It is one of the most elementary cooking techniques: skewer food on a skewer or stick and cook it over an open fire.
With iterations found all over the world – the Middle Eastern kebabs, the anticuchos of South America, the yakitori in Japan, and the suya in Nigeria to name a few – grilling food on a spit is a widespread practice, which is as diverse as it is satisfying.
Also, as any distracted s’mores maker who’s burned a marshmallow knows, it can be one of the toughest activities to do well. With the BBQ season in full swing, now is the perfect time to go over some of its niceties.
Any thin stick with a sharp end – whether it is the swords of Turkish soldiers who cook their dinner on the battlefield (an often told story that reflects how the “shish” in “shishkebab” means “sword” or “spit”) ) or branches collected at campsites and intended for hot dogs – can be used as a skewer.
But there are many more readily available options, including those made of metal and those made of wood, usually bamboo.
Bamboo skewers are inexpensive, biodegradable and won’t burn your guests’ lips. You’ll need to soak them for at least 30 minutes before using them so they don’t flare up on the grill. I like to use a sheet metal pan with a rim for this; Just add the skewers and cover with water. But a very large bowl or roasting pan will also work.
Metal skewers have the advantage that they are very robust and reusable, and made of stainless steel, they are dishwasher-safe. Flat, wide skewers will keep your ingredients from sliding around when you flip them, and I find those with large, looped handles are the easiest to grab.
Skewers come in different sizes. The 12-14 inch lengths are good choices as they are long enough to hold lots of groceries but small enough to fit in your kitchen drawers. For starters, 6-inch bamboo or wooden skewers are just the thing. (Metal skewers get too hot.)
Look at your ingredients
Anything you would cook over direct heat works well on a skewer; Just avoid hard cuts of meat, which are better suited for braising or slow, indirect grilling, and dense vegetables like potatoes and other roots and winter squash.
Cut your ingredients into small, even pieces, usually one to five inches. And while it looks festive with different ingredients lined up on a skewer, resist the urge. These brightly striped meals on a stick are difficult to control and far more likely to cook unevenly. It is better to stack similar ingredients on the same skewer so that all the pieces are ready at the same time.
Leave some space (about ¼ inch) between the pieces to help brown things more thoroughly and encourage crisp edges. This is especially helpful with vegetables that need to give off a lot of moisture when grilling, such as eggplant, zucchini, and onions.
On the other hand, for fish, chicken breasts, and other ingredients that tend to dry out, squeeze the cubes slightly to isolate them, which helps preserve the juice.
Larger chunks, irregularly shaped ingredients like shrimp or tender things like tofu can benefit from using two parallel skewers that keep the treats from turning when they are turned.
Make marinating a goal
Many of the world’s best dishes on skewers call for a spicy marinade, such as Thai satay with lemongrass tip or Russian shashlik with onions. The marinating helps season them thoroughly and adds a lot of flavor.
You can marinate your ingredients a few hours ahead of time or the day before, which makes things go very quickly when you’re ready to grill – a boon for the entertainment. But even during the week a short stay in an intoxicating marinade can work wonders. If you’re pressed for time, start marinating your ingredients while your grill is heating up. Just 10 minutes can make a difference.
And if you don’t want to marinate, give everything a pinch of salt and a dash of oil so that nothing sticks.
Turn and serve
The closer the skewers are to the heat, the more you need to turn them so that they cook evenly. This is where your skewer handles are important – the bigger they are, the easier it is to grab them. BBQ gloves can help you maneuver things safely.
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