Caitlin Bensel

To get a tasty marinade, surface area and soaking time are key.

Andrea Nguyen
July 19, 2018

Being a curious, obsessive cook has its pluses and minuses. I often go down a rabbit hole to experiment with something that doesn’t really need fixing. Thankfully, along the way, there are valuable lessons learned. 

Not long ago, I thought I’d use a favorite beef skewer marinade on a steak. Three rounds of testing and tweaking yielded meh results. The marinade just didn’t do much to flavor the meat. I was better off with my reliable standby of salt and pepper.

What I realized is that the original recipe worked beautifully because it’s better to use a marinade for skewered morsels than large slabs of meat. When you cut up meat, there’s more surface area exposed to the marinade, which only penetrates about one-eighth of an inch into the meat.

Given that, expecting marinades to season deeply is a fantasy. You’re better off ensuring that smallish pieces of protein get well-coated and sufficiently soaked. This ensures that the marinade is absorbed and flavors pop in a bold manner. (If the meat soaks too long in a marinade that’s heavy on acidic ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar, the surface of the meat can turn mealy. Those marinades should only go for 30 minutes to an hour.) 

Cultures across the globe grill on skewers—from Mediterranean kebabs and Southeast Asian satays to Japanese yakitori and Peruvian anticuchos. You don’t need much protein to satisfy a crowd, and the meat doesn’t need to be fancy; it just needs to be cut up small enough to thread onto a skewer. The marinade and grilling take care of the rest. 

Aside from flavor payoff, grilling meat on sticks is perfect for entertaining: You must prep in advance to allow the meat to marinate, but the final cooking is relatively fast. To avoid any last-minute hassle, I sometimes coat the meat in marinade, then immediately skewer it so things are ready to go on the grill. When threading the meat, I crowd it to create a compact column. The results are juicier than when there’s space between the pieces. 

As for the skewers, I dumped the skinny, round bamboo ones long ago. Even after soaking them in water for 30-plus minutes, they’d burn easily, and when loaded with meat, they often bend and droop, making them difficult to maneuver on the grill. Instead, I opt for flat bamboo or metal skewers because food sits more securely on them. (If flat ones aren’t available, go for thicker, 3- to 4-millimeter-thick round bamboo skewers—they’re sturdier.) Bamboo skewers can be cut down to fit small grills and are disposable (no need to collect empty ones at a party). However, stainless-steel skewers do not require soaking and are reusable. 

Depending on my mood and available time, I might grill the skewers over charcoal (fabulous flavor), on a gas grill (easy setup), or a stovetop cast-iron grill pan (simple except for the cleanup). Regardless of marinade, meat, or cooking approach, my summertime grilling has improved simply because I paused to ponder and tinker.

Caitlin Bensel

View Recipe: Harissa Grilled Chicken Skewers