Food on a Stick: Killer Kebabs!

Kebabs have a lot going for them: roasted food on a stick is fast cooking and easy to serve. But far too often kebabs can come out flavorless and dry, leaving little room for excitement. Well, if you’ve avoided roasting veggies and meats (or meat substitutes) because of past kebab experiences, these tips will change all that. Get ready to make juicy food on a stick that’s loaded with flavor (and nutrients) with a few simple switches to your kebab making routine.



First, a little history. Kebabs (sometimes spelled kabobs or kebaps) originated in Turkey, or at least they were the first people to specifically name putting food on a stick. Well, not really a stick. It seems that the word comes from Turkish soldiers who used to roast meat skewered on their swords. And while we use the word kebab universally for food cooked on a skewer, kebab dishes originally consisted of chunks of meat either fried or grilled (not necessarily on a stick). Kebabs come in a variety of differently named dishes, depending on their ingredients with the most common being shish kebab (your standard meat and veggies grilled on a stick) and döner kebab (meat slow-roasted on a rotisserie).

Kebabs are cooked and enjoyed around the world. Each country has its own take on the food. In Afghanistan, they sprinkle sumac berries or dried sour grapes on their kebabs. Chinese kebabs often use cumin, pepper, sesame, and sesame oil for flavor. Greek gyros were originally known as döner kebab and were introduced to the country in the 1950s by Turkish and Middle Eastern immigrants. Still hungry for more kebab facts? Check out the kebab wiki page.



Since kebabs traditionally focused on meat, it makes sense to start our tips there. The tastiest kebabs begin with the right meat cut. The best meat will have little fat or connective tissue to deal with. If beef is your meat of choice, pick sirloin because it offers a good balance between flavor and moisture. Pork shoulder works well, as do brined pork chops. Skip breasts if you opt for chicken and choose thighs instead because they offer flavor and will stay moist. For lamb, only leg will do (once you chop off the connective tissue) since it can withstand the high heat of grilling. While most fish is too delicate to skewer, shrimp is a great seafood option for kebabbing.

The best meat substitutes will be firm and hold their shape. Tempeh, extra firm tofu, and seitan are all good choices. You can even grab locally made seitan, also known as mock duck, from Happy Nest in Bayfield, WI. Jackfruit is another perfect meat substitute and is available canned and packaged year round.



The best fruits and veggies for kebabs hold their firmness even after being subjected to the high heat of the grill. Consider too how the flavor of the fruits and veggies you choose will complement the protein. Fruits that work well include apples, mangoes, peaches, pears, pineapple, and plums. For veggies, go with bell peppers, grape tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, summer squash, and zucchini. Grilled broccoli and cauliflower can also be tasty, but they char faster than others. Boiled baby potatoes and chunks of corn on the cob grill up well, too.



The best size for grilling is about 1 1/2 inches chunks. Any less and you run the risk of your food slipping off the skewer. Any more and it might take way longer to cook. If you really want to get fancy, you can cut your food into long strips and weave it onto the skewer by folding it over the skewer. This works particularly well for thin meats like chicken and thin veggies like zucchini.



Marinades define the overall flavor of your kebabs. Despite common wisdom (and even recipes that call for it), you can skip marinading your kebab fixings overnight. This is especially true for acid-based marinades with lemon juice or vinegar as the base. The acids chemically “cook” meat, so they can turn to mush if left to long. At most, you want to marinade for up to five hours, but 30 minutes is plenty. Chef Charlie Wilson talks about the basics of making marinades in this excellent Make Marinades from Scratch video.

Herbs and spices can lend so much extra flavor to your marinades. If you like savory, use cumin, coriander, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and cayenne. Common kebab herbs include oregano, thyme, marjoram, and basil. Add some sweetness with cinnamon and cloves.



When it comes time to assemble your kebabs, consider whether you will go with wood or metal for your skewers. Metal are great because they are reusable. They are made from stainless steel and the best ones are flat in shape (round ones let the food spin around when you try to turn them). Wooden skewers are fairly inexpensive (awesome!), but also tend to burn (not awesome!). To help prevent scorching, soak your skewers in water for at least 30 minutes.

Now that you’ve chosen your skewer, it’s time to stack on your fixings. Thread individual chunks of ingredients on and have them touching but not packed in too tightly. If you have the sides completely touching, the heat can’t reach those parts. You can shove all of one thing onto a stick, if you don’t care about looks or make patterns (i.e. pepper, meat, onion, pepper, meat, onion) to make everything look spiffy. Alternating folded ribbons of zucchini with grape tomatoes looks delightfully unexpected.



First make sure your grill is nice and hot. Kebabs cook best directly on medium-high to high heat. Pile your coals off to one side and cook on that one. Use the cooler side to handle any kebabs that seem to be cooking to fast (scorching in the first few minutes is a sign of this). Once on the grill, cover that baby up and let ‘er cook. Generally, kebabs take 8 to 10 minutes to cook completely, with occasionally turning.



While you can go all caveman and pull kebab ingredients off the stick with your fingers (or mouth, we suppose), the proper way to remove kebab meat and veggies is fairly simple. Hold the skewer vertically, with one point touching your plate. With a fork in your other hand, hook the tines over the topmost ingredient. Pull the skewer end up as you pull the food down with the fork. Set the empty skewer on the side of your plate. Now, you can eat the kebab goodies with your knife and fork. Enjoy!