How to make authentic shish kebab just like that sold at street stalls in Turkey.
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Authentic Shish Kebab
When it comes to skewered meat people always seem to think that the word kebab is synonymous with skewer or a stick. This is incorrect. The Internet is full of erroneous explanations of what kebab is.
In fact, the keyword here is shish.
In Turkish şiş (pronounced shish) means a skewer or spit, while the word kebap means roasted or grilled meat pieces (its anglicized versions are kebab or kabob).
A kebap can be cağ/döner when the meat is cooked on a vertically situated rotisserie, çömlek/güveç kebap when the meat is cooked in earthen pot, and şiş when the meat is roasted on a skewer.
Authentic Turkish shish kebab is made with lamb. There are of course regional variations such as lamb liver, or chicken, but lamb reigns supreme.
The geographical origins of shish kebab are the areas of modern day Turkey and Iran. An interesting fact is that in Persian shish meant six and in regards to kebab it referred to a six-month old lamb.
Best Meat for Shish Kebab
- Lamb. The best cuts of meat to use for shish kebab are boneless lamb shoulder, lamb sirloin (shown above), or lamb leg. You want the meat to have a bit of fat, but not too much. Excess should be trimmed.
- Cherry tomatoes. Authentic shish kebab is never threaded with vegetables on the same skewer. Assemble cherry tomatoes skewers and roast them separately – they cook faster than the meat.
- Onion. A traditional garnish for shish kebab. You can make onions and tomatoes skewers or shave the onion and sprinkle it with sumac (see below for details).
Marinade for Shish Kebab
By far the most traditional marinade you can mix for lamb skewers is yogurt based, along the lines of what we are using here.
Plain yogurt is rich in bacteria that produce lactic acid which transforms the lamb meat into a tender delicacy. Another benefit of using yogurt is that the unique gamy taste of lamb gets significantly neutralized and the meat is infused with bright notes of the seasonings and the fruitiness of the olive oil.
- Yogurt. Do not use Greek yogurt. Choose full fat, plain, cultured yogurt with L. Bulgaricus.
- Olive oil. Use extra virgin, flavorful olive oil.
- Garlic. A couple of cloves, minced.
- Seasonings. Cumin, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Some people like to add a pinch of cinnamon.
If you are not sold on this marinade you can get inspiration from our list of Lamb Marinade Recipes. But to get tender lamb you need yogurt.
How to Make Lamb Shish Kebab
- Prep. Begin by trimming excess fat from the lamb. Cut the meat into cubes, just over an inch large. Mix the marinade ingredients.
- Marinate. In a nonreactive container thoroughly cover the cubed lamb in marinade, cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Overnight is ideal.
- Thread. Thread the skewers (discard remaining marinade). Make separate skewers with the tomatoes and the lamb so you can cook each type for as long as needed. Don’t over-pack.
- Grill. Preheat the grill to medium-high, brush the grates with high-smoking point oil to create and non-stick surface. Grill the shish kebab turning frequently for about 8 to 12 minutes. Grill the tomatoes for as long as needed, depending on your preference for softness. Warm flat bread while you are roasting the meat.
TIP: The best skewers to use for shish kebab are stainless steel, blade shaped. They perform better than round skewers because they hold the food better and prevent it from spinning around when you turn them.
How to Serve Authentic Shish Kebab
- Another unique feature of authentic shish kebab is serving the lamb skewers alongside thinly sliced or shaved onion tossed in sumac seasoning. We like to mix sumac and za’atar seasoning (shown above). You can soak the onion slices in cold water for 30 minutes to take the edge off if you’d like, then squeeze out the water and toss with spice.
- Either fire-roasted tomato skewers or sliced fresh tomatoes are a very common side.
- Parsley is the fresh herb of choice used as garnish.
- Either flat bread (commonly lavash, substitute with pita) or rice are the carb of choice.
TIP: Sumac is a red powder from the dried and pulverized berries of the sumac bush, indigenous to several Middle East countries. It has a pleasant lemony flavor. You can substitute with lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice.
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- 1.5 lbs boneless lamb shoulder (or sirloin, or leg)
- 3 cups cherry or plum tomatoes (optional)*
- 2 tbsp high-smoking point oil to brush the grill grates
SHISH KEBAB MARINADE
- 1 cup plain yogurt**
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 large yellow or white onion
- 1 tbsp sumac seasoning (or combination of za'atar and sumac seasonings)***
1. Trim excess fat from the lamb and cut into cubes, just over an inch large. (Leave some fat, it is flavor).
2. Mix the marinade ingredients and coat the cubed lamb. Marinate refrigerated and covered in a nonreactive container for up to 24 hours.
3. Thread skewers with lamb cubes and discard any remaining marinade. Thread separate skewers with mini tomatoes (if using).
4. Heat grill to medium-high. Brush the grates with high-smoking point oil to create and non-stick surface. Grill the shish kebabs over direct heat, turning frequently for about 8 to 12 minutes. Grill the tomatoes for as long as needed, depending on your preference for doneness.
5. Let the lamb skewers rest. Shave onion and toss with sumac or sumac+ za'atar mixture.
6. Serve the shish kebabs alongside the onion, garnished with fresh parsley and accompanied with flat bread such as lavash or pita.
*Traditionally only lamb cubes are skewered. You can prepare optional tomato skewers and grill them separately (they will cook faster than the lamb).
**Use whole milk plain yogurt cultured with plenty of L. Bulgaricus. Greek yogurt is not the right choice here. The lactic acid produced by the L. Bulgaricus will tenderize the lamb and also mitigate its strong gamy taste.
***Substitute lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice for sumac.
We recommend that you use stainless skewers with blade shape as the best shish kebab sticks for the job.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 442Total Fat: 22gSaturated Fat: 6gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 16gCholesterol: 112mgSodium: 894mgCarbohydrates: 28gFiber: 4gSugar: 20gProtein: 39g