Kebabs pack a punch. They’re quick to make, come from ingredients you probably already have lying around in your kitchen, and should be bursting with flavor. There are many types of meat and vegetables that grill well. Meat and vegetables cut into chunks have plenty of surface area for soaking in flavorful marinades. And the marinades can be as simple or as elaborate as you want them to be—or you can even use your favorite dry rubs.
But most people neglect the few grilling fundamentals that separate truly great kebabs from mere mediocre kebabs. It’s about more than just marinades. Learn the techniques you need for killer kebabs this week.
Common Kebab Cooking Calamities
Here are the most common mistakes people make when grilling kebabs. How many of these are you guilty of?
- Putting different veggies and meats on the same kebab for that “meal on a stick” vibe
- Neglecting to check temperatures, thinking that small chunks should be “eye-ready”
- Stacking the chunks tightly together to fit more on each skewer and thereby abandoning the power of convective currents between the chunks
- Not being careful about cutting meats and vegetables into uniform-sized chunks for uniform cooking
- Using tough meats with too much connective tissue
- Cooking vegetables over direct heat
Well, now is the time to get it right. Keep these foolproof grilling tips in mind next time you make kebabs:
3 Tips for Perfectly Grilled Kebabs
1. Keep different meats and vegetables separate. In Master of the Grill, the experts at America’s Test Kitchen recommend grilling meat and veggies on separate skewers. Kebabs with meat and veggies combined on the same skewer are pretty, but the ingredients cook at different rates! Your vegetables will be overcooked and mushy by the time the meat is done. The same is true for different types of meats and vegetables. Chicken and steak need different doneness temperatures, so put them on separate skewers. Onions and peppers cook at the same rate, but tomatoes cook at a different rate, so separate them out.
Keep it simple and foolproof, and cook the ingredients separately.
*More tips on grilling skewered vegetables are at the end of this post.
2. Keep the meat or veggies spaced out. If you leave a bit of space between each item on each skewer to ensure even heat circulation all around (see the illustration below), the meat and vegetables will cook more evenly. Alton Brown recommends leaving 1/2″ ( 1-1/4 cm) between the pieces of meat.
Meat that is packed together tightly on a skewer will still cook, but not evenly. The heat from your grill will circulate around the meat as if it’s one piece rather than several (see the illustration below). Because of this, the meat in the center will take longer to cook than the meat on the ends, and those end pieces will be overcooked by the time the center pieces have come to their pull temperature.
Both of the kebab preparations illustrated above will work, just be aware of how they will cook differently.
3. Cut everything into consistently uniform pieces. You’ll want each bit of meat to be finished at the same time. If the sizes of the chunks of meat are cut inconsistently, the smaller pieces will overcook by the time the larger ones come to their pull temperature. Chunks of about 1-1/2 to 2″ squares work well.
Jeff Savell of Texas A&M University says that the size of the pieces of meat is critical: “If they’re too small they’ll overcook and dry out. If they too large you don’t get the internal temperature right.”
What Types of Meat Work Best?
Beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, swordfish, shrimp, scallops, halibut…there are so many different types of meat that work well!
But grilling involves very high cooking temperatures so the best kebab meats will be:
Tender with very little fat and connective tissue—Small chunks of meat cook very quickly on the grill. There won’t be nearly enough time for fat to render and connective tissue to properly dissolve. Meat that is tough often becomes fairly rubbery when cooked quickly on a skewer.
Avoid tough meats like brisket or pork shoulder. And trim away the chunks of fat, gristle, or connective tissue you do see before cutting the tender meat into cubes.
4 Keys to Great Marinades
Marinating meat seasons and tenderizes it, which is especially helpful for cuts of meat that are slightly tough, very lean, or otherwise low on flavor. Kenji points out 4 important components to great marinades in his book, The Food Lab.
- Oil: Oil makes the marinade thicker and tackier, helping it stick to the meat better. It is a vehicle to flavor the meat since some aromatics such as garlic and some spices are oil soluble. A thin coating of oil helps heat to transfer more evenly as the meat cooks, and it also helps keep the meat from sticking to the grill.
- Salt: When salt is dissolved in liquid it dissolves the myosin in protein fibers, making the meat a bit looser and able to retain its own moisture better. Salt also penetrates into the meat, seasoning it.
- Fruits rich in proteases: Proteases are enzymes that break down protein in muscle fibers and connective tissue. Naturally-occurring proteases can be found in pineapples, mangoes, papayas, and ginger.
- Acid: Acids in marinades help to break down connective tissue, slightly tenderizing the final product. Acids can also denature the protein in muscle fibers, chemically “cooking” it. If the ratio of acid in the marinade is too high, the meat can become opaque and chalky. Keep your acid to oil ratio at 1:1 or lower.
Aromatics: Aromatics are ingredients that only flavor the exterior of the meat. Garlic, onions, shallots, herbs, and spices can all be powerful flavor components, especially when combined with oil.
Aromatics are not considered an essential component in marinades since their effect is merely superficial, rather than improving the texture and cooking process like the other 4 ingredients do.
Note: When Recycling Is NOT OK
Used marinade is contaminated with raw meat juice and is therefore unsafe to consume. Even boiling might not make it safe. If you want a sauce to serve with cooked meat, make a little extra marinade and set it aside before adding the rest to the raw meat. —Master of the Grill, America’s Test Kitchen
Marinating Times and Pull Temperatures
How long to marinate the meat depends on the type of meat you’ll be grilling. Fish is far more delicate than red meat and needs far less time in a marinade. Here is a guide to how long some meats need to marinade, and their pull temperatures.
Note that these pull temperatures are slightly higher than they would be for grilling steaks or other whole muscle cuts. This is because kebabs have small chunks of meat that will experience little to no carryover cooking after being removed from the grill.
➤ Equipment: Skewers
The Debate of Stainless Steel vs Wood
Soaking: Stainless steel skewers are great because they’re durable and don’t need to soak in water before grilling, and you never have to worry about splinters. If you’re using wood skewers, you’ll need to be sure and soak them for 2 hours prior to grilling to keep them from burning.
Cleanup: Wood skewers have the advantage of being disposable. Just chuck them along with anything else that goes in the trash. Metal skewers are reusable, but they do give you something else to wash. The choice is up to you. We went with reusable, no-need-for-soaking stainless steel skewers.
How Long Will the Kebabs Take To Grill?
The length of cooking time depends on a few factors…
- the temperature of your grill and how well it’s maintained throughout the cook
- the size of the cubed meat
- and your desired doneness temperature
A rough estimate of kebab grilling time is 10-15 minutes but, for meat, you should always gauge doneness by the measured internal temperature. Keep in mind that smaller pieces of meat will cook more quickly, and different types of meat will have different doneness temperatures. For example, beef should be pulled at about 125-130°F (52-54°C), chicken at 155-160°F (68-71°C), and seafood around 125-140°F (52-60°C). Print off the chart above for easy reference. And use an instant-read thermometer, like a Thermapen® Mk4 to verify your doneness temperatures.
We made three different kebabs: beef, chicken, and swordfish, and each with a different marinade.
Beef Kebabs—From Master of the Grill, by America’s Test Kitchen
- 2 lbs. steak tips, cut into 1-1/2″ to 2″ cubes
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1/3 cup beef broth
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste (or tomato sauce)
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tbsp fresh chopped rosemary
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
- 1-1/2 tsp sugar
- 2 tsp salt
- 3/4 tsp pepper
- Stir together all marinade ingredients to thoroughly combine.
- Place cubed meat into a gallon-size zipper-lock bag. Pour the marinade over the meat and mix well to coat all pieces of meat, force all the air out of the bag and seal it shut.
- Put the meat into a container and place in the refrigerator on the bottom shelf to marinade for 3-24 hours. Flip the bag over once or twice for even marinating.
- Fire up your grill and allow it to preheat while you prepare the kebabs.
- After marinating, thread the meat onto skewers leaving about 1/2″ space between each piece of meat.
- Clean and oil your grill grate, and place the prepared skewers onto the grill over high heat. Flip the skewers every 3-4 minutes, until they reach about 125-130°F (52-54°C).
- Spot-check every piece of meat on each skewer with an instant-read thermometer like a Thermapen Mk4. Once the skewers’ internal pull temperature has been verified, remove from the grill and tent with foil while they rest for about 10-15 minutes.
Chicken Kebabs—From Master of the Grill, by America’s Test Kitchen
- 1-1/2 lbs. chicken breast, cut into 1-1/2″ to 2″ cubes
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh chives, minced fresh basil, parsley, tarragon, oregano, cilantro, or mint; or 2 tbsp minced fresh thyme or rosemary
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp salt
- Pepper to taste
- Whisk together all marinade ingredients.
- Place chicken cubes into a gallon-size zipper-lock bag and mix well to coat the chicken evenly with the marinade.
- Seal the bag, place in a container, and refrigerate on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator for 3-24 hours; turning once or twice for even marinating.
- Fire up your grill and allow it to preheat while you prepare the kebabs.
- Remove the chicken from the marinade and thread onto skewers leaving 1/2″ of space between each cube.
- Clean and oil your grill’s grate and place the chicken kebabs on the grill leaving about 2″ between each kebab. Turn every 3-4 minutes.
- After about 10 minutes start spot-checking your kebabs for doneness with a Thermapen. Once each piece of chicken has reached 155-160°F (68-71°C), remove them from the grill and tent with foil. Rest the kebabs for 10-15 minutes.
- 1-1/2 lbs. skinless swordfish steak, cut into 1-1/2″ to 2″ cubes
- 3 tbsp ground cumin
- 2 tbsp salt
- 1 Tbsp paprika
- 1 tsp pepper
- Whisk or toss together the dry rub ingredients and mix thoroughly.
- Place the swordfish cubes into a gallon-size zipper-lock bag and sprinkle with enough of the rub to coat each piece evenly. Zip the bag shut (with plenty of air) and shake the bag to coat the meat evenly.
- Open the bag, remove the air and seal the bag. Place the bag into a container and refrigerate for 15-30 minutes.
- Fire up your grill and allow it to preheat while you prepare the swordfish kebabs.
- Remove the swordfish from the refrigerator and thread the fish onto skewers leaving about 1/2″ of space between each cube.
- Clean and oil your grill grate. Place the swordfish skewers on the grill about 2″ apart. Turn the kebabs about every 3-4 minutes.
- Fish skewers will cook faster than chicken or beef. Start checking the internal temperature of each piece with a Thermapen after about 10 minutes of cooking. Once the internal temperature of each piece reaches 130°F (54°C), remove the kebabs from the grill. Transfer them to a platter or cutting board, tent with foil and rest the kebabs for 5-10 minutes.
Special Tips for Grilling Vegetable Kebabs
Marinate: You can marinate your veggies just like you do with the meat (but in separate bags, of course!), or you can toss the vegetables in oil and season them with salt and pepper after threading them onto skewers like we did.
Keep Them Separated: Like items that cook at the same rate can be grilled on the same skewer, such as onions and bell peppers. But veggies like tomatoes and mushrooms cook faster and should not be combined together.
Use a 2-Zone Fire To thoroughly cook your veggie kebabs, most experts recommend cooking them over indirect heat. Setting up your grill with a two-zone fire (illustrated below) is ideal. You can grill your meat kebabs over high, direct heat, and grill the vegetable kebabs over the lower indirect heat.
These tips apply to any type of kebab, so use them with any skewered meat recipe you come across. And get creative with your marinades! Grilling kebabs may turn into one of your favorite hobbies throughout the grilling season.