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Black Pepper Beef (黑椒牛柳)
Some things were made to be together: Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus, peanut butter and jelly, and the color red on a Ferrari are a few classics that come to mind. Whether you live in Boston, Bordeaux, or Beijing, you’ve probably sprinkled some pepper on your beef at one time or another, and it’s a combo that works famously well. I love this Chinese take on peppered steak because it features the bold flavor of black pepper front and center. With big savory chunks of beef, sweet onions, and crisp green peppers coated in a glaze of oyster sauce, Black Pepper Beef has a satisfying balance of tastes, textures, and colors that are sharply accented by the smoldering heat of the crushed peppercorns.
This mashup between a Western steak and a Chinese stir-fry cuts back on the amount of meat you use. Still, the bite-sized pieces of steak are caramelized and savory on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. It’s precisely the kind of dish I crave when I have the occasional itch for steak. Best of all, there’s no need to fuss over cooking a thick slab of meat to perfection. Since the vegetables are included, they’re loaded with flavor, and you only have one pan to wash at the end.
Why This Recipe Works?
- Rather than slice the beef into thin strips, I like to use a tender cut of beef and cut it into cubes; this makes it like eating bite-sized pieces of juicy steak.
- Potato starch in the marinade for the beef helps lock in its juices. It also creates a thick glaze in the pan that seasons each piece of meat to perfection.
- The aroma of freshly cracked black pepper is citrusy and evergreen. It’s an important component of this dish that you won’t get with pre-ground black pepper.
Ingredients for Black Pepper Beef
- Beef – Although Black Pepper Beef is usually prepared with thin strips of beef, I like using cubes of good steak meat such as filet mignon, new york strip, or ribeye. Just make sure the cut of meat you choose is tender.
- Black pepper – Though black pepper (<em>piper nigrum</em>) is native to South Asia, it’s been a favorite seasoning around the Old World for at least 2500 years. In India, it’s use dates back at least 4000 years! These days, black pepper has become such a ubiquitous part of every kitchen that seasoning with salt and pepper is like a knee jerk reflex.
- Oyster sauce – I know fresh oysters can be a bit divisive, but the sauce made from them takes their best quality (their briny umami) and distills it down into an easy to use condiment. Oyster sauce has the perfect balance of sweet and savory tastes, but it’s not fishy like fish-sauce, which makes it one of my favorite go-to condiments for stir-fries. When selecting one, you don’t have to be too picky. Just make sure the sauce you’re buying actually contains oysters (or oyster extract).
- Shaoxing wine – This is a type of aged Chinese rice wine which adds umami and an earthy caramel flavor to the black pepper sauce.
- Soy sauce – While oyster sauce is the main seasoning, it has a lower salt concentration than soy sauce. This is why I like to add a bit of soy sauce, so the big pieces of meat and vegetables get properly seasoned.
- Toasted sesame oil – This is an oil that’s made by pressing toasted sesame seeds. It has a strong nutty fragrance and tends to burn if overheated, which is why I add it to the sauce as a flavoring ingredient, not to the pan.
- Potato starch – As the name suggests, potato starch is starch that has been extracted from potatoes. It’s added to the marinade to help seal in the meat’s juices while thickening the remaining black pepper sauce to form a glaze. Potato starch is better than cornstarch in almost every way; in this case, it thickens the sauce without getting goopy.
- Garlic – Garlic is the main aromatic in this stir-fry, and together with the black pepper and beef, it shapes this dish’s flavor profile. The key with the garlic is to not chop it too small; otherwise, it will burn before the other ingredients are cooked.
- Vegetables – Onions and bell peppers add a nice crisp texture and sweetness that go well with the beef. I like using a mix of red and green bell peppers for color and the different flavors they bring to the dish. Be sure to cut these into squares that are about the same size as the beef to get distributed evenly.
How to Make Beef with Chinese Black Pepper Sauce
The first thing you want to do is crush the black peppercorns. You can do this using either a mortar and pestle or put them in a heavy-duty bag and pounding them with a heavy object, like a rolling pin or pot.
Next, you can make the black pepper sauce by whisking together the crushed black pepper (save a little bit for garnish), oyster sauce, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil in a bowl. If you’re making a large batch of sauce and storing it, you can stop here and bottle it up. However, if you’re continuing on with the stir-fry, mix in the potato starch until there are no lumps.
Add the cubed beef to the marinade and mix it all together. Let this rest while you prep the garlic, onions, and peppers.
Once you have all the ingredients ready, heat a frying pan over medium-high heat until it’s hot. Add the oil and garlic and give it a few stirs before adding the beef in a single layer using tongs or chopsticks. You want to try and leave as much of the marinade behind in the bowl as possible, so don’t just dump everything into the pan.
Once the beef has browned on one side, flip the cubes over and brown the other side.
When the beef has browned on at least two sides, add the onions and bell peppers and stir-fry the mixture until the onions start to turn translucent. Add the remaining black pepper sauce and toss everything together until the sauce has thickened around the beef and veggies.
Plate the black pepper beef, and you can garnish it with some additional crushed black pepper.
Other Quick Beef Recipes
I used black pepper from the Malabar Coast in Southern India, but any whole black peppercorns will work. While the recipe will still technically work with pre-ground pepper, I don’t recommend it as many of the nuanced aromas of black pepper start to vaporize as soon as the peppercorns have been crushed. That’s why pre-ground pepper is never as fragrant as freshly cracked pepper.
You could make a big batch of this sauce and store it in a sealed container in the fridge for months. If you plan on storing it, I don’t recommend adding the starch (you can add it in when you use it). This also makes the sauce more flexible as you don’t always want it to contain starch.
Aside from stir-fries like this, the sauce is also a fantastic marinade for grilled chicken and steamed fish. I also like to use this for making stir-fried noodles, but if you’re using it for noodles, be sure to omit the starch.
Although the two peppers are not related, they share a common history. Black pepper made its way to Europe first through the spice trade and became a popular seasoning for its ability to bring foods to life with its creeping heat. Due to its limited supply, black pepper became such a sought-after commodity that it was worth more than gold by some accounts. When explorers started bringing chili peppers back from the Americas for their decorative qualities, it didn’t take long for people to figure out that the colorful fruits also had the ability to spice up food. What started off as a culinary knock-off of black pepper has taken on a life of its own in kitchens worldwide.
- 6 grams whole black peppercorns (2 teaspoons)
- 350 grams beef tenderloin (or other steak cut, cut into 3/4-inch cubes)
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon potato starch
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 140 grams onion (~1 small onion, cut into 1/2-inch squares)
- 100 grams bell pepper (1/2 red, 1/2 green)
- 12 grams garlic (~2 large cloves, chopped)
- Put the black peppercorns in a mortar and use a pestle to crack the peppercorns coarsely. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, put the peppercorns in a freezer bag, and use a rolling pin to crush them.
- In a bowl, whisk the oyster sauce, Shaoxing, soy sauce, sesame oil, and most of the black pepper (saving a little to garnish). Add the potato starch and mix that in until there are no lumps left. Stir the beef in, to coat evenly and let it marinate while you prepare the vegetables.
- Once all the prep is done, heat a frying pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the vegetable oil, and then use tongs to add the beef in a single layer. Try to leave as much of the marinade in the bowl as possible.
Fry the beef on one side until golden brown, and then flip each piece and fry the second side until browned.
- Dump the onions, bell pepper, and garlic into the pan and turn the heat to high. Stir-fry, tossing the contents of the pan periodically to ensure everything cooks evenly.
- When the onions become translucent, add the remaining marinade and toss everything together until the black pepper beef is shiny and evenly coated with sauce.
- Serve with rice and garnish with the remaining black pepper (to taste).