BY ANN TAYLOR PITTMAN
Kebabs are great for either a casual dinner party or a weeknight meal with the family. They help you stretch a small amount of meat, poultry, or fish over more servings by threading on lots of colorful vegetables. And, perhaps best of all, they’re just fun to eat. For foolproof kebab success, consider the following tips.
You have two basic choices here: bamboo or metal. Both are good options boasting their own advantages.
- Bamboo: You’ll find bamboo skewers in any grocery store. They’re cheap, conveniently disposable, and often available in different lengths. Generally, 12-inch skewers are a good all-purpose length. You’ll need to soak these for 30 minutes to an hour before they go on the grill to prevent the exposed ends from incinerating. They’ll still burn/blacken, but they’ll hold up better if they’re soaked.
- Metal: One main benefit of metal skewers is that they’re reusable; they can typically lie on the top rack of the dishwasher for convenient cleanup. Because they’re metal, they also help to conduct some heat to the center of the food. Look for flat skewers (as shown in the photo) over round ones to help keep food from spinning around as you flip the kebabs. And remind your guests—or your kiddos—that they may be hot to the touch.
Generally, you want to go with fast-cooking, tender cuts of meat since the kebabs will only be on the grill for a few minutes. Ideally, you also want something with a little fat so that it won’t dry out. Here are some suggestions:
- Beef: Try sirloin tip steak, New York strip steak, skirt steak (cut thin strips and fold in half), or tenderloin.
- Chicken: The top choice here is boneless, skinless thighs; they’ll stay juicy and flavorful. Boneless, skinless breasts tend to dry out, but if you’d like to use them, slather them with or marinate them in oil first.
- Fish/Seafood: Firm fish fillets such as swordfish or tuna work great and won’t fall apart. In terms of seafood, the all-star choice is large or jumbo shrimp.
- Lamb: Leg of lamb works great, but you’ll need to take care when prepping it to remove all silver skin and connective tissue, which will make it tough.
- Pork: Perhaps the easiest cut to go with is a boneless pork chop (look for one with marbling) that you cut into cubes. You can also try pork shoulder, which is fatty and delicious but can be chewy—so cut it into thin slices and fold them in half.
- Sausage: Chunks of firm, precooked sausage are great on kebabs—like brats, Italian sausage, or kielbasa.
The Vegetables (and More!)
Aim for color, textural variety, and—most importantly—vegetables that will hold up on the grill.
- Classic vegetable options include bell pepper pieces, onion wedges or peeled pearl onions, mushrooms, zucchini chunks or slices, and cherry or grape tomatoes,
- Branch out and incorporate some fun, less-common options here: okra pods (fresh or pickled), baby potatoes, pitted olives, sugar snap peas, sturdy sourdough bread cubes slathered with oil, folded-over lemon slices, pineapple cubes, firm peach wedges, or fresh bay leaves.
- If you’re using dense vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, fennel bulb, or pieces of corn on the cob, you’ll need to parcook them; the kebabs simply won’t cook long enough on the grill to get these veggies tender.
The Marinade or Seasoning
It takes more than great meat and vegetables to make a great kebab. You’ll want to add flavor in the form of a marinade, dry rub, or wet rub. It’s best to marinate meat separately from vegetables.
- Marinades: You don’t need to marinate for a long time to impart flavor; as little as 30 minutes (while the coals get ready) will do the job. Common marinades are oil-based, yogurt-based, or vinegar-basted. Use special care with vinegar- or citrus-based marinades, as the acid can degrade the meat over time, turning its texture grainy; marinate an hour or less in these types of mixtures.
- Dry rubs: If your meat has a good bit of fat, a dry rub of your favorite spices would be ideal. If the meat is leaner, opt for a wet rub.
- Wet rubs: For kebabs, an oil-based wet rub (as opposed to one using a different liquid, like soy sauce or broth) is best. Combine your favorite spices in a bowl, and stir in oil until the texture is anywhere from paste-like to runny.
The Prep & Assembly
- Make sure that all the food is cut to similar sizes so that it cooks more evenly.
- You’ll sometimes see photos of kebabs packed so tightly that they look as if they weigh two pounds each—or, conversely, with ingredients spaced apart so that you the skewer between each piece. You want to go somewhere between these two extremes—food lightly touching, with maybe a little space every now and then.
It’s best to build a two-zone fire—building the coals on one side of the grill and leaving the other side with no heat. That way, if the kebabs start charring faster than you’d like, but the meat isn’t quite done, you can move them over indirect heat to finish cooking. Flip frequently for the most even cooking; keeping things in motion, flipping every minute or two, will help prevent any spots form getting too charred.