The Best Skewers for Grilling

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Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt

Do you, like Mary, ever feel like there aren't enough meats on sticks (or just foods on sticks in general) in this world? I'm with you, and, rather than sit around and wait for things to stick themselves, I've recently decided to take action and do the sticking. You must become the skewerer and resolve yourself to cooking more foods on sticks this summer.

But every skewerer needs a good set of skewers with which to do the skewering. It's possible to make a great meal-on-a-stick with a branch you find in the woods, or perhaps a bit of piano wire (my wife and I enjoyed dozens of skewered-on-piano-wire meals while in China), but if you want consistency, ease of use, and longevity in your pointed sticks, which ones should you buy? Here are my recommendations.

The Winners

These are our three favorite skewers at a glance. Read on for more detail.

Skewer Features to Avoid

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In the ever-escalating battle for skewer supremacy (it's a real war, trust me), manufacturers fit all kinds of bells and whistles and interesting design decisions into their products. Most of them end up making the skewers less useful. Here are a few screwy skewer quirks to skip:

  • Fancy handles, whether wood, plastic, or metal, should be avoided. Plastic and wood can't be used over high heat, while thick metal handles retain too much heat, making all of them useless.
  • Double prongs seem like a good idea in order to prevent food from rotating. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to thread food onto fixed double prongs without bending them. Double prongs also increase the minimum size of the piece of food you can effectively skewer. I'll just stick with using two single-pronged skewers when I need to double up.
  • Nonstick coatings are never durable, can't be used over high heat, and, honestly, who has trouble with food sticking to a skewer?
  • Food pushers—typically a metal or plastic tab at the bottom of the skewer, designed so that you can slide it up and push food off the end—are bulky and don't do anything that a set of tongs or a bench scraper (or, call me crazy, your fingers) can't do.
  • Curved or flexible blades are perhaps the silliest invention among the bunch. Those with fixed curved blades are difficult to flip and make it impossible to cook your food on every side. Flexible, wire-style skewers make it impossible to turn food evenly, and look cool only to fans of Ivy's snake sword from Soulcalibur. (P.S. You won't look cool to anyone else as you fumble around the grill with your meat necklace.)

Now let's talk about the three types of skewers I do recommend:

Best for Appetizers and Hors D'oeuvres: Paddle-Style Bamboo Skewers

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Short, paddle-style bamboo skewers are my skewer of choice if I want to serve, say, yakitori or satay as an appetizer or hors d'oeuvre. They come with little built-in handles, they're just the right length for an hors d'oeuvre–sized portion, they're disposable and biodegradable, they're nice and sharp, and they provide plenty of friction to keep food in place as people hold it. These fit the bill.

Because they're so pretty, they're also perfect for the kind of fancy cocktail party where you need a utensil to pluck the Whiskey Wieners out of the Crock-Pot to make sure that bourbon and hot dog juices don't get on your silk gloves. I also sometimes use them to keep sliders together on large trays.

The Versatile, Inexpensive Option: Round Bamboo Skewers

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Long, round bamboo skewers are a great option for folks who don't skewer foods that often. They're particularly useful on camping trips or when staying in guesthouses, where you might not want to have to bring or wash metal skewers. They're inexpensive, biodegradable, and typically quite sharp. Bamboo skewers also provide a good amount of friction between the skewer and the food, making it easy to rotate all of the food at once. A length of 10 to 12 inches is the most versatile, I find.

But there are a few downsides that might make you want to consider upgrading to reusable metal skewers.

First is safety. Bamboo is naturally fibrous and tends to split easily. This means you have to be extra careful when skewering foods. More than once, I've had a skewer split halfway through a piece and have had a splinter emerge off center and into my finger. Drawing blood while handling raw meat is not something to mess around with!

Second, wooden skewers can't handle extended or very high heat—at least, not the exposed ends. Soaking them in water for half an hour or so helps a little, but the ends are still likely to burn off as your food cooks. This is not a huge deal in and of itself, but it does make de-skewering some foods more difficult.

I've ordered these skewers from Farberware in the past. Honestly, though, I have never noticed a big difference between any of the brands I've ordered or found at the supermarket. This review sums it up best: "They're bamboo. And they're skewers. Need I say more?"

The Best Long-Term Choice: Flat Metal Skewers

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For years, I had a set of long, thin metal skewers with a square profile. Metal provides much less friction than wood. During those years, I thought that meat and vegetables that rotated on their skewers were just a fact of life to be silently endured. Flat metal skewers solve this problem. A flat blade allows pieces of food to be turned together, ensuring even cooking on all surfaces and requiring less fiddling over a hot fire.

The only real question is design. Which model is best?

I tested out a half dozen of the most popular models on Amazon, as well as the top recommendations from Cook's Illustrated (warning: paywall), and found that once you narrow it down to the flat metal style (and throw out everything with useless bells and whistles), the differences between them are subtle. Sturdiness was an issue—some skewers were a little too lightweight and flexible to make me feel secure with them. Sharpness was a factor—without a super-sharp point, skewering tougher pieces of meat or vegetables felt risky for my fingers. Material is also important—stainless steel is best for longevity.

Handle design was the final variable I considered. Some brands had flat metal handles that were stamped out of the same plane of metal as the rest of the skewer, like this:

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This design made it relatively difficult to pick up the skewers on the grill. The large metal face also retained heat longer than I would have liked it to. The best handles are loops curved into the metal that stand perpendicular to the flat section of the skewer, allowing for really easy gripping and turning (they're also great for hanging storage).

In the end, I wound up picking the exact same winner that Cook's Illustrated did: the Norpro Stainless Steel 12-Inch Skewers. The only downside is that there are only six per set. You'll want at least two of those. More, if you're an epic putter-of-things-on-sticks.

Now that you've got your skewers, what should you do? Go start skewerin'!