How a Clever Cook Makes Tastier Skewers

Whether it’s chicken satay or beef suya, for maximum flavor, the way you slice your meat is just as important as how you season it!

Grilled Skirt Steak recipes
Elise Bauer

There are so many styles of skewers, it’s hard to say one technique is better than another. There’s no wrong way to do it—especially if warm weather grilling is involved!

But if you’re looking for maximum flavor and texture, the way you slice your meat is just as important as how you season it.

Thin Strips Yield More Flavor and Texture

You’re probably familiar with recipes that instruct you to cut your chicken or steak into one-inch pieces before skewering. Uniform chunks of meat cook evenly, so that’s something.

But another technique will yield even more flavor and texture: slicing your meat or vegetables into thin strips!

Grilling strips instead of chunks on skewers is a technique used all around the world, from satay in Indonesia and Thailand, to suya in Nigeria. Just ask Dutch-Indonesian food writer Vanja van der Leeden, who literally wrote the book on satay! (Her satay cookbook "Indostock" came out in Dutch last fall. Stay tuned for an English translation.)

Van der Leeden likes cooking both chicken and beef in strips because thinner strips cook faster, which makes for more tender, juicier meat. It also makes skewering faster and easier, because one or two strips are all that’s needed to cover a skewer, she says.

Thinner strips cook faster, which makes for juicier, tender meat.

“The idea is that you thread the chicken strip over and under onto a skewer, making folds. The different pieces of strip touch each other, so there is no uncovered skewer," explains van der Leeden. In Indonesia, as in other parts of the world, bamboo skewers are common and will burn if there’s too much space between pieces.

But slicing the meat in thin strips also contributes to flavor, because there’s “increased surface area for flavor penetration,” explains Nigerian food writer and cook Ozoz Sokoh. Think more surface area for marinades or spice rubs to cover, and more exposure to a hot grill, which yields crispier edges.

Pro tip when skewering chicken: “Real good Asian chicken satay will also have pieces of skin threaded onto the skewer,” van der Leedan adds. “The fat skin will scorch and get crunchy on the charcoal fire.” Sold.

Soaking skewers to make shish kabobs.
Cambrea Bakes

It Works for Vegetables, Too!

Van der Leedan recommends skewer slices for chicken thighs, Bavette or skirt steak, and squid. Flat iron steak is another good option.

You can use this approach for vegetables, too! Chef Russ Faulk of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet suggests slicing zucchini into long, thin ribbons, brushing them with butter (we’re listening), and coiling them onto skewers to grill.

How to grill skirt steak thread the steak skewers
Elise Bauer

How to Slice Meat Thin for Skewers

Cut steak against the grain into1/8-inch thin strips. For chicken, flatten thighs and slice through the thicker parts to achieve a 1/8-inch thick piece.

Check out van der Leeden’s Instagram page for slicing and threading demonstrations. Even though the videos are in Dutch, you can still see her handiwork in action. 

London-based Australian-Indonesian cookbook author Lara Lee does point out that it’s easier to control the doneness of the meat when it’s cooked in a chunk, so that’s the way she makes satay in her recent book "Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen." “For me, I prefer the texture of the chunks, the mouthfeel and chew, and I can control the doneness of the meat with chunks, but that’s a personal choice,” Lee says.

But there’s a time and place for all styles. Now that you understand the advantages of different techniques, you can consider your priorities—texture, flavor, doneness, mouthfeel—and make your own choice.

Any way you slice it, you’ll end up happy with these recipes:

Chicken Skewers

Beef Skewers

Shrimp Skewers