Labour day in the U.S. is rapidly approaching, and while I am always down to eat 30-50 feral hot dogs, the late summer drag has invaded my kitchen. I am weary of summer vegetables and run of the mill barbecue and cookouts. I can’t be bothered to make pasta salad. I want comfort food, but not the same old.
Turns out, I want shawarma.
Why is now the time for shawarma?
Found around the world, there are as many variations of shawarma as there are street corners on which it is sold. There are regional variations like Turkish Doner Kebab, Greek Gyro, and Mexican al Pastor that use different meats, seasonings, cutting, serving vessels, sauces, and toppings. But despite the many ways you could cook this at home, the best way is always going to be on a rotisserie.
It’s also practically September, and by now you’ve eaten every other kind of chicken there is to be eaten a dozen times this summer. With COVID-19 still ravaging supply chains and food production, chicken remains king of lower priced (and more importantly, available) meats. It’s also an awesome sandwich that takes very little effort to feed a good lot of people, with a bonus of how excited your guests are going to be when you tell them you’re making shawarma. Or don’t tell anyone and eat 15 of these things yourself. All you need is a lot of chicken, a marinade, and a comfortable chair.
You’re gonna need a spit
Now there is a small requirement: You need a rotisserie for your BBQ. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is going to be subject to some availability depending on the make and model of your grill, but universal kits are out there and won’t cost you an arm, leg, or wing. If you find this is something you’re into, you can add on a basket for wings, veggies, and even whole fish. It’s a good investment that adds versatility to an already versatile appliance.
Marinating shawarma vs. using a dry rub
I am not going to tell you how to make an authentic shawarma at home, because I am not a professional in the field, so I will not tell you that you need to use an authentic shawarma marinade or rub at home. Some recipes call for both, some call for either. If you’re after a juicier chicken chunk, go for a marinade. If you want some crispy bits, the rub will get you there faster. Barbecue rubs work really well with this, but beware of anything high in sugar. Caramelization is good, but burning that sugar is easier than you think. Save the sauce for the table, as well — it will just drip off of the spit as it spins.
I like this particular marinade because I am a sucker for smoked paprika. Traditional spices include cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, clove, and an incredible amount of garlic to produce a deep sweet/savoury profile. If you’re after the real deal street food variation, you can’t go wrong with Mama’s blend.
How to assemble your spit
I’m sorry, but this is where the work is. Unlike a rotisserie chicken, there’s no trussing chicken thighs to keep them in a single uniform piece. You could try to position your rotisserie forks to grab every thigh, but that would leave you with only a small width on the spit to place your chicken. Instead, skewer your chicken, centering it on the spit. Slide your forks into the ends as best you can and tighten down the screws/bolts to lock them in place.
Because chicken thighs vary in weight and shape more than any other meat, I recommend inserting additional skewers through the sides. This will help prevent the spit from wobbling in the motor, a sign that the motor is struggling to rotate the spit and that you’re headed toward uneven cooking. Take a look at this video for more detail.
Once you’re ready, transfer your meat to the grill and lock the spit into your rotisserie. Thanks to the high fat content and muscle density of chicken thighs, you’ll only need to check in every 30 minutes or so until they’re done, about 90 minutes from the time you start. Be mindful that a marinade will be drippy during prep and while the spit rotates, so keep an eye on your drip pan.
Prep your BBQ
This will vary depending on the grill and rotisserie you’re using, but for the most part the process is standard: Remove your grates, and for Weber models, leave the flavorizer bars in place.
The second most important component you need is a drip pan. A disposable aluminium pan works best, but try to get the half height variety: The taller pans can get in the way as the chicken spins around, causing the food to bump against it and even knock it over. This is going to be full of chicken fat and next to fire, and we’ve already been through why that is a bad thing.
Set your burners for a medium-high heat, targeting 375-400℉, and grab your oven mitts. There’s still a bit left to do while the grill preheats.
It’s not shawarma if you don’t have a sear burner!
We’re cooking primarily with radiant heat, but the traditional vertical spits used for shawarma are surrounded by direct heat, thanks to large sear burners. If you have one of these on your grill, go for it! You can also use a propane torch to the same effect, just please be careful using it. If you use a torch, make sure your fuel source is a safe distance away, and that there is nothing near your grill that could feel the effects of that pointed heat.
Should you choose either nuclear option, proceed with a blast of heat until the exterior of the meat is uniformly crisp. It should char very quickly, but not burn. Stop your sear, extinguish your torch, and just shave the charred bits off before you close the lid and resume a low and slow cook. With a bit of practice, this will give more uniformity to the shape of your chicken thighs through the entire cook. If you missed a stray bit here or there, feel free to jump in with a pair of kitchen shears.
At a target air temp of 190-200C, you should see a cook time of 75-90 minutes, depending on how thick your thighs are. Grab a good probe thermometer and check for temp — as long as your thermometer reads 75C, you’re safe to remove the spit and let it rest for a bit. Cutting into this now would unleash a torrent of jus, which is much better served inside the chicken than as a puddle on your cutting board.
The chicken will be more like something you would carve at a dinner table, larger and juicier chunks. This is a good route for most people, especially since you’ve already been waiting nearly two hours for dinner. Cut the heat, don your protective gear, and remove the spit to a surface to rest for a few minutes before carving.
For a more authentic experience, more authentic work is involved. Stop the spit, turn off the burners and get a new pan. Your goal here is to shave off the exterior of the chicken just enough to expose a new layer. To get the meat to fall downward, focus on shaving in a horizontal motion and cutting between the bolster and middle point of the blade, rather than toward the tip. Check out a pro in action.
And that’s it! Dress it to your heart’s delight. I’m a big fan of thinly sliced lettuce, tomato, and onion with a good hosing of halal cart white sauce. Once you’ve taken what you want from the spit, turn the heat back on, close the lid, and keep spinning until you’re ready for another sandwich. It’ll be sooner than you think.