History credits the Turks with kebabs, a cooking style devised by soldiers in the field who skewered meat on their swords to cook it over open flames. Shish kebab translates to "skewer of grilled meat" and encompasses many versions of the popular and now widespread Middle Eastern dish. Kebabs slowly spread across the Western food culture scene after World War II, becoming ubiquitous in the U.S. over the past few decades.
Kebabs originated with roughly torn chunks of lamb, but worldly variations use cubed, ground, and sliced marinated meats and often pair the protein with vegetables. Just about every Middle Eastern country claims a signature version of kebab, resulting in multiple spellings, including kabob, kebob, kebap, and kabab. There are many other versions of meat grilled on a stick, such as Japanese yakitori, Southeast Asian satay, and Greek souvlaki.
The Meat and Veggies
Traditionally made with marinated lamb, modern shish kebab ingredients range from beef to pork, chicken, seafood, and even tofu. The meat generally gets marinated for up to a day ahead, both for flavor and tenderness. Do this before you put it on the skewers.
You can cook meat by itself, but vegetables add flavor, color, and texture to your dish. Use sturdy ones that can stand up to the heat from the grill without falling apart. Chunks of onion, bell pepper, zucchini, and button or cremini mushrooms work well. Choose vegetables that cook in about the same amount of time as the meat. You might, for example, pair cherry tomatoes with shrimp or chunks of fish, which cook quickly, but they would blacken and disintegrate in the time it takes a piece of meat to cook through. Potatoes take longer to cook than most types of meat, but you can parboil the potatoes first to give them a head start. You can also cook the meat separately from the vegetables and combine them in a big serving bowl or when you plate the food.
Meat and vegetables cling to flat stainless steel skewers better than the bamboo or other wooden kinds. If using bamboo or wooden skewers, soak them in room-temperature water for at least 15 minutes and up to 30 minutes before use to prevent splintering and keep them from burning. Beware that wooden skewers can break with too much weight on them.
Regardless of the type of skewer, you should apply a light coat of cooking oil before you thread the vegetables and meat so they slide off with ease. Keep some space between each piece of meat and vegetable to allow the heat from the grill to circulate freely around the food.
For authentic kebabs, cook them over the high heat of a wood fire or use a charcoal grill, which provides the smokiness and charred flavor of a classic kebab. You can also use a gas grill, or, in a pinch, cook the shish kebabs under the oven broiler. Remember to spray a light coat of cooking oil on the grill before cooking the kebabs to prevent sticking. Turkish doner kebabs refer to meat roasted over flames on a vertical spit; to do this authentically at home requires specialty equipment.
You can skewer your choice of 1 1/2-inch meat chunks and vegetables, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and cook them on the grill. Or follow a recipe for a traditional kebab or a more modern take on the ancient art of grilling meat.
- Homemade Doner Kebab: A Turkish Classic
- Classic Moroccan Lamb or Beef Kebabs
- Romanian Chicken Kebabs
- Skewered Lamb Kebabs
- Citrus Basil Shrimp Kebabs
Kebabs are traditionally served over a bed of rice or couscous, either on or off the skewers. You can accompany them with pita bread and a salad or tangy slaw. Dipping sauces such as Turkish cacik, Greek tzatziki, or Middle Eastern tahini are popular offerings at street-food stands. Turkish doner kebabs generally come served stuffed in pita bread with shredded cabbage, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and pickled chiles. Carry the kebab theme through to dessert and serve skewered fruit, which you can even grill, with a yogurt dipping sauce.