Sweet & Spicy Beef Lettuce Wraps

In our household we call this "Korean Beef" because it reminds us of flavors we love in actual Korean food, but "Sweet and Spicy Beef" is absolutely more accurate. Or perhaps Americanized Pan-Asian-Flavored Beef With Plenty of Gochujang But Also Sriracha and Hoisin, but then you start to feel bad about leaving out ingredients.

Semantics aside, this is one of the meals we go back to again and again. And again. It's totally crave-inducing (spicy chili paste plus brown sugar plus tangy rice vinegar plus browned-almost-blackened beef!), it's economical, and it's quick. Quick as in, a 30 minute meal that is ACTUALLY a 30 minute meal. And if you cook the rice and mix up the sauce ahead of time, dare I say you could throw this together in closer to fifteen (15!) minutes. That's 900 seconds.

Wrapped in cool and crunchy butter lettuce is my favorite setting for this tangy beef, but of course it's delicious in a tortilla or flatbread too. (Watch this space for homemade tortillas, which I've been making weekly during Covid!)

Assuming you venture out for the butter lettuce, definitely scope out an avocado too. Obviously we can't say the avo is a required topping, but it adds a LOT of points for taste and texture.

Just after adding sauce to cooked ground beef

5-10 minutes later, deeply browned and caramelized beef

Per my pro tip above, you can combine the sauce ingredients ahead of time and just keep it in the fridge until you're ready to make dinner. After cooking a pound of ground beef in a skillet, you add the sauce and crank the heat up. I don't want to tell you to burn anything, but also, what's the worst that can happen? (Okay, fires. Don't actually start a fire.) The brown sugar will help caramelize the beef and create a deeply browned crust. You'll deglaze the pan just before serving to scrape up all that browned goodness.

Ingredient Notes

Let's talk toppings. Pictured above is my favorite combo to complement the beef (there's a bit more detail on the rice, cabbage, and mayo below the recipe):
- Coconut rice
- Quick-pickled red cabbage
- Avocado
- Carrot (I buy pre-shredded carrots and I love them. I just can't achieve that matchstick shape at home!)
- Sriracha mayo
- Sesame seeds
- Scallions (I really am fairly sure these are in there somewhere, just not visible)

The toasted sesame oil definitely adds flavor here, but if you don't have it just use olive oil. Same goes for seasoned rice vinegar - you should totally get some! - but if you don't have it, sub in a white wine vinegar. 

The gochujang is really the only thing in this recipe that is actually Korean; it's a sweet and spicy chili paste used as a ubiquitous condiment in Korean cuisine. It's pretty easy to find (the not-so-robust "Asian" aisle in my local Hannaford carries it, so I'm assuming it's available at most grocery stores) and will last for ages in your fridge, so I recommend picking some up. But if you proceed without it, I would use sriracha (but probably not as much, depending on your spice tolerance - it is hotter than the gochujang I buy) and 1-2 additional Tbsp of brown sugar.

I didn't set out to write a paragraph about lettuce but here we are. Butter lettuce (aka Butterhead; Boston and Bibb are varieties) has a soft leaf with a crunchy spine. Hands down this is my choice for lettuce wraps, as it's pliable but has enough structure to hold fillings. Plus the leaves tend to be large and round (like a tortilla!), very handy for tacos. You could make something closer to a lettuce "boat" using Romaine, but I just don't think that's as fun. You can often find Butter lettuce in a "live" head at the grocery store, meaning the cluster of roots is still attached, which will stay crisp in your fridge for a few days. (If I can only find it without the roots I try to eat it the same day as it tends to wilt pretty quickly.)

Sweet & Spicy Beef Lettuce Wraps
Serves 2 hungry adults

*See ingredient notes above
  • 1 head butter lettuce, leaves separated
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 3 scallions, chopped (whites and light green parts for the sauce; reserve the dark green tops for garnish)
  • 2 tsp + 1 tsp toasted sesame oil*
  • 3 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 1 tsp fish sauce (optional but I really like the funk it adds)
  • 2 Tbsp gochujang*
  • 2 Tbsp seasoned rice vinegar
  • 3 Tbsp packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp red chili flake
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
  • 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, minced or grated

Whisk all ingredients except for the lettuce, ground beef, and 1 tsp of the sesame oil in a small bowl. 

Heat remaining 1 tsp of sesame oil in a large skillet over medium heat (I recommend a heavy, stainless steel pain without non-stick coating). Add ground beef and cook, breaking it up with a spoon as it cooks.

When beef is no longer pink, add sauce to skillet. Stir to completely coat beef. Turn heat up to medium/high.

Cook beef in sauce for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Most of the liquid will evaporate and a crust will form on the pan. If you like, continue cooking for a few more minutes to further brown the meat.

Add 2 Tbsp of water to the hot pan to deglaze it. Use a sturdy wooden spoon or a metal spatula (unless you're using a nonstick pan!) to scrape up all the delicious brown stuff from the pan. Reduce heat to low and cook for another minute.

Spoon beef into individual lettuce leaves with coconut rice and top with sliced avocado, pickled cabbage, shredded carrots, scallion greens, sesame seeds, and sriracha mayo. 

Coconut rice: Combine 1 cup of (rinsed) jasmine rice with 1 can (14.5 oz) of coconut milk and 1 tsp of kosher salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook until rice is tender and liquid has evaporated, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent rice from sticking to pan. When cooked, add additional salt to taste (optional) and the juice from half a lime.

Quick-pickled cabbage: In a medium bowl whisk 2 Tbsp seasoned rice vinegar with 2 tsp agave nectar (or sub maple syrup). Add 1 cup of thinly sliced red cabbage and toss to coat. Let sit for 20-60 minutes; drain excess liquid before serving. 

Sriracha mayo: Combine 1 cup of mayonnaise with 1 tsp of rice vinegar and 1 Tbsp+ of sriracha. This is really a matter of taste/spice tolerance; add more sriracha if you like. Keep this in a jar or squeeze bottle in your fridge and use it on everything. You can buy this pre-made; it will be a rip-off.