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Grilled Beef Kebabs with Tomato, Onion, Lemon, and Thyme Marinade

Today we’re going to discuss glutamic acid.
*I know, the excitement never ends here on DadCooksDinner. Please buckle your seat belts, and keep your hands and arms inside the ride until we come to a complete stop.

The September/October issue of Cooks Illustrated published an interesting recipe about beef kebabs, with a marinade that included tomato paste. Why tomato paste? Because, tomato paste is full of glutamic acid, which adds depth to the beef flavor of the kebab. Glutamic acid is the source of “umami”, or the potential fifth basic taste of savoriness.

Glutamic acid occurs naturally in a number of foods, including cheese, mushrooms, and soy sauce. This is why I use soy sauce it in my quick marinades – it gives a boost to the savory taste of meat. The author of the CI article, Charles Kelsey, wanted to avoid soy sauce because it has a very distinct flavor.  As he put it, everything winds up tasting like beef teriyaki if you add soy sauce to the marinade. He chose tomato paste as his substitute source of glutamic acid.
*He also included canned beef broth in his marinade, which includes glutamic acid to increase its savory, beefy flavor. I’m not willing to buy canned broth, so I left it out.

The tomato paste does its job well – it gives these kabobs an extra depth, and the tomato goes well with the Mediterranean flavor profile of the rest of the marinade; the combination of onions, garlic, thyme, lemon and tomatoes is classic across much of the region.

Recipe: Grilled Beef Kebabs with Tomato, Onion, Lemon, and Thyme Marinade

Adapted From: Charles Kelsey, Cooks Illustrated, Sept/Oct 2010

Cook time: 8 minutes



  • 2 lbs Sirloin, cut into 2″ chunks (I buy thick-cut steaks to start)
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 large red onion

Tomato, Onion, Lemon, and Thyme Marinade

  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 medium onion, trimmed and peeled
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tsp fresh thyme
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp honey

1. Cut and marinate the sirloin: One hour before cooking, cut the sirloin into 2 inch chunks, and put in a zip-top bag. Drop the garlic cloves into a running food processor, and process until they are finely minced. Cut the onion into large chunks, add to the food processor, and pulse until chopped. Add the lemon zest and juice, water, thyme, vegetable oil, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Run the food processor until you have a smooth paste, about one minute, scraping down the sides once or twice. Pour the marinade over the sirloin chunks, zip the bag closed, then shake and toss to coat the beef with the marinade. Refrigerate for one hour, and up to four hours, turning the bag and tossing after every half an hour.

2. Cut the vegetables:Just before grilling, prepare the vegetables. Remove the core from the red pepper, and cut it into 1 inch chunks. Trim the red onion, remove the skin, then cut it in half. Remove the central “core” of the onion, leaving three or four layers of onion. Cut the remaining layers into eight pieces (cut each half in half lengthwise, then in half again, then cut crosswise.) You should get 3/4″ to 1″ pieces of onion – here’s a picture of how the onions should be sliced from Tuesday’s zucchini kebab post:

3. Skewer the kebabs: Remove the beef from the marinade, wiping as much off with your fingers as you can – you don’t have to be perfect when removing it, because it will add a nice crust to the beef. Skewer the kebabs in the following pattern: one piece of beef, one piece red pepper, one piece onion. Repeat until you are at the end of a skewer, then add a final piece of beef.

4. Prepare the grill: Set the grill up for cooking with direct medium-high heat. For my Weber Summit, this means preheating the grill for ten to fifteen minutes on high, then brushing off the grill grate and turning the burners down to medium-high.

5. Grill the kebabs: Put the kebabs on the grill over the direct medium heat. If cooking on a gas grill, cook with the lid closed as much as possible. Grill for 6 to 8 minutes total, turning the kebab a quarter turn every 2 minutes. That is: Grill 2 minutes, quarter turn, grill 2 minutes, quarter turn, grill 2 minutes. Check for doneness by peeking at the middle of a kebab skewer – if the meat in the middle isn’t done to your liking, turn another quarter turn (this should be the last un-browned side on the kebab) and grill for 2 to 4 more minutes. On my grill, I had medium-rare after 8 minutes over medium-high heat.

6. Serve: Let the kebabs rest for 10 minutes, then serve. Each skewer should serve two people; big eaters will probably have an entire skewer for themselves.

*Like the idea of Teriyaki kebabs? Replace the water in the marinade with soy sauce, and cut the salt back to 1/2 tsp.

*This is a brinerade, not a marinade, due to the high proportion of salt added to the marinating liquid. The rest of the ingredients are forming a spice paste for the exterior of the meat, particularly the lemon, thyme, honey, and oil.  But the salt and glutamic acid will penetrate into the meat and flavor it all the way through.

*Oh, and the trade name for glutamic acid, when it is extracted from seaweed and sold as a separate ingredient? MSG. Don’t worry – the health effects of MSG are statistically non-existent. If you can handle cheese, mushroom, and tomatoes, then you can handle the level of glutamates in this dish.

What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.

Related Posts:
Grilled Thin Pork Chops, Quick Marinated
Grilled Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts, Quick Marinated
Grilled Teriyaki Flank Steak

Adapted from:
Charles Kelsey, Cooks Illustrated, Sept/Oct 2010

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Filed under: Grilling


Hi! I’m Mike Vrobel. I’m a dad and an enthusiastic home cook; an indie cookbook author and food blogger with a day job, a patient spouse, and three kids who would rather have hamburgers for dinner.


  1. Chris says

    Love the site Mike, I’m trying to pull more of your recipes into the rotation so I’m not just making burgers all the time.

    For this one, I had a couple questions. First, I don’t own a food processor. Do you think the marinade would work as well just chopping it up and stirring like a madman?

    Also, I have an old set of grilling tools that has these kebab cages. They’re like tiny long fry baskets, about 2×2 and a couple feet long, designed so you can kebab with things that are a pain to skewer. Do you think that would have any material change on the way they would cook?


    • Good for you! Yes, chopping like mad will work – so will a box grater, or a blender. The kebab cages will work – I think they will push the cooking time to 8 to 10 minutes, because the meat won’t be touching the preheated grill grates. (That’s an estimated time, of course: check after three turns, like I describe in the recipe.) good luck!

  2. @Lynn:

    Sounds like you have a recipe that works for you – great! It looks like it will taste much better than the canned stuff, straight up.

    Looking at it, my thought is I think I can make a Pressure Cooker beef broth using beef shank or oxtail in about the same amount time. So…when you see a PC beef broth recipe on the blog in a few months, you’ll know you’ve inspired me. Thanks!

  3. Sounds yummy–I’m going to try it tonight. I mostly agree with you about canned broth. However, I discovered a recipe for enhanced broth several years ago in one of those by-the-checkout-counter-at-the-grocery-store cookbooks. (Some people go for the candy; I go for the cookbooks.) Basically you rough chop 2 cups of onion and 1 cup each of celery, carrot, and mushrooms, smear 2 T tomato paste over it, and roast it in the oven for an hour. The recipe calls for 4 garlic cloves as well, but I omit that since some people in my family are truly allergic to garlic. Then you add the roasted veggies to 8 cups of purchased broth (I use the quart sized organic stuff) with a T of Worcestershire sauce, some peppercorns and a bay leaf, and simmer for another hour. Still takes some time, but it’s easier than tracking down beef bones and roasting them. I make a double batch and freeze in 1 cup quantities and then always have decent beef broth on hand.

  4. growmyown says

    You went all Alton on us, but we can take it. Nice pictures. I especially liked the one with your hand all coated with stuff. That always happens to me and it is nice to know that professional food bloggers get yucky hands also.

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