Unlike its sibling chicken teriyaki, you won't see beef teriyaki much in Japan. Like the California Roll, it was likely cooked up by a clever chef in the US trying to lure in more American patrons. In Japan, teriyaki sauce has a longstanding monogamous relationship with chicken (except perhaps the occasional fling with yellowtail). If you mention "beef teriyaki" there, your query will likely be met with curiosity about the "Japanese food" served in the US, rather than indignation as you might find in some countries.
That's probably because some of the best "Japanese" food started off as a knock off of another country's dish. Tempura(Portugal), ramen(China), and tonkatsu(US) are all perfect examples of food that made a journey from another country before becoming something uniquely Japanese. That being said, I've seen one too many generic strip mall Tom's Teriyaki joints try and conceal tough flavorless beef by overcooking it and smothering it with a cloying sweet sauce that's been thickened with cornstarch.
It really gives teriyaki a bad name and I decided something needed to be done to set the record straight. So I put on my "what would a Japanese person do" hat and went to work. The first thing I decided was that a Japanese person would definitely start off by buying a ridiculously overpriced cut of meat that was fed on a diet of white truffles from Alba and bottles of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild while being massaged by 40 year old virgin sumo wrestlers. Well... okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but I went and bought myself a nicely marbled ribeye.
Contrary to traditional wisdom (that thicker steaks are better), when you're making beef teriyaki thinner steaks actually work best because you have more surface area relative to the amount of meat for the sauce to cling to. If the meat is too thin though, it will be well done by the time you sear it and get the sauce nice and thick, so I find 1/2" thick steaks to be just about right.
As for the sauce, the teri in teriyaki literally means "shiny", so adding garlic/sesame/ginger/scallions/etc. that would cloud the sauce is off limits. I make my teriyaki sauce with the golden 1-1-1-1 ratio of sugar, mirin, sake, and soy sauce. Yep, there's no cornstarch! The sauce is thickened by the sugars caramelizing, which broadens the palette and allows it to coat the meat nicely without being heavy or cloying.
While I use honey as the sugar in my chicken teriyaki sauce, I prefer using brown sugar for my beef teriyaki. It creates a darker sauce with deep earthy flavors. Personally I love the way the dark caramel flavors of the sauce interact with the rich savory meat, so I don't add any ginger or garlic, but if you want to add another dimension to this dish, you can rub some grated ginger or garlic onto the beef before frying.
The beauty of beef teriyaki is in its simplicity. Provided you can find sake and mirin in your area (many grocery stores carry them in their Asian food section these days), the list of ingredients is simple, and the preparation is even simpler. A quick sear on both sides gives it color, and the steak finishes cooking while the teriyaki sauce reduces in the same pan.
- To make the teriyaki sauce, combine the brown sugar, mirin, sake and soy sauce in a small bowl and stir to combine.
- If your steak is very lean, rub a teaspoon of oil onto each steak. If the steaks have a lot of fat marbled in with the meat they shouldn't need any oil. Heat a heavy bottomed frying pan over high heat until very hot. Add the the steaks and sear one side until browned.
- Flip the steaks over and sear the other side. If you want your steaks medium rare, reduce the searing time, if want your steaks well done, increase the searing time.
- If you have oil pooling in your pan, drain the excess oil. Pour the teriyaki sauce into the pan with the beef, and let it boil.
- Flip the steaks over repeatedly until the teriyaki sauce is very viscous and coats each steak in a thick shiny glaze. Transfer the steaks to a cutting board and let them rest for a few minutes.
- Slice your beef teriyaki with a sharp knife. Drizzle the remaining teriyaki sauce onto the sliced steaks and serve.