bibimbap sauce," just a squirt of the paste over the rice.

I love the way the hot skillet caramelizes the pepper paste just a bit, deepening its chile flavor.

The Egg

For the sake of streamlining an otherwise labor-intensive dish (just check out Maangchi's video tutorial above), I don't even bother frying an egg. I just dot the center of my bibimbap with a single raw egg yolk and call it a day. Ease aside, I do enjoy how the yolk oozes into the hot rice and creates pockets of creamy bites between the crispy, chewy ones.

The Rice

I could go on forever about how to cook short-grain white rice perfectly (oh wait, I did!). You'll only need 1/2 cup rice for this single portion of bibimbap—no sharing required.

How do you make your bibimbap? Let us know in the comments below.

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Eric Kim is the Senior Editor and 'Table for One' columnist at Food52. Formerly the Digital Manager of FoodNetwork.com, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson Kim. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway.

4 Comments

Noreen F. June 24, 2019
Do you ever make larger portions of the short ribs ahead and then just reheat them when you assemble the skillet? Just thinking of ways to shortcut the recipe for a weeknight. Looks delicious, though!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 25, 2019
Hey, Noreen! Sure, I do that all the time. The recipe above scales up pretty easily. You could even freeze individual portions and thaw them as you need them. My mother always kept marinated kalbi in the freezer.
 
Polina H. June 23, 2019
I love bibimbap! Can't wait to try your version
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 25, 2019
Let me know how it goes!