Black Pepper Beef is a quick and easy stir-fry of beef, onions, and peppers seasoned with oyster sauce and a generous amount of black pepper.
My version of this Chinese classic includes large, juicy chunks of steak, which adds substance and a bold, beefy flavor to the dish.
This hybrid of a Western steak and a Chinese stir-fry reduces the amount of meat used. Nonetheless, the bite-sized steak pieces are caramelized and savory on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside.
It’s exactly the kind of dish I crave when I get a craving for steak. Best of all, there’s no need to stress about perfectly cooking a thick slab of meat.
Because the vegetables are included, they are full of flavor, and you only have one pan to clean at the end.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS?
- Rather than slicing the beef into thin strips, I like to use a tender cut of beef and cut it into cubes, which gives you bite-sized pieces of juicy steak.
- The use of potato starch in the marinade for the beef aids in the preservation of its juices. It also creates a thick glaze in the pan that perfectly seasons each piece of meat.
- Freshly cracked black pepper has a citrusy and evergreen aroma. It’s a key ingredient in this dish that you won’t find with pre-ground black pepper.
INGREDIENTS FOR BLACK PEPPER BEEF
- Beef – Although Black Pepper Beef is traditionally made with thin strips of beef, I prefer to use cubes of good steak meat such as filet mignon, new york strip, or ribeye. Just make sure the meat you select is tender.
- Though black pepper is native to South Asia, it has been a popular seasoning throughout the Old World for at least 2500 years. It has been used in India for at least 4000 years! Black pepper has become such an indispensible part of every kitchen that seasoning with salt and pepper has become a reflex.
- Oyster sauce – I know fresh oysters can be divisive, but the sauce made from them distills their best quality (their briny umami) into a simple condiment. Oyster sauce has the perfect balance of sweet and savory flavors, but it doesn’t taste fishy like fish sauce, making it one of my favorite go-to condiments for stir-fries. You don’t have to be too picky when choosing one. Just make certain that the sauce you purchase contains oysters (or oyster extract).
- Shaoxing wine – An aged Chinese rice wine that adds umami and an earthy caramel flavor to the black pepper sauce.
- Soy sauce – While oyster sauce is the main seasoning, it contains less salt than soy sauce. This is why I like to season the large pieces of meat and vegetables with a little soy sauce.
- Toasted sesame oil – This oil is produced by pressing toasted sesame seeds. It has a strong nutty aroma and can burn if overheated, so I add it to the sauce as a flavoring ingredient rather than to the pan.
- Potato starch – As the name implies, potato starch is starch extracted from potatoes. It’s mixed into the marinade to help seal in the juices of the meat, while also thickening the remaining black pepper sauce to form a glaze. In almost every way, potato starch outperforms cornstarch; in this case, it thickens the sauce without becoming goopy.
- Garlic – Garlic is the main aromatic in this stir-fry, and it shapes the flavor profile along with the black pepper and beef. The key with the garlic is not to chop it too finely; otherwise, it will burn before the other ingredients have finished cooking.
- Onions and bell peppers add a nice crisp texture and sweetness that complements the beef. I like to use a combination of red and green bell peppers for color and the variety of flavors they bring to the dish. To ensure that the beef is distributed evenly, cut these into squares about the same size as the beef.
HOW TO STORE CHINESE BLACK PEPPER STEAK:
Because all of the vegetables are sturdy, this recipe stores and reheats beautifully. For three to five days, store in an airtight container. Do not freeze; cornstarch-based recipes do not freeze well.
THE BLACK PEPPER SAUCE:
While the black pepper sauce does add heat, you can control it, and because the sauce is added at the end, you can taste and adjust it to make it just a little hot or a lot hot, depending on who you’re serving.
There are a few things to remember. The recipe calls for freshly cracked black pepper, which has a coarser grind (larger pieces of pepper) than regular ground pepper.
As a result, 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of coarsely ground cracked pepper contains less pepper than the same amount of ground pepper.
Don’t make the mistake of using the same amount of regular old grocery store ground pepper as coarsely ground pepper in this sauce – if you do, the recipe will most likely be too hot to eat.
If you don’t have a pepper grinder, grind peppercorns in a blender, spice grinder, between two pans, or in a mortar and pestle.
If you’re serving this to the family, especially the kids, add just a little cracked black pepper to the sauce, serve those who won’t be able to handle much heat, then add a little more pepper to the finished stir-fry and/or pass a little black pepper to sprinkle over for those who want it.
- Choose a beef cut that is ideal for a quick stir-fry. The best choices are flank and skirt steak.
- Cut the beef across the grain. Otherwise, the texture will be chewy and tough.
- Marinate the beef in a traditional Chinese marinade consisting of cornstarch, rice wine, soy sauce, and other ingredients.
- When stir-frying, keep the wok hot and move quickly. Following the cooking sequence, quickly sear the beef before removing it from the wok. Fry the vegetables for a few minutes before returning the beef to the wok. Overcooking will make the meat less tender.
- Cheaper cuts of beef, such as braising beef, are not ideal for this dish but are acceptable. Just make sure to first tenderize it with baking soda (Chinese restaurant chefs usually do this). After that, I always rinse the beef before marinating it to eliminate the unpleasant taste of baking soda.
Frequently Asked Questions
I used Malabar Coast black peppercorns from Southern India, but any whole black peppercorns will do. While the recipe can be made with pre-ground pepper, I don’t recommend it because many of the nuanced aromas of black pepper begin to vaporize as soon as the peppercorns are crushed. That is why pre-ground pepper never smells as good as freshly cracked pepper.
You could make a large batch of this sauce and keep it in the fridge for months in a sealed container. I don’t recommend adding the starch if you intend to store it (you can add it in when you use it). This also makes the sauce more adaptable, as starch isn’t always desired.
Aside from stir-fries, the sauce also works well as a marinade for grilled chicken and steamed fish. I also like to use this to make stir-fried noodles, but if you do, make sure to leave out the starch.
Despite the fact that the two peppers are unrelated, they share a common history. Black pepper arrived in Europe via the spice trade and quickly became a popular seasoning due to its ability to bring foods to life with its creeping heat. Due to its scarcity, black pepper became such a valuable commodity that it was said to be worth more than gold in some circles. When explorers began bringing back chili peppers from the Americas for their decorative qualities, it didn’t take long for people to realize that the colorful fruits could also be used to spice up food. What began as a culinary knock-off of black pepper has taken on a life of its own in kitchens around the world.