I've been thinking a lot about grilled skewers lately. It started with a conversation in the Serious Eats office with Sho about Japanese yakitori, and devolved into me going down a YouTube wormhole, watching hours of Abruzzese lamb arrosticini grilling videos. Once I finally managed to stop watching meat being packed and portioned in kebab cubes, I decided I wanted to develop a series of grilled meat-on-a-stick recipes.
Before tackling the food, I needed a better solution for at-home skewer-grilling. I ultimately came up with this low-cost, low-effort rig, which mimics the set-up of real-deal kebab cooking by bringing the food much closer to the coals, and does away with the traditional grill grate used in most recipes. Positioning the skewers closer to the heat shortens the time lag between outer browning and inner heat penetration, yielding more evenly cooked food. But it also forces the cook to pay more attention to the grilling process; flare-ups need to be managed by moving the skewers away from flames as needed, and the skewers need to be turned more frequently to prevent ingredients from charring to a crisp.
During initial rounds of testing this set-up, the constant turning of skewers got me thinking of how the process is just a miniaturized version of large-format rotisserie cooking, like porchetta and roast chicken. Maybe I could Honey, I Shrunk The Kids one of those dishes that don't easily translate to home cooking. And that's how I decided to skewer-ify one of the best things to ever get cooked on a rotating spit: Mexican al pastor.
Lucky for me, Kenji had already taken care of the hard work when he developed his awesome at-home version of tacos al pastor a few years ago. His al pastor does away with the rotisserie-cooking component, cleverly packing slices of marinated pork into a loaf pan, slow-roasting them, and then crisping them in a hot skillet. In adapting his recipe to make skewers, I was able to do away with the two-step cooking process.
Both versions use the same marinade, but for the skewers, I switch up the pork slightly, doing away with the bacon that can cause excessive grill flare-ups, and slicing pork butt into strips that are better-suited for threading onto a stick. After marinating them overnight, I thread the pork pieces onto skewers, bunching each piece up tight. This helps mimic the contrasting textural effect that you get with al pastor cooked on a traditional trompo rotisserie—crispy in some spots and tender in others. Spearing pieces of fresh pineapple between the slices of pork provides that trademark juicy, sweet-and-sour contrast to the spicy, crispy, fatty meat. Make sure that the pork and pineapple pieces are packed tightly together to prevent the skewer from burning and breaking during cooking; the only parts of the skewers that should be exposed are a two-inch handle at the bottom, and just the very tip at the top.
Once you finish assembling the skewers, all you have to do is set up the grill with foil-wrapped bricks for cooking. For these skewers, I prefer cooking them right over the coals without a wire rack underneath them, which more closely approximates the rotisserie cooking of real-deal al pastor.
Perch the skewers over the coals, balancing them on the bricks and turn them frequently as they cook, managing any flare-ups caused by dripping fat. In about 10 minutes, the pork and pineapple will be lightly charred, and the meat cooked through. From there, it's your call whether to serve them straight-up with some lime wedges as cookout kebabs, or de-stick the juicy pork and pineapple and stuff them into tortillas for a grilled taco party. You win at summer grilling either way.