It’s one of the most elemental cooking techniques: impaling food on a skewer or a stick and cooking it over an open fire.
With iterations found throughout the world — the kebabs of the Middle East, the anticuchos of South America, the yakitori of Japan and the suya of Nigeria, to name a few — grilling food on skewers is a widespread practice that’s as richly diverse as it is satisfying.
As any distracted s’mores maker who has incinerated a marshmallow knows, it can also be one of the trickiest activities to do well. With grilling season in full swing, now is the perfect time to run through some of its finer points.
Any thin rod with a sharp end — whether it’s the swords of Turkish soldiers cooking their suppers on the battlefield (an oft-told tale, reflecting how the “shish” in “shish kebab” means “sword” or “skewer”), or tree branches foraged at campsites and destined for hot dogs — can be used as a skewer.
But there are plenty of more easily obtained options, including those made from metal, and those made from 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, so they don’t flame up on the grill. I like to repurpose a rimmed sheet pan for this; just add the skewers and cover them with water. But a very large bowl or roasting pan will also work.
Metal skewers have the advantage of being highly sturdy and reusable, and, when made from stainless steel, dishwasher safe. Flat, wide skewers will keep your ingredients from slipping as you turn them, and I find that those with big, looped handles are the easiest to grasp.
Skewers come in a variety of sizes. The 12- to 14-inch lengths are a good bet, as they’re long enough to hold a lot of food, yet small enough to fit in your kitchen drawers. For hors d’oeuvres, 6-inch bamboo or wooden skewers are just right. (Metal skewers get too hot.)
Consider Your Ingredients
Anything you’d cook over direct heat will work well on a skewer; just avoid tough cuts of meats that are better for braising or for slow, indirect barbecuing, and dense vegetables like potatoes and other roots, and winter squash.
Cut your ingredients into small, uniform pieces, usually one to two inches. And although it looks festive to have different ingredients lined up on the same skewer, resist the urge. Those colorfully striped meals-on-a-stick are hard to control and much more likely to cook unevenly. Better to stack similar ingredients on the same skewer so all the pieces are done at the same time.
Leaving a little space (about ¼ inch) between the chunks will help brown things more thoroughly and encourage crisp edges. This is especially helpful for vegetables that need to release a lot of moisture as they grill such as eggplant, zucchini and onions.
On the flip side, for fish, chicken breasts and other ingredients that have a tendency to dry out, pressing the cubes together insulates them slightly, helping retain their juices.
Bigger chunks, irregularly shaped ingredients like shrimp or delicate things such as tofu can benefit from using two parallel skewers, which keep the tidbits from rotating when turning.
Make Marinating a Goal
Many of the world’s great skewered dishes call for a pungent marinade, like lemongrass-laced Thai satay or oniony Russian shashlik. Marinating helps season them thoroughly, adding loads of flavor.
You can marinate your ingredients a few hours ahead or the day before, which makes things go very quickly when you’re ready to grill — a boon for entertaining. But even on a weeknight, a quick stint in a heady marinade can do 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 sprinkle of salt and a slick of oil to help keep things from sticking.
Turn and Serve
The closer the skewers are to the heat, the more you need to turn them to make sure they cook evenly. This is where your skewer handles are important — the larger they are, the easier they are to grasp. Grilling gloves can help you maneuver things safely.