Buldak, the Fiery Korean Chicken Dish, Gets the Pizza Treatment
Buldak, or “fire chicken,” is a modern Korean dish known for its intense spiciness thanks to a sweet marinade heavy on chile paste and pepper flakes. The chicken can be cooked in a number of ways — on a grill or fried, for example — before it’s broiled with a bubbly and browned blanket of mozzarella. It’s a great drinking food.
After trying a half-dozen recipes for buldak earlier this summer, it occurred to me that the flavors in it — a spicy-sweet sauce, smoky chicken, melted mozzarella — are similar to the flavors of barbecue chicken pizza. But how would a buldak pizza taste? Both buldak and pizza are drinking, or anju, foods, so a mash-up seemed natural to me.
For my initial tests, I used my go-to New York pizza dough recipe as it works well, both in a conventional oven, with a pizza stone or steel, or in a specialized outdoor pizza oven.
I was pretty sure that simply placing buldak on top of pizza dough and baking it would need some tweaking, but I tried it all the same, using this very simple recipe from Emily Kim (a.k.a. YouTube’s Maangchi) that is fast to make and has a really nice sweet-hot balance.
Her recipe stews chicken breast on the stovetop in the chile marinade. I spread that cooked chicken (along with excess marinade) onto a stretched round of dough and topped it with cheese, then baked it on top of a pizza steel inside of a preheated 550 degree oven until the crust was nicely crisped and the cheese was browned and bubbly. Chopped scallions (in lieu of the red onions that top barbecue chicken pizza) and sesame seeds provided the finish.
In pizza form, the chicken was as deliciously spicy as I’d expect, but what had been a nice counterbalancing sweetness in the original dish came off as cloying on the pizza. It was as if the sugar had reduced and caramelized too far while the pizza baked — the way grocery store barbecue sauce can turn your chicken candy-sweet if applied too thickly. Moreover, the chicken breast was overcooked by the time the pizza was done.
Sasha Marx, in his buldak recipe on Serious Eats, mellows the sauce by sautéing the garlic and ginger before adding the remaining ingredients. This worked well for me, too, though I skipped his suggestion of adding Sprite because of the sweetness issue. It took a few iterations, but I solved the problem by dividing the sauce, using half as a marinade for the chicken and diluting the other half with crushed tomatoes and stock. The added savory flavors pulled the sweetness back to more reasonable levels.
The high heat required for pizza meant I could char the chicken, though I’d need to be careful about overcooking it. I switched to chicken thighs which, because of their higher levels of connective tissue and fat, are less prone to overcooking than chicken breast. Overcooked chicken tastes dry because muscle proteins react to heat by contracting, which in turn squeezes out juices. In an overnight marinade or brine, salt will break down these muscle proteins, effectively safeguarding your chicken from overcooking. Since I was making pizza dough that ferments overnight in the fridge, adding an overnight marinating step was a no-brainer.
Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and placed directly on my pizza steel in the hot oven, the chicken thigh pieces developed a smoky char and were cooked through in 7 to 8 minutes. I cooled the chicken fully before chopping it into pieces, which gave me time to stretch my proofed and rested pizza dough and get my topping station ready.
This time the chicken was tender and moist throughout, with little bits of smoky char. But even with the changes I’d made to the buldak, the pizza tasted a little incomplete to me. It lacked the acidity needed to balance out the cheese and crust. I opened the fridge and fished around until I found a jar of quick-pickled Fresno chiles. Along with some slices of fresh garlic sprinkled on just before baking, the pickled chiles were exactly what the pizza needed.
To be certain, I made another pizza, this time with a different pickled chile from my fridge on each quadrant (banana peppers, pickled jalapeños, pepperoncini and pickled Thai chiles). They all worked equally well.
I couldn’t help but wonder if another pizza style might be superior for these flavors, so I made buldak pizza in a wide range of styles. It turns out New York is my overall favorite, but there were some other interesting versions that you might want to try for yourself.
Thin-crust bar-style buldak pizza is fantastic, especially cut into party squares and served with beer. Neapolitan crust can’t support heavy toppings like chunky chicken. French bread buldak pizza eats like a deliciously spicy open-faced chicken Parm. Detroit-style buldak pizza has potential, but my version of it was far too heavy and would need tweaking. Does Chicago deep dish buldak pizza sound delicious to you? Whatever your answer, that’s exactly how it tastes. Tortilla-crust buldak pizza, made by crisping up a topped tortilla in a skillet and finishing it under the broiler, is universally delicious and should be in everyone’s late-night arsenal.
Recipe: Buldak Pizza (Korean Fire Chicken Pizza)
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