Kabobs are tradition at its best. While popularized in Turkey, they’ve been around for thousands of years — it’s just meat and vegetables on a stick, after all. They’re easy to prepare, easy to cook over a variety of cooking sources, and are as customizable as they come. Hard to beat.
Don’t let simplicity blind you, though. There are some guidelines you should follow in your selection of meat and preparation of kabobs.
We’ll start with the quick answer for shish kabob meat, and then we’ll get into the details.
What is the best steak for kabobs?
You have a few classic choices for shish kabob steak: marinated sirloin tips, chuck roasts, or chuck steaks for tasty but economical choices. Non-marinated filet mignon, tenderloin, ribeye, and porterhouse steaks for tender, high-end luxury.
And as always, buy grass-fed and grass-finished from regenerative farms for the best flavor and nutrition.
What is a kabob?
Kabobs are pieces of meat, vegetables, and sometimes fruits, skewered and grilled to perfection. Kabob styles sprung up all over the world, producing a rich variety of something so simple — human ingenuity at work.
Here is an unexhaustive list:
- Shish kebab: Originating in the Middle East, these consist of skewered and grilled cubes of marinated meat, traditionally lamb but chicken and beef are common today, and interspersed vegetables. The term “shish” is derived from the Turkish word for “skewer.”
- Seekh kebab: A staple of Indian and South Asian cuisine, these kebabs are made from finely minced or ground meat, such as lamb or beef, mixed with aromatic spices and herbs. They are traditionally cooked on skewers, often in a tandoor (clay oven), and are known for their spicy and smoky flavors.
- Doner kebab: Hailing from Turkey, doner kebabs are stacked meats, usually beef, lamb, or chicken, slowly roasted on a vertical rotisserie. Thin slices of the cooked meat are shaved off and served in a flatbread, often with vegetables and various sauces.
- Souvlaki: Souvlaki, a Greek specialty, features small pieces of marinated meat, often pork or chicken, skewered and grilled. It’s typically served in a pita or as a platter with accompaniments like tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki sauce.
- Yakitori: Originating in Japan, yakitori consists of skewered and grilled bite-sized pieces of chicken, usually thigh meat, mixed with vegetables.
- Kushari kebab: Kushari kebabs are a popular street food in Egypt, showcasing a fusion of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences. These kebabs typically feature ground beef or lamb mixed with spices and herbs, molded onto skewers, and grilled.
- Tandoori kebab: Tandoori kebabs are a specialty of Indian cuisine, where marinated meat, often chicken or lamb, is cooked in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven. The use of yogurt and a blend of aromatic spices in the marinade imparts a distinctive flavor and tenderness to the meat.
Choosing the best meat for kabobs
While various steaks can be used, certain cuts and types are better than others, depending on your budget and preferences.
There are primary three factors to consider:
- How you like your steak (rarer or more well done)
- Whether or not you want to marinate your steaks in advance
And few secondary factors:
- Are you sitting down for a nice meal or celebrating a kid’s birthday? It may not make sense to buy nice meat if people will be too distracted to enjoy it.
- Similarly, do you have picky eaters who prefer different doneness? Get something that plays well in a range.
For high-end, no marinade, and more rare
- Filet mignon: A classic high-end cut. Wonderfully tender and perfect for cubing. Sourced from the end of the tenderloin.
- Porterhouse: A 2-4-1 combination of a tenderloin and New York strip steak. Delicious and tender.
- Ribeye: Marbled and more stringy. Delicious and perfect for cubing.
- Tenderloin: Lean and delicious. Incredible when handled with care.
Just use salt and pepper and cook these rare or medium-rare.
For economical, marinade required, and the option of well-done
- Sirloin tips: Super lean. Great balance of taste, texture, price, and fat.
- Tri-tip: Slightly more expensive. Well marbled and still cut from the sirloin primal.
- Chuck roast/steaks: Usually the cheapest. Typically chewy and harder to tenderize correctly, but it can be done.
Marinate these in an acidic marinade (e.g. citrus) for at least a few hours but ideally around a day in advance.
Outside of those choices, you can really use anything that can be cubed. Or not if you don’t really care about being true to the traditional kabob experience. For tough cuts, use a marinade. For tender ones, just use a simple spice blend.
Lamb, chicken, and seafood are also fantastic choices for kabobs. You could always buy a variety and let people build their own! Just don’t mix proteins — that will make things difficult.
Buying the best cut of beef for kabobs
After you’ve selected the steak you want for your kabobs, the next step is to consider the quality of a particular cut. That includes both the randomness of marbling and freshness when shopping, and where you shop in the first place.
Use this framework:
- Marbling: This depends on the cut, but look for cuts with some marbling. This fat will melt during grilling, enhancing the meat’s flavor and reducing the chance of overcooking.
- Quality: For better taste, nutrition, and celebration of craft and culture — opt for grass-fed and grass-finished beef. The labels get confusing, but you should work with producers and distributors who champion their cattle’s living conditions and prove it with videos, testimonials, in-depth explanations, etc.
- Freshness: Opt for fresh meat rather than frozen for the best results.
Once you’re ready to make your kabob, here are a few tips.
- Cut your meat and veggies in similar sizes: Better presentation and even cooking. It’s a win-win and a sign of a skilled chef!
- Alternate your meat and veggies: Similarly, presentation is boosted when you alternate meat and veggies. This also plays nicely into the ideal bite. Try mixing the colors of vegetables as well!
- Soak your wooden skewers in water: You can prevent them from burning on the grill this way.
- Give space between each piece: Putting just a little space between the pieces makes sure the steam doesn’t prevent that nice char (just like not crowding a pan) and lets the fire get all the way around each piece.
- Don’t forget the sauce: Kabobs are one thing. Kabobs with sauce are another. Serve your kabobs with a sauce like a tahini or tzatziki to really elevate things.
The best marinades for kabobs
All you need for a good marinade is salt, something acidic, some water, a little oil, and a few hours. The rest is just details.
Here are a few ingredients to try in yours. Just add in what feels right — seriously! It’s hard to mess up a marinade.
- A.1. sauce
- Soy sauce
- Dried herbs
- Balsamic vinegar
- Red wine vinegar
Also, this sounds obvious, but taste your marinade before you put your steaks in it. If it tastes good, then you’re in business.
5 Good Steak Kabob Recipes to Get You Started
Here are a few good kabob recipes to make things easier, too:
Let’s start with something more traditional. This shish kabob recipe from The Mediterranean Dish isn’t flashy, and it isn’t supposed to be. It’s just good shish kabobs, made the way they should.
If you are a steak and compound butter fan, use this recipe from Dinner at the Zoo to push things in a more classic steak direction. Don’t forget to add more garlic, always.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, use this recipe from Fox and Briar. You cannot skip the marinade on this one, and don’t skip the sesame oil either. The flavor is strong and integral to the recipe.
This recipe uses mustard and other “grill” ingredients that may make things more palatable for children and picky eaters. That doesn’t mean this recipe from Olivia’s Cuisine isn’t good though — she shows you all the tricks to pull out the most flavor.
Brushing an extra flavorful glaze on kabobs after they are off the grill is a wonderful way to add a bit of punch. This whiskey glaze from Meiko and the Dish is a delicious blend of whiskey, brown sugar, and soy sauce. The alcohol cooks off in the heat, too.
The bottom line on choosing steak for your kabobs
The key to a memorable kabob lies in the choice of meat, marinade (if needed), and grilling execution. Start with a bit of thinking upfront, and you’ll nail it. If you’re feeling fancy, pick up a filet mignon, porterhouse, or tenderloin. For something more weeknight, grab some sirloin tips.
Nathan Phelps owns and writes for Crafted Copy, a boutique copywriting shop that finds the perfect words for interesting products. He is also an ethical foodie, outdoors-aficionado, and hails from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.