This is one of the most basic cooking techniques – impaling food on a skewer or stick and cooking it over an open fire.
With iterations found around the world – the skewers of the Middle East, the anticuchos of South America, the yakitori of Japan and the suya from Nigeria, to name a few – grilling food on skewers is a widespread practice that is as richly diverse as it is satisfying.
As any distracted s’mores maker who has cremated a marshmallow knows, this can also be one of the hardest activities to do well. As the grilling season is in full swing, now is the perfect time to browse some of its finer points.
Any thin shank with a pointed end – be it the swords of Turkish soldiers preparing their dinners on the battlefield (an oft-told story, reflecting how the “shish” in “shish kebab” means “sword” or ” skewer “), or tree branches picked from campsites and intended for hot dogs – can be used as skewers.
But there are a lot of options that are easier to get, including metal ones and wood ones, usually bamboo.
Bamboo skewers are inexpensive, biodegradable, and won’t burn your guests’ lips. You will need to soak them for at least 30 minutes before using them, so that they do not ignite on the grill. I like to reuse a rimmed baking sheet for this; just add the skewers and cover them with water. But a very large bowl or roasting pan will also do.
Metal skewers have the advantage of being very sturdy and reusable, and, when made from stainless steel, are dishwasher safe. The flat, wide skewers will keep your ingredients from slipping when you turn them, and I find the ones with large looped handles to be the easiest to grip.
Skewers are available in a variety of sizes. The 12-14 inch lengths are a good bet, as they are long enough to hold a lot of food, but small enough to fit in your kitchen drawers. For appetizers, 6-inch bamboo or wood skewers are perfect. (Metal skewers get too hot.)
Consider your ingredients
Anything you cook over direct heat will work well on a skewer; just steer clear of tough cuts of meat which are better for slow, indirect braising or barbecuing, and dense vegetables like potatoes and other roots, and winter squash.
Cut your ingredients into small, even pieces, usually one to two inches. And while it may seem festive to have different ingredients lined up on the same skewer, resist the urge. These colorful striped stick meals are difficult to control and much more likely to cook unevenly. Better to stack similar ingredients on the same skewer so that all the pieces are done at the same time.
Leaving a little space (about ¼ inch) between the pieces will help brown things more completely and encourage clean edges. This is especially useful for vegetables that need to release a lot of moisture when grilling, such as eggplants, zucchini and onions.
On the other hand, for fish, chicken breasts and other ingredients that tend to dry out, squeezing the cubes together isolates them slightly, helping to retain their juice.
Large pieces, irregularly shaped ingredients like shrimp, or delicate things like tofu can benefit from using two parallel skewers, which prevent the pieces from turning as they rotate.
Make the marinade a goal
Most of the world’s great kebab dishes require a tangy marinade, like Thai lemongrass satay or Russian onion shashlik. The marinade helps to season them well, adding a lot of flavor.
You can marinate your ingredients a few hours in advance or the day before, which makes things super quick when you’re ready to grill – a godsend for entertaining. But even on a weekday evening, a quick dip in a heady marinade can work wonders. When you’re pressed for time, start marinating your ingredients while your grill heats up. As little as 10 minutes can make a difference.
And if you don’t want to marinate, give everything a pinch of salt and a slick of oil to keep things from sticking.
Turn and serve
The closer the kebabs are to heat, the more you need to turn them to make sure they cook evenly. This is where your kebab handles matter – the larger they are, the easier they are to grab. Cooking gloves can help you maneuver things safely.