Secrets for Perfect Shish Kebabs
Shish Kebab is King
Whether you call them kebabs, kabobs, or kebaps, there’s no question that meat on a stick is one summertime barbecue staple that is easy to fall in love with. Sadly, shish kebabs are easy to ruin, in either the preparation or the grilling process.
Originally of Turkish descent, the kebab has made its way around the world and has variations originating from nearly every continent. Kebabs typically include marinated or seasoned pieces of cubed, ground, or sliced meat interspersed with vegetables. Once threaded onto skewers, kebabs are usually cooked on the grill. While the original Turkish shish kebab used lamb meat, now chicken, beef, vegetables, and even tofu are common.
Before your next weekend get-together, read these tips to avoid kebab chaos and to become the king or queen of skewered meat. (Tip: 7 Tips on Grilling Kabobs)
Making the perfect kebab begins at the grocery store. While shopping, you need to pay close attention to two main items: the meat and the skewers.
Invest in Good Skewers
If you plan to make shish kebabs often, invest in stainless steel skewers. They are sturdier, will last forever, and are easier to handle over the flame than are other options. Avoid round metal skewers – when you try to flip them, the meat will spin on the skewer, making it impossible to cook the meat evenly on all sides. Instead, choose single-pronged flat metal skewers, which are much easier to flip.
In a pinch, classic bamboo skewers work fine. Before you thread food on them, soak them in water for at least 30 minutes to prevent them from burning on the grill. Also lightly cover them with nonstick cooking spray before loading on the meat and veggies for easier removal after grilling.
If you want to get fancy, you can also use herbs as a skewer. The woody stalks of rosemary are great for skewering meats, and they add a ton of flavor.
Trim and cut the protein for even cook time.
For properly cooked kebabs, uniform pieces of meat are essential. The perfect size is a 1-to 1.5-inch cube – big enough to hold up when skewered but small enough to cook through quickly. For meats that aren’t easily cubed (such as chicken thighs or skirt steak), cut into 1-inch wide strips and thread onto the skewer, or fold the strips in half to create a cube-like shape.2
Choose the right marinade and turn on the timer.
Kebab ingredients are often marinated to infuse additional flavor. The best thing about marinades is that you can create nearly any flavor profile by varying the ingredients you use. Marinades have three main ingredients: oil or fat, acid, and flavorings. Here are a few good combinations, each of which will marinade two to three pounds of meat.
Thai: In a blender or food processor, combine ½ cup canola oil, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon lime juice, ½ bunch cilantro, 2 cloves of garlic, and 2 tablespoons palm or brown sugar. Pulse until smooth.
Chinese: In a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, 1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder, 1 tablespoon honey, 1 clove of garlic (crushed), 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, and two chopped scallions. Mix until combined.
Greek: In a small bowl, mix together the juice from four lemons, 5 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 5 tablespoons olive oil, 3 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano (or 1½ tablespoons dried), 2 teaspoons kosher salt, ½ teaspoon ground black pepper, and 4 garlic cloves (grated).
Turkish: In a small bowl, combine 1½ tablespoons Aleppo pepper, 1 cup plain whole milk Greek yogurt, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, 6 cloves of garlic (grated), and the juice from one lemon. Mix until seasonings are evenly distributed.
It’s a common misconception that the longer the meat sits in the marinade, the better. That’s not always the case: Depending on the meat and the marinade’s ingredients, letting the meat sit for too long can actually toughen it. Acidic marinades can also “cook” the meat if soaked for too long. The length of time you marinade can make or break the kebab.
Choose the right produce.
Not all fruits and veggies are created equal when it comes to kebabs. Choose vegetables that will complement the flavors of the meat and marinades and – if you stack the same skewer with both meat and veggies – that take the same amount of time to cook as the meat does.3 Bell peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, onions, grape tomatoes, mushrooms, pineapple, mango, apples, and peaches are just a few of the items that serve kebabs well. To prepare them, cut into chunks about equal in size to your protein. In addition to produce that you can add to skewers raw, you can also use heartier vegetables such as new potatoes or corn on the cob – boil these ahead of time so they are already cooked through.
Assemble your skewers with authority.
Now comes the most important (and controversial) step – loading the skewers. There are two camps when it comes to kebabs: those who like meat and vegetables on the same skewers and those who prefer to separate the ingredients for all-meat skewers and vegetable-only skewers. There are benefits to both methods. When you co-mingle ingredients, the vegetables take on more flavor, and you have a complete meal on one skewer. But combining both on the same stick makes it hard to cook each just right. When you separate the ingredients, you can easily cook the meat and veggies to perfection, but you may want to remove all the ingredients from the skewers to serve each person equal portions of meat and veggies. It’s really a matter of preference.
For skewers that hold both meat and vegetables, make sure to choose ingredients with roughly the same cooking time. Otherwise, some ingredients may burn while others remain under-cooked. For example: Don’t pair cherry tomatoes with chicken, which takes longer to cook than some other meats. Instead, pair delicate veggies such as tomatoes with a quick-cooking protein, such as fish or shrimp.
For circular or strangely shaped items, including mushrooms and shrimp, two skewers per kebab make grilling more manageable.
Master the grill (indoors or out)
In terms of flavor, a charcoal grill can’t be beat. But if that’s not an option, a gas grill or even a grill pan used indoors can achieve a similar flavor and char. Grill kebabs over direct medium-high heat. If there’s space on your grill top, keep the fire to one side of the grates so one area of the grill maintains indirect heat. This way, if anything begins to burn, it’s easy to move skewers out of the fire to continue cooking without charring.5
Fire up the broiler.
No grill available? Use an oven broiler for a similar effect. The most important tip for this cooking method is to keep kebabs from steaming in the liquid that they release as they cook. To prevent this, raise kebabs off the cooking sheet. Set them on a baking rack on top of the baking sheet instead.
While eating pieces right off the skewer is completely appropriate, there are a few fancier ways to serve kebabs. You could choose the traditional way: served over a bed of rice pilaf with pita and vegetables or salad on the side.6 Or you could stuff the meat inside a pita, like a gyro or pita pocket sandwich. Whichever way you choose, kebabs are a quick and easy lunch or dinner with endless variations.
Thanks to Kate Morin and our friends at FIX.com for allowing us to share these methods with you! I’m sure you will find them useful at your next tailgate party. ?
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