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How to Make Great Grilled Kebabs
I have a love-hate relationship with kebabs.
In theory, meat on a stick is an awesome idea—fast to cook, easy to eat, and totally open to great flavor possibilities. But far too many kebabs fall flat, coming out dry, tasteless, and nowhere near their full potential.
After many years of grilling and lots of trial and error, though, I've found ways to make consistently delicious kebabs. Follow these methods and there's no risk of making your guests suffer through subpar kebabs at your next backyard barbecue.
Kebabs, Kabobs, Kebaps?
Despite my own misgivings, kebabs have been popular for a long, long time. Archaeologists in Greece have unearthed firedogs dating back to the 17th century BC that had notches carved in them, possibly to support skewers over an open fire. The term kabap comes much later though, traced back to at least the 17th century (some stories claim the word was originally used in Turkey to describe how soldiers fire-roasted meats that they'd skewered on swords).
The multiple spellings are derivatives of that original word, after being passed through different cultures and languages. The global reach of the word serves partly as evidence of the popularity of this cooking method.
Kebabs themselves can consist of cubed, ground, or sliced meat, as well as vegetables, with any manner of seasonings or marinades (or lack thereof). In the American backyard, kebabs have mostly become synonymous with chunks of meat threaded on a skewer, often interspersed with vegetables and/or fruit. It's this particular variation of the kebab that I have a beef with, and for that reason, it's going to be the kebab I focus on here.
A Meat for Every Kebab
So much that's wrong with kebabs comes down to the ingredients used and their preparation. While many kebabs are treated as free-for-alls—a chance to skewer whatever's available and roastt it over the fire—not all foods, and cuts of meat specifically, are suited to being cubed and grilled over high heat. The key is to know which ones do the job well. After getting it wrong myself so many times, here's where I've landed on the best kebab cuts for each type of meat:
Beef is actually one of the trickiest meats to get right for kebabs. You want something tender, so tenderloin would make sense, but that cut can be expensive, comparatively flavorless, and, because it's so lean, prone to overcooking and drying out (which is particularly easy to do with kebabs, given the small pieces of meat and the high heat at which they're cooked). On the other end of the cost spectrum, inexpensive chuck will deliver on flavor, but can be too tough and chewy to make a great kebab. Trying to find a balance between flavor, tenderness, and value has brought me to sirloin. In particular, the sirloin tip which is cut from the bottom of sirloin and can handle being grilled over direct heat.
After becoming proficient in Filipino barbecue, I've come to love pork shoulder, which is the meat of choice for Filipino skewers. The shoulder doesn't come without issues though—it requires a lot of prep to remove the connective tissue and fat in order to make it tender enough for skewers. Even with all the work, it can still be a chewy at times, although it is damn flavorful. Still, for most pork kabobs I opt for a much less fussy cut: pork chops. I like to get 1 1/2-inch center cut boneless pork chops, which are just thick enough to quickly cut into perfectly sized cubes. Pork chops are prone to drying out though, so I usually take the extra measure of brining the meat to ensure it stays juicy.
Chicken is an easy one for kebabs. In particular, it's hard to beat thighs here. Chicken breasts seem like a good choice because their thickness make them ideal for cubing, but their lack of flavor and tendency towards dryness totally undermines that one advantage. Skinless, boneless chicken thighs, on the other hand, are delicious and remain so much more tender and moist than chicken breasts, making them the champion of the kebab.
So many cuts of lamb are riddled with fat and connective tissue, that it's really only the leg that can stand up to being cubed and grilled over high heat. The leg still has areas of connective tissue that need to be cut around, and silver skin that should be removed, but once done, you're left with beautiful cubes that grill up tender and have a rich, but not overpowering, lamb flavor.
To be totally honest, I have yet to try my hand at fish kebabs. Many types of fish are so delicate that grilling them is tricky. Some heartier types of fish, such as tuna, swordfish, and salmon, are better options.
Shrimp is one creature from the sea that I've use on skewers over and over again, though. Even when not making kebabs, I still like to thread them onto a stick when grilling because it makes them so much easier to manage (and less likely to fall through the grate).
Cutting the Cubes
Meat choice is only half the battle, though. Each of these proteins (except shrimp) needs to be cut into the right sized cubes for kebab grilling. Too-small cubes should be avoided because they are easy to overcook.
Instead, larger cubes are the best way to keep meats moist while grilling over direct, high heat. At the very least, 1-inch cubes should be used, but 1 1/2-inch is even better because it allows more leeway in cooking. For meats that can't be cut into cubes that large, like chicken thighs, longer strips can be cut and then folded over on themselves when skewering to create the even-sized chunks.
The difference between a great kebab and an okay one often comes down to the marinade. Since there are so many meats that are good to use for kebabs, I look to the marinade to define the flavor and add some creativity. Contrary to popular belief, marinades don't really penetrate the meat, so there's often no need to marinate overnight (unlike what many kebab recipes require).
The exception to that is an acidic marinade. Acids like lemon juice or vinegar will "cook" meats, so the longer they marinate, the more they cook and result in a dry and mushy texture once grilled. For heavily acidic marinades, I make sure not to go over four or five hours marinating time to avoid those downsides.
A Veggie for Some Kebabs
Like choosing a less-than-ideal meat, the wrong veggies can ruin a kebab. I have three goals when selecting vegetables for kebabs: They should compliment the flavors of the meat and marinade, take about the same amount of time to cook as the meat, and be able to stay on the skewer.
There are probably many more to choose from, but the vegetables and fruits I regularly turn to for kebabs are bell peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, onions, grape tomatoes, mushrooms, pineapple, mango, and peaches.
You can branch out to include items that require more time to cook than the meat by partially cooking them before skewering. I've done new potatoes and corn this way, boiling them first before skewering and grilling, so they just needed to develop some char when brought to the flames.
No matter the vegetable or fruit, they should all be cut to around the same size as the meat to ensure even cooking.
Choose Your Weapon Wisely
With marinated meats and veggies now in order, it's time to get down to skewering. You have two primary considerations here—metal or wood.
For metal skewers, you don't need anything fancy, just sturdy stainless steel. It's best for the skewers to be flat instead of round to keep the foods in place—meat and veggies are prone to unwanted rotating when on round skewers. I like to go with skewers that are about 12 inches long, which is both a manageable length to work with, and a nice individual portion size as well.
Metal skewers have the advantage of being reusable, but that's also the reason I rarely use them. Kebabs are all about convenience, and washing thirty to forty skewers after a big cookout is not how I want to spend my time. So my skewer of choice is the wooden variety, which are made out of bamboo, inexpensive, and easy to find.
The big downside to wooden skewers is that they burn. So to prevent the exposed ends of wooden skewers from incinerating, they need to be soaked in water for at least thirty minutes first. Saturating the wood will prevent the skewer from burning away, although they do still tend to blacken over the fire.
How you thread the meat on the skewer will also make a difference in the end result. I like to pack everything close enough together that each piece touches, but not so much that the skewer becomes too heavy and unwieldy. With the cubes of food butted up against each other, it actually takes longer to cook because the heat isn't reaching all six sides of each cube. This can help prevent overcooking and provide more consistently juicy results.
Grill Your Kebab Right
On the grill, the skewer is built for a direct high or medium-high fire, but I still like to have a two-zone indirect fire going where all the coals are piled on one side of the charcoal grate, and the other side is empty. By doing this, if any skewer is darkening too much or starting to burn, I can be move it over to the cool side of the grill and let it finish cooking, covered, without the worry of scorching it to death.
Armed with some fundamental kebab knowledge, this mainstay of the American cookout can go from disappointing to a true highlight. Your imagination is the only limit to what you can do with skewers, but here are some great tested-and-approved kebab recipes to get you started: