Even if you've never visited a kebab shop in Istanbul, or been spellbound by the chicken sorcery of a yakitori chef in Tokyo, odds are you've come across a professional skewer-grilling setup at some point in your life. You don't have to set foot in a restaurant specializing in impaled foods to have encountered a kebab rig, since grilled meat on sticks can be found at outdoor markets, food festivals, beachside kiosks, and street corners all over the world.
I often find myself standing in front of one of these stalls, unconsciously drawn in by the aroma of smoky charcoal and sizzling meat, and I love watching the dance of the cook working the grill, tending to the skewers positioned right above the coals.
The ends of the skewers might be balanced on the frame of a narrow grill, suspending chunks of meat Cliffhanger-style directly above the glowing charcoal. Or the skewers might be resting on a wire mesh rack above the embers, giving them a safety net. Either way, the speared ingredients and the heat source used to cook them are almost always separated by just a few inches.
Cooking food so close to the coals speeds up the process and produces excellent charring, but it also requires the full attention of the cook. Dripping fat will cause flare-ups, which are welcome when controlled—yakitori chefs often employ a deft flick of the wrist when turning skewers, tapping them on the grill to produce small, intentional flare-ups that lick up the sides of the chicken pieces—but they'll blacken skewers to a crisp if left unattended.
So Far Away From Meat: Why a Normal Grill Setup Doesn't Work for Skewers
Grilled-skewer recipes for home cooks are usually designed to be more hands-off and forgiving of a cook's wandering attention span, employing a traditional grill setup that keeps food at a safer distance from the coals. This minimizes flare-ups, which can be potentially hazardous in both the short (fire!) and long term (possible links to cancer).
The downside to this setup is that it produces inferior skewers, and presents a host of logistical issues along the way. The greater distance between the food and the coals in a traditional charcoal-grill setup is designed for larger pieces of meat and vegetables; it draws out the cooking time so that the interior finishes cooking around the same time that the exterior is perfectly browned. Create different heat-intensity zones on your grill, and you can control interior and exterior progress even better.
With skewers, though, you have a smaller window in which to achieve perfection. You need the skewers closer to the coals for higher heat, so that you get some good browning before the interior overcooks and dries out. Cooked on a more standard charcoal grill, with a greater distance between coals and food, the skewers' exteriors end up dried-out and leathery rather than charred and juicy. And the spread-out coals, coupled with a longer cooking time, can easily burn the exposed surfaces of wooden skewers.
But just as snappy green vegetables don’t need to be consigned to a droopy and drab-hued fate on the grill, you don’t have to settle for a lifetime of skewers that resemble desiccated jerky sticks. With a little ingenuity, and a few bricks, you can easily fashion a more effective skewer rig within the confines of your existing kettle grill that solves these problems. Here’s how to do it.
Brick by Brick: Setting Up a Grill for Skewers
Besides the grill itself, a few bricks and some aluminum foil are the only additional materials you'll need to construct a better skewer-grilling system. You'll want to build two parallel walls of foil-wrapped bricks, set three-quarters of a skewer's length apart.
If you're using a kettle grill, like the one in the above photo, scrunch up a couple of pieces of foil and place them underneath the bricks at the center of the grill, so that the bricks sit flat and even in the kettle. (The bottom grate of the grill is pitched and will cause the bricks to angle downward in the middle.)
You'll then pour lit coals into the channel between the bricks, creating a focused grilling area over which you can cook your skewers.
This is a low-cost, low-effort hack to mimic the grill setups used by pros. Obviously, it won't have the insulation and air-flow-control qualities of the type of expensive Japanese konro grill that's used by yakitori chefs, but for home cooks who don't need to maintain optimal grilling conditions over a six-hour dinner service, this setup works just fine.
In the course of developing an upcoming series of skewer recipes, I pitted this MacGyver setup side by side with a real-deal konro grill, and was able to achieve great results with both.
While you would need to use fireproof materials to build a fireplace or wood-burning oven, you don't have to purchase fire bricks for this rig unless it's going to be in use all the time. I simply picked up a few standard red bricks from a home-improvement store and wrapped them in heavy-duty foil.
The foil ensures that no particulate matter from the bricks ends up in your food, and also creates reflective surfaces that lend a hand in channeling the radiant heat from the coals.
If you plan on grilling skewers using a wire mesh rack, you can skip the foil-wrapping step for the bricks, since the food won't be coming into direct contact with them.
Turn! Turn! Turn!: The Importance of Rotating Skewers
Once you have this modified skewer grill all set up, it's time to get cooking.
In addition to vigilant flame management, it's important to constantly rotate the skewers when you're grilling them right above the coals. This ensures that the ingredients cook quickly and at an even rate; you don't want the food's exterior to char while the interior is left raw, but you also want to get good coloring before the ingredients overcook and dry out. (This is the same guiding principle behind Kenji's flip-often approach to steak.)
Kebabs and their meat-stick brethren are the quick-cooking, handheld, individual-serving-sized, miniaturized answer to spit-roasted foods like rotisserie chicken and traditional, whole-hog porchetta. Large-format rotisserie cooking also involves constant turning (a process that is usually mechanized), though it relies on gentler heat to more gradually cook the larger roasts.
With this brick-channel setup, you'll need to turn the skewers manually, but honestly, who really needs a motorized meat-stick rotisserie grill? Flipping is a breeze when you either go Free Solo or use a wire mesh rack instead of the grates of a standard grill, which are prone to sticking.
If you trust your hand-eye coordination, you can just balance the skewers between the bricks directly over the coals. Make sure to thread the ingredients tightly together so that no skewer is left with an empty middle, then leave enough of a handle on one end and a tiny bit of the pointed end exposed. Suspend the skewer over the coals, with the exposed handle and pointed tip resting on the walls of brick.
If you're grilling with a wire net, give it a few minutes to preheat over the coals before you place skewers on top. As with a traditional grill grate, this minimizes the risk of ingredients sticking to it (though it's much less prone to sticking overall).
Whether you're grilling with or without a safety net, you'll love how the channeled heat of this system keeps wooden skewers from burning to a crisp, while quickly cooking the ingredients threaded on them to perfection.