Korean BBQ: Best Bulgogi Marinade Sauce in Stores [2019]

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After 27 hours of cooking, researching, and testing twelve different bottles of marinade sauces, we have concluded that We Rub You: Original Korean BBQ Marinade is the best bottled bulgogi marinade sauce you can buy today. It completely blew away the competition and reminded us of how great a plate of bulgogi can really be.

Editor's Pick:

Let’s just say first off, that this was the first bottle of sauce that both: caused me to question my abilities as a cook and pull out the Senator Clay Davis “shiiiiieeeeeiiit”. If I have to be professional this marinade is great, tons of umami, great sweetness, salty enough to accentuate the flavor of the meat but not enough to burn your lips. This is by far the best example of trying to pack as much of each flavor profile and toeing the line right before it hitting “too much”.

Runner Up:

I still love CJ’s balanced execution and honestly I’m surprised that another big box Korean brand is edging them out here. (I generally assume that food companies grow at the cost of quality). Sempio’s execution is on point like CJ’s here, what edges them out is that they make CJ look as if they’re playing it safe. They bring a nice sweetness that comes out very naturally paired with a smooth velvety textural finish. What takes them to the next level though is the strong ginger flavor that nearly threatens to overpower everything. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of ginger, but it works really well here, think Ying’s but done right. It doesn’t have the almost acidic chemically profile that a lot of ginger can impart, it accentuates the meat in a way that is very difficult to accomplish. Definitely a solid choice for an evening’s meal, the main reason why we can’t call it the best bulgogi marinade sauce (that comes in a bottle of course) is it still comes with that tinge of big brand Korean artificiality that none of the big boys seem able to shake.

Korean Bulgogi Marinades Tested

Update: It still boggles my mind that someone could have the confidence and wherewithal to take a known successful product — and tweak it. This isn’t Domino’s reformulating their pizza either, there were no glaring issues or demands with their prize horse. Still, I guess it only proves We Rub You’s legitimacy even more, that they can change things up and it only makes sense.

The new iteration (they re-up their formula every year or so) still maintains the great balance that shot them to the forefront when we first tried it. The sweetness is a little more prominent than before, but definitely not overpowering, while they pulled back on the garlic. I personally can never have too much garlic in a dish but it works well here, letting the other flavors come out and share some of the spotlight. The only drawback is that my bulgogi came out a little saltier than before, I admittedly have a very low salt tolerance (my mother refused to cook with the stuff for some reason), so I would just advise not dumping the whole bottle in one go. All of that work and they still maintain their position as the best bottled bulgogi marinade sauce in America… at least all of the ones we’ve encountered.

11/28/2016: Let’s just say first off, that this was the first bottle of sauce that both: caused me to question my abilities as a cook and pull out the Senator Clay Davis “shiiiiieeeeeiiit”. If I have to be professional this marinade is great, tons of umami, great sweetness, salty enough to accentuate the flavor of the meat but not enough to burn your lips. This is by far the best example of trying to pack as much of each flavor profile and toeing the line right before it hitting “too much”.

What made me pound the table and close my eyes though, was the garlic. I was ashamed thinking back on my previous reviews as it was almost as if I had forgotten what garlic tasted like. This was the only sauce that had visible chunks of garlic, the rest stuck with all black tar or sesame seeds to break up the monotony. Maybe that primed me to look out for the garlic but it doesn’t matter, it works. Thank you for reminding me of life’s greatest seasoning. We loved CJ’s balance last time; you can think of We Rub You as the wise monk in a cave that taught CJ all about balance, and has since moved on to deeper and greater things.

I still love CJ’s balanced execution and honestly I’m surprised that another big box Korean brand is edging them out here. (I generally assume that food companies grow at the cost of quality). Sempio’s execution is on point like CJ’s here, what edges them out is that they make CJ look as if they’re playing it safe. They bring a nice sweetness that comes out very naturally paired with a smooth velvety textural finish. What takes them to the next level though is the strong ginger flavor that nearly threatens to overpower everything. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of ginger, but it works really well here, think Ying’s but done right. It doesn’t have the almost acidic chemically profile that a lot of ginger can impart, it accentuates the meat in a way that is very difficult to accomplish. Definitely a solid choice for an evening’s meal, the main reason why we can’t call it the best bulgogi marinade sauce (that comes in a bottle of course) is it still comes with that tinge of big brand Korean artificiality that none of the big boys seem able to shake.

First thing that comes to mind is how balanced this is, seems like a boring characteristic but I can’t overstate its importance and how well CJ does it here. This bottle of sauce is very sweet, but not cloying. Salty but doesn’t burn my tongue. And the best part… I can actually taste the meat. It takes a couple seconds to come through but it was a nice surprise. Too many bottled bulgogi sauces try to pack so much flavor into a couple teaspoons that the most important ingredient, the meat, gets lost in the shuffle.

They do go a little strong on the fruit, in an ideal world they’d dial it down a couple notches, but it doesn’t go so far as to mess anything up. The Korean in me would have liked a little more garlic and ginger but you can still pick it out. I found myself continually coming back to this one, and it was in all honesty the first sauce where I finished the whole portion. Great overall job CJ, I hope one day the JK brand will surpass you, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Turns out this was the People’s Choice as well with an average overall score of 8! I have to say after everyone had finished tasting and we started chatting it up, testers absentmindedly kept going back to this one as well.

First thing that came to mind with this bottle was the Teriyaki flavored beef jerky you get in gas stations. There’s some sweetness but the main thing you’ll focus on is the pungent funkiness. There’s an unusual earthiness that honestly I couldn’t identify until I looked at the label later but I’m pretty sure it’s from the mushrooms. Kind of tastes like instant Chappaghetti, charred black beans with a lot of saltiness. The funkiness isn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s definitely something to be cautious of. I was joking with a friend about the bulgogi marinade that advertised itself as ‘vegan’, kind of ironic that it actually tastes vegan too.

I will forever associate tomatoes and beef with Haioreum. I could tell straightaway which one this was. The tang is still there, the hint of sweetness is still there, but somehow it doesn’t work as well. My theory is because the meat itself isn’t as rich and fatty as the ribs. So what I’m getting at here is that the sauces are essentially one and the same profile wise, but without the fat it can be overpowering and cloy as opposed to uplifting. It’s still a good bottle of sauce, and with an extra fatty piece of bulgogi it goes great, but overall it can be a bit much. Not too salty, not too sweet, does accentuate the meat, but I keep thinking it needs a fattier cut.

Assi is definitely more subtle than other bottled sauces, and at the end I almost taste… Burger King… not entirely sure what that means but there are hints of an American burger in here. Sweetness is there, hits almost burning levels but tapers off right before it gets overpowering. It’s almost as if you mixed Haioreum and Ottogi together. You get the hints of tang and acidity from the prior paired with the chemically sweetness of the latter… but lesser versions of both brands. The one saving grace is that it’s a lot softer on each flavor component, but you still get the sense that there’s an overload of something. In the end it can be summed up in one word… “meh”.

If you want to go middle of the pack this one’s for you, which when coming from a brand that means “King” doesn’t come out so good. It’s not a bad sauce except for a weird subtle background note that vaguely tastes like soap. I actually went back after the test and recooked this one, making sure to clean the pan and container the meat was marinading in as much as possible… but it was still there.

Sasum Deer

I initially thought this one was going to bring on the super sweet burning that so many other bottles of marinade fall into because it’s really syrupy. After a few minutes of cooling it takes on that hardened toffee texture that’s such a pain in the ass when doing the dishes later. It was really sweet, but it never took on the chemical fruity sweetness. It’s actually a pretty nice sauce, succulent and savory, but in the end it doesn’t really pop. I’d say it plays it safe and doesn’t go too far with the salt, sweet, or oil, but not enough of anything that’ll make you want to come back for more either.

I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s overall a very good bottle of sauce, sweet with a strong onion flavor, and I would eat it again. However, the first reaction you’ll have is that… this isn’t bulgogi… it doesn’t even taste Korean. I don’t get any hits of ginger, garlic, or soy sauce at all.

I would label this as a step up from Panda Express grilled chicken teriyaki, and I mean that with the utmost respect. Based off this one alone I would say Tsang knows how to make a good sauce, they just messed up on the labeling… thinking of Panda Express, this would go great on some chicken…

I’d call this one Chung Jung’s 남동생 (little brother). They definitely have the same DNA. Really salty with an overpowering, almost chemical-ish, fruity sweetness. The sweetness stereotype wasn’t helped at all by how the sauce almost hardened into toffee after a couple minutes on the table. It’s a shame because the other components are not half bad but you’re definitely going to need a ton of rice with this one. 

I’d recommend eating this one quick and then dumping the plate in a sink full of hot water, I tore up my sponge and fingernails trying to get the leftover sauce off the plate.

The first, and last thing you’ll notice is the ginger, it hits your nose straight away. Initially this results in a pretty decent bulgogi, mellow and slightly sweet, but the ginger comes roaring back and it’s all you’ll taste.

The sauce itself has a great texture, very smooth and silky, but that’s due to all the oil (I don’t add any to the pan when cooking). Even after fully reducing the sauce, when I plated the oil seeped out and ran everywhere. I had to use two paper towels to wipe it away. I don’t necessarily call that a negative, I mean more fat isn’t always a turn off, but definitely a factor to keep in mind.

Overall this would have gotten a good score (ginger and oil can be personal preference), but this sauce is way too salty. I admit I’m more sensitive than others when it comes to salt (years of growing up with an overly health conscious mother) but when it burns my tongue I know it’s not just me.

However, if ginger and oil are positives for you definitely give this one a try. It got second highest overall with a six. We’ll be increasing the sample size as fast as we can, but if CJs is nowhere to be found I’d grab a bottle of this.

What is Good Bulgogi (불고기)?

Literally “Fire Meat”, from a technical standpoint any grilled meat could be considered bulgogi. Not only that, there are a million different variations, ranging from household to household, mom to mom, grandma to grandma. But if you polled all the Koreans in the world, the overwhelming favorite, the gold standard, would be a pile of steaming, garlicky, savory beef, stained with that rich black that only a soy sauce based marinade can impart. I would consider this to be the ubiquitous Korean meat dish, if there’s beef for dinner my money’s on it being bulgogi. Worldwide it may not be as well known as its royal cousin, but galbi (갈비) is generally reserved for special occasions, like when grandma is visiting.

So we’re going to go with mom’s version, unlike most Korean dishes it’s not a spicy dish. Proportions may vary, secret ingredients might get swapped out, technique might be lacking, but the hits are always the same:

  • That oh so familiar rich, savory, earthy sweetness that only a boatload of garlic can bring
  • The umami exploding from the meat mixed with the dark, deep, saltiness of the soy sauce
  • The smooth, rich, smokiness without the smoke, Barry White meets Wang Chung from that hit of sesame seed oil

There are a number of other elements that are standard, the light crunch of sliced scallions and sesame seeds (whether garnish or a part of the marinade is a separate issue). But those are the flavors we’re sticking with. Sure they are standard components of a lot of Asian cuisine, but sliced beef soaked in that delicate balance then slapped onto a grill pan coalesces into something special and unmistakably Korean.

What makes a good bulgogi marinade sauce?

Mark Twain wrote once that Americans don’t love French Fries, they love Ketchup… or at least he would have if he were around today. I say the whole world has a sauce infatuation. Sauces are cultural, culinary ambassadors, embodying and representing entire cuisines so much that you can’t imagine a bowl of Pho without that bottle of rooster sauce on the side. Salsa, guacamole, bbq, hollandaise, bernaise, hoisin, some wine or broth splashed into a hot pan of drippings followed with a pat of butter. Every food has a sauce and every sauce is tailored to a food. The proportions and applications swing widely but the components are all the same:

  • Sweet
  • Acid or Sour
  • Spice or Heat
  • Savory
  • Bitter
  • Salt

Those six components and the ratio therein, on a 1 to 10 scale we’re not looking for straight 10s here. If your teriyaki sauce is as spicy as sambal, or your salsa has the earthiness of fish sauce, we got problems.

Survey results

ComponentSweet (Cardboard - Willy Wonka's Fingernails (1-10)Acid/Sour (Rare steak - Warheads) (1-10)Spice/Heat (Warm milk - Habanero oil) (1-10)Savory (Celery - Truffles) (1-10)Bitter (Frappuccino - Dad's 3rd cup of coffee) (1-10)Salt (Brown rice - Pretzels) (1-10)Overall Score (Throw in the trash - I want what she's having) (1-10)
CJ Korean BBQ: Bulgogi Marinade6226153
Assi BBQ Marinade and Sauce for Beef Bulgogi5324255
Ottogi Barbecue Marinade (Korean BBQ Sauce)9376275
Ying’s Korean BBQ Marinade4326246
Chung Jung One Korean BBQ Bulgogi Sauce & Marinade for Beef9416153

Why trust us?

The easiest thing to do would be to say you should trust me because I’ve done my homework, because I’ve eaten bulgogi my whole life, because I take meat way too seriously to be healthy (mentally let alone physically). If I’m being honest with you my biggest argument would be my pure, youthful, innocent intentions of hoping the world makes and eats more bulgogi. The more there is the less likely I have to make it myself.

The real reason why you should trust us, is that we’re not asking you to. Either have a little faith in our process or join in. We’re going to be performing blind taste tests, with as many testers as we can pull off the streets, and posting the results. Try them on your own and let us know what you think, maybe we got unlucky and went 100 straight people who didn’t know they have a garlic allergy.

We’re all former pre-med students so we’ve spent enough time in a lab to break a beaker or two. Every bulgogi sauce or marinade will get the same cut and amount of beef (25 grams of sliced rib eye), duration it will soak (1 hour), cooking method (cast iron skillet), and cooking time (10 minutes). The skillet will preheat on high for 10 minutes and there will be 50 grams (roughly ½ of a cup) of sauce or marinade per portion.

Testers will not know the marinade when tasting, and between each test they will clean their palate with white rice (what else would it be?).

How we chose what to test?

Korean BBQ is generally a catch-all term for the entire experience of sitting around a hot grill, piling raw cuts of meat onto it, throwing back a few shots of soju, and trying to resist the urge to start digging in while the meat’s still cold. It’s not a specific dish, it’s the whole thing rolled up into one great night.

We’re going to focus on bottled sauces and marinades that are explicitly meant for bulgogi, it needs to explicitly say ‘bulgogi’ or ‘sliced rib eye’ on the bottle. Staying true to such a narrow and sophisticated criteria we perused the shelves of every grocery store we passed on the way home, and did the dirty work of searching for it in your favorite search engine. As long as it’s sold commercially we’ll get it for you and test it out.

The last condition is that it has to be for beef, the reason being that if you served bulgogi made of any other kind of meat without adding a prefix on the name there’d be riots. Bulgogi is beef, if it’s not you gotta say it. You got waffle fries, duck fat fries, curly fries, sweet potato fries, but fries… are fries.

What to look forward to

I asked a few friends to check out all the grocery stores near them (and a few who live out in the ‘burbs and are lucky enough to have a Korean grocery store near them). Additions are forthcoming…

Wrapping it up

We’ve definitely eaten more bulgogi in the last few weeks than is healthy, but feel free to let us know if you have any requests for what we should try next. Don’t be shy, send us a bottle or two, we’ll find room somewhere ;).

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5 thoughts on “Korean BBQ: Best Bulgogi Marinade Sauce in Stores [2019]”

  1. Great review! I have always loved Korean food, and I have finally decided to try cooking it at home. I appreciate the depth of your analyses, as well as the humor and wit you sprinkled throughout!

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