Why It Works
- A flavorful marinade of grated onion, red wine, tomato paste, and salt seasons the meat while providing a coating that will quickly char on the grill.
- A special skewer setup for a charcoal grill recreates the type of rig traditionally used to cook shish kebab, without the need for a specialty grill.
- Lining the serving bowl with pita helps soak up the moisture shed by the meat as it rests, preventing it from getting soggy.
Armenians are extremely serious about grilled meats. As long as outside temperatures are above freezing and there’s a gathering of more than a handful of them happening, kebabs are pretty much guaranteed to be on the menu. (Many Armenians refer to their barbecue collectively as khorovats—or “grilled”—but in my family we just call them kebabs.)
Case in point: Growing up, each household in my extended family had "their particular holiday feast" at which all of the other members were guests; my parents’ was Easter. Now Easter can come early or late, depending upon the mysteries of the liturgical calendar; ditto for the warmer days of Spring, thanks to the mysteries of mother nature. But it mattered not which season Easter happened to fall in from year to year—snowy or sunny, frigid or fair—that grill was getting set up. (The extended family also had a communal, 5-foot long party-sized grill, one that got shuttled around from household to household depending upon who was doing the hosting.)
In my Armenian family, as in many others, kebabs come in two flavors, made and served side-by-side most of the time: shish kebabs—marinated hunks of beef or lamb on skewers (the word “shish” is the English rendering of the Turkish word şiş, which means sword or skewer)—and losh kebabs, seasoned ground meat patties, grilled without skewers. I talk about and have a recipe for losh kebabs here; for the rest of this post, I’ll focus on shish kebab.
Selecting the Meat
While shish kebab can be made from either lamb or beef, in my family it was always made from leg of lamb. The day before Easter, my father would cover our dining room table with an old tablecloth and a butcher-block cutting board (or two, if one of us kids had volunteered to assist) and break down whole, boneless legs of lamb into skewerable pieces about an inch square each. The process was a time-consuming one, and not simply because of the large quantity of meat involved (our average Easter guest list was about 40 people, which called for four to five legs of lamb). Shish kebab is cooked hot and fast, so the meat needs to be tender before it hits the grill, which meant all bits of sinew and silverskin have to be removed, along with any large pieces of external fat. Since lamb legs are a jumbled assembly of variously-shaped muscles, the process of taking them apart and cleaning them is a somewhat painstaking affair.
While many Armenians prefer lamb for its flavor, beef shish kebab, which can be made from already-clean and easily-butchered flap meat (a.k.a. “steak tips”), is definitely the faster option. The good news is that neither is too arduous to butcher unless you are cooking for 40, and both are delicious.
Making the Marinade
Once my father had cleaned and cut up the meat—the too-small-to-skewer bits having been minced by hand and added to the losh kebab mixture—he’d toss it with a marinade of chopped onions, tomato paste, red wine, salt, and pepper, and set it in the fridge overnight. The flavor of shish kebab is mainly meat plus fire, so he used a simple marinade, intended mainly to season the meat throughout and add sugars to promote caramelization on the grill. And while four hours is ample time to marinate small cubes of meat through and through, doing the butchering and prep the day before spreads out the workload a little. The marinade I give below is a clone of his, except I like to process the onions on a box grater rather than with a knife, since it pulls more of their flavorful juices into it.
Assembling the Skewers
My dad has a large collection of long metal skewers with wooden handles, which work great when you have an oversized grill with a rimless grate. For smaller grills, you’ll either want to use shorter 12-inch metal skewers (with metal handles) or 10-inch wooden ones.
He packs the skewers closely, but not tightly. The idea is to expose the cubes of meat on four sides to the fire evenly, while protecting their insides from the heat, so that they don’t overcook. You want to slide them snugly together on the skewer, but without packing them so tightly that they are compressed, which hides their exteriors from the fire.
Grilling the Shish Kebabs
I mentioned that my extended family had a party-sized grill to make kebabs; it is a five-foot by two-foot steel grill on four legs, with an identically-sized stainless-steel grate that can be lowered or raised as needed. Not only does this grill provide the real estate necessary to cook for large numbers of people, it also lets you get the meat just inches from the fire to cook it quickly, so it chars thoroughly without also overcooking on the inside.
While you can certainly make a more-than-respectable shish kebab on a gas grill (my dad always uses one when making shish kebab for small gatherings), an intense, concentrated charcoal fire is definitely superior in terms of the flavor and rapid charring it produces. But you don’t need a table-sized grill to pull this off—a standard kettle works just fine, especially if you use a couple of rows of bricks to corral the coals and suspend the skewers directly above them. This is a technique that Sasha Marx uses to recreate Japanese yakitori-style grills, and it works equally well for shish kebabs. I’ll let you read up on the details over on Sasha’s post, but here’s the gist:
You wrap four bricks with foil and then set them in the bottom of the grill in two rows of two, just wide enough to let the skewers straddle them. Once the charcoal is hot and covered with ash, you spread it evenly along the channel between the bricks. You then suspend the skewers over the coals, their exposed ends supported by the rows of bricks. Finally, you let them cook, turning them regularly to even out the cooking on all sides, and moving them around as necessary to avoid flare-ups.
To get the best possible results on a gas grill, you’ll need to preheat it for at least 15 minutes with the lid closed to superheat the grates. Otherwise, the method is identical, minus the slightly longer cooking time (eight to twelve minutes for gas vs. six to nine minutes over charcoal).
The Shish Chef's Secret
Like many Armenian families, mine is a pretty traditional one, which means that the grill tends to be the purview of the menfolk, who stand around it, bourbon in hand, arguing over whether the meat is cooked enough (or too much). While this has mostly to do with the men being less skilled in all other forms of cooking, there’s another reason they choose to be this close to the fire—because that’s where shish kebab is at its peak. There’s nothing quite like the joy of a cube of meat seconds off the skewer, sprinkled with salt, wrapped in a shroud of pita bread.
It’s even better when that pita has been sitting on the bottom of a vessel, soaking up the juices shed by the meat. My dad always sets a large pot next to the grill, lined with a few pitas, as a landing place for the cooked kebabs. (He also uses a pita as an “edible oven mitt,” protecting his hand from the searing hot meat as he pushes it off the skewer and into the pot.) The bread is meant to soak up the juices so that the meat doesn’t sit in a pool of it and sog out, but it also creates a treat for the cook and his many advisers to enjoy while the remainder of the skewers cook.
The good news is that when you are making shish kebab for a handful of guests and not forty, everyone gets to join in on the fun.
- 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, peeled and halved crosswise
- 1/4 cup (60ml) vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup (60g) double-concentrated tomato paste
- 1/4 cup (60ml) red wine
- 1 tablespoon (9g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 pounds (900g) boneless beef flap meat or lamb leg, trimmed of excess external fat, silver skin, and tough sinew, and cut into 1-inch wide by 1/2- to 1-inch-thick pieces (see note)
- 4 10- to 12-inch pitas, for serving (see note)
Grate onion on the large holes of a box grater into a large bowl. Add oil, tomato paste, red wine, salt, and pepper, and whisk until evenly combined. Transfer marinade, along with meat, to a 1-gallon zipper-lock bag. Press out air, seal bag, and turn to coat meat in marinade. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.
Thread meat tightly onto skewers without compressing the individual pieces, leaving no parts of the skewer exposed except for a 2-inch handle at the bottom, and the pointy tip at the top. Line a shallow serving bowl with 1 or 2 pita breads and set aside.
Set up grill for skewers, making sure to adjust distance between bricks to the length of your skewers. Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly in the channel between the bricks. Alternatively set burners on a gas grill to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 15 minutes. Clean and oil cooking grate.
Place skewers on grill (directly over coals if using charcoal, balancing them on top of the bricks, with the handles overhanging the bricks closest to you, and the tips balancing on the farther wall of bricks). Cook (covered if using gas), turning frequently, until meat is lightly charred and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the thickest piece registers between 135°F and 145°F (57 to 60°C), 6 to 9 minutes for charcoal and 8 to 12 minutes for gas; if flare-ups occur, move the skewers around as needed to avoid scorching.
Using tongs or a pita as an “edible oven mitt”, slide meat off of skewers into prepared serving bowl, season to taste with salt, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 2 minutes. Serve immediately, passing remaining pita on side, and alongside rice pilaf and grill-roasted onions, peppers, and tomatoes.
Grill (charcoal or gas), 4 (12-inch) metal skewers or 6 (10-inch) wooden skewers
This dish is either made with leg of lamb or beef. Flap meat is identical to sirloin steak tips, but in larger pieces. If available, purchase in one piece to cut down yourself. If lamb leg is unavailable, use lamb shoulder instead.
The pita used to line the serving platter soaks up juices from the cooked meat and is meant to serve as a tasty treat for the grill cook or anyone else, wrapped around pieces of meat.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Shish kebab is best enjoyed immediately. Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container and reheated gently, or sliced and served cold in sandwiches.