Simmer, Sizzle, Glaze: Yakitori Recipes to Make at Home
From classic chicken to green tea beef, here are 16 ways to grill your skewers Japanese-style
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While sheltering in place has put traveling on hold, thankfully you can still transport to the streets of Japan (and America!) with yakitori. These easy and tasty grilled skewers have been gaining in popularity across the U.S. both for their simplicity and their deliciousness.
What is yakitori?
At its most basic, yakitori is grilled chicken skewers made from bite-size pieces of chicken, which include any and all parts of the bird such as boneless chicken thighs, chicken breast, liver, heart, and even gizzard. But sub in beef or even bits of pork belly, try yakitori with hearty vegetables, or add ingredients like Japanese spices, green tea, or honey sauce, and you've got a mix of exciting new meals for weeks.
Yakitori sauce makes the difference
What makes yakitori different from other cultures’ kebabs or satays is tare, a sweet, soy-based sauce that's cooked down in a small saucepan until thickened and then used for marinating and glazing. It can be made and refrigerated up to three days in advance, which gives you flexibility and gives the marinating meat and/or veggies time to absorb flavors.
When was yakitori invented?
Yakitori-yas — or yakitori specialty shops — started appearing in Japan in the mid- to late 19th century, though really gained traction in the 1950s when they were built near train stations to provide a quick meal for businessmen heading home from work. Now they occupy storefronts and street stalls throughout Japan, and yakitori are standard fare at celebrations and festivals countrywide.
How do you you make yakitori?
Most yakitori recipes consist of relatively few ingredients and nothing more than a charcoal or gas grill (the former provides more flavor) or a grill pan for cooking, making them perfect for feeding a family on-the-fly or for a quick meal after a busy workday. Just be sure and read through the recipes to see if you need to do some prep beforehand.
As for the grilling, you can use either metal skewers or bamboo skewers, but be sure to soak the wooden skewers in warm water for about 30 minutes before using to keep them from charring. Most recipes call for cooking over medium or medium-high heat rather than high heat to keep from burning the sweet yakitori marinade or glaze.
Ready to give yakitori a go? Whether you're looking for a fast dish or a sit-down meal that's more substantial, here are 16 recipes to satisfy every palate.
Classic chicken yakitori
This is the most traditional type of yakitori, and literally any chicken part will do. Some classic chicken yakitori recipes include negima, made from pieces of breast or thigh meat interspersed with scallions, and toriniku, all-white meat yakitori. Once you get the basics down, you can start experimenting with spices and sauces.
For a quick and easy meal with just a few ingredients, nothing beats this traditional negima yakitori. Simply cut some boneless chicken breasts or skinless thighs into one-inch pieces, and marinate them in a zip-top bag of homemade tare sauce for as little as 30 minutes. Then grill them up and you're good to go.
Yakitori with Japanese Spices
Now that you've got the basics down, it's time to bring some more flavor, texture, and aroma to your yakitori. The tare in this recipe subs honey for sugar, which can add depth of flavor, but it's the Japanese spices (a finely ground mix of toasted nori, orange zest, and chile, with flaked sea salt) served on the side that really makes it shine. Cook the skewers over a charcoal fire for a bit of added complexity.
Chicken Yakitori with Honey Sauce
While the honey sauce in this recipe is similar to the tare in Yakatori with Japanese Spices, in this case you don't use it until after the skewers are cooked. Even then it's only lightly brushed or drizzled on, with the rest being saved for dipping. However, what really makes this recipe are sweet pieces of pineapple interspersed among slices of chicken, adding sweet and tangy pops of tropical flavor.
Yakitori Chicken Sandwich
With a few easy additions you can turn regular skewered chicken yakitori into innovative sandwiches. This recipe works best if you pickle the cucumber and carrot a day ahead of time, then the rest is easy! Just marinate slices of chicken breast for a half-hour before pan-frying them. Coat your bread in regular mayo or Japanese mayo (thicker and slightly sweeter than American), have your pickled veggies ready, and then put everything together into delicious sandwiches.
Yakitori Meatballs, Japanese Teriyaki Meatballs
The Japanese name for chicken meatballs is tsukune, and you can find them on menus at yakitori spots across Japan. To recreate them in your own kitchen, just mix up ground chicken breast with some egg, cornstarch, ginger, and green onions, and shape them into balls. Brown the meatballs, and then glaze them with a simple homemade teriyaki sauce before serving.
Negima Yakitori with Grilled Portobella
There are two traditional types of yakitori seasonings: tare sauce and plain salt. This recipe falls in the latter category, though the meat and baby portobella mushrooms (aka cremini mushrooms) are marinated with garlic powder, dried basil, and olive oil; spritzed with mirin as they grill; and then served with Japanese shichimi chili pepper blend, if you like — all of which add rich, savory flavors to the meal.
A great alternative to your standard chicken recipes, seafood yakitori is a wonderful way to get creative with your skewers. Pick out sturdier, thicker fish or seafood such as salmon, cod, scallops, and shrimp; fire up the grill; and see where the flavors take you!
Although this yakitori recipe doesn't specify, rich king (Chinook) salmon is especially delicious grilled. Slice it into cubes before skewering, then baste it over the fire with a green onion and ginger glaze that gets additional complexity from both mirin and sake. Serve the grilled yakitori with rice and a sprinkling of sliced almonds.
Worcestershire adds an extra umami flavor to the marinade for this attractive recipe, which calls for wrapping each scallop in a scallion green and then alternating them with halved button mushrooms along each skewer. If you have a choice, go for “dry” sea scallops: natural scallops that haven't been treated with any chemical preservatives and are sold within a day or two of harvesting, or frozen. They're tastier than “wet” sea scallops, which have been treated with a phosphate solution that leads to an off flavor and water retention, which makes browning more difficult. Want to jazz things up? Serve the yakitori over a bowl of plain or sesame soba noodles.
The Japanese term kushiyaki refers to all types of skewered and grilled foods, including vegetables, but with yakitori-yas expanding their menus and offerings over the years, the two words are now fairly interchangeable. These recipes utilize flavorful veggies that provide variety and substance, making them popular choices for all types of eaters. Serve them as a side, or atop a bowl of rice for a more substantial meal.
King Trumpet Yakitori
Known for their rich umami flavor and meaty texture, king trumpet mushrooms are the largest of the oyster mushroom species. Grill them until golden brown, glaze with tare sauce for a couple more minutes, and add a sprinkling of scallions before serving. You can substitute fresh shiitake mushrooms if king trumpet aren’t available. This light recipe would be great for an appetizer or to serve alongside other types of yakitori for a full meal.
This recipe may be more armchair reading than actual cooking for all but the most intrepid cooks; for starters, it calls for fermenting your own homemade hot sauce a few days ahead (though you can buy Louisiana hot sauce instead). Then there are the Castelvetrano olives and even the okra to track down. But if you’re up for a creative challenge, these spicy charred veggies take yakitori to a whole 'nother level.
Small and tender Japanese eggplants are especially delicious for yakitori, though regular globe eggplant makes a good substitute. Marinate pieces in teriyaki sauce along with chunks of fresh pineapple, and then grill until they begin to caramelize.
Once you've explored chicken, seafood, and vegetables, you might want to experiment with beef, ground turkey, and even duck for your yakitori.
Beef Tenderloin Yakitori
While cubes of splurge-worthy beef tenderloin marinate in a little soy sauce, mirin, and sake, you’ll cook down those same marinade ingredients with a little sugar to create a syrupy glaze. When you’re ready to cook, grill the skewered meat about a minute, brush with the tare, and cook a couple more minutes, or until the meat is done just the way you like.
Turkey Yakitori Burgers
For these yakitori sandwiches, a great choice for a weeknight, you grill turkey burgers that you’ve seasoned gently with fresh ginger and green onion, and then glaze them in a syrupy sweet soy sauce.
Green Tea Beef Yakitori with Japanese Seasoned Rice
For the best flavor you’re going to want to start this recipe at least 4 hours ahead, but the green tea marinade with fresh lemongrass, ginger, and coriander leaves is worth the total time. Cook the yakitori on a barbecue or grill pan, and then serve with pickled ginger, mizuna (a type of mild mustard greens) or arugula, and rice flavored with furikake (a seaweed-based shake-on seasoning that’s amazing on scrambled eggs, too).
Rather than being grilled, this yakitori is baked in a 350° oven. Beef sirloin, button mushrooms, bell pepper, and quartered scallions marinate for 3 hours before cooking in mirin, soy sauce, sugar, sake, and a little toasted sesame oil. The marinade also works for cubes of chicken or firm tofu. Serve the skewers alongside plates of Ohitashi (spinach with sesame seeds) and Cucumber Vegetable Maki Rolls for a true yakitori-ya experience.
Japanese Yakitori-Style Pan-Roasted Duck Breast
No skewers are needed for this yakitori-style dish, which calls for pan-roasting duck breasts in a thick sauce that's similar to tare. After cooking, sprinkle the duck with scallions and sesame seeds and pair with sides of steamed rice, grilled asparagus, and Japanese Cucumber Salad.
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