Earl Carter
Earl Carter
Earl Carter
Earl Carter Earl Carter
Earl Carter
Credit: Earl Carter

Summer barbecue yakitori

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

Credit: Earl Carter

The heart of a good house party is always in the kitchen. In better weather, it moves outdoors to the barbecue. People gravitate there, doling out advice on the best way to grill anything. The added attraction of watching meat grill, and the anticipation of a stray sausage or offcut, also brings them out. 

As technology has made most gadgets we use smaller, the advancement in barbecue technology and design has evolved in the opposite direction. Enormous hooded temples to all things barbecue are on trend. While gas is now often used in barbecue cooking, wood remains my preferred fuel.

The yakitori recipes here are simple to prepare and somewhat simple in their flavour profile. But what I believe makes and elevates good barbecue and yakitori is the use of wood and the flavour it imparts. Hot coals that have burned for some time – creating a low, even heat – are key. The grill should not be suspended too high above the coals, as you want the juices of the cooking meat to fall onto the coals, thus releasing a small amount of smoke to further flavour the meat. 

The mantra “If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not barbecue” is a good one, but I often use charcoal if I am short on time. Charcoal does not release excessive smoke or unpleasantries during the lighting process. And a good amount of hot coals can be produced in much less time than with logs of wood. A popular fuel now available is binchō-tan, a Japanese coal made from hard wood. This is popular in restaurants not just because of its flavour but also its ability to burn for extended periods. 

Controlling your fire or heat source is key to cooking over wood. Understanding your chosen fuel – whether it is wood, charcoal, binchō-tan or briquettes – is important. The timing and how long it will take to get to the optimum temperature takes practice. It is instinctive but, once established, it is easy to repeat. 

With yakitori, the small pieces of meat cook rather quickly, so they cannot be left alone while retrieving a beer from the fridge. A small handheld fan is useful if the fire needs some encouragement to release a burst of heat. A piece of cardboard is fine for this, too. When cooked, the meat should be lightly golden. A final brush of the sauce before eating is all that is needed, although a sprinkling of chilli or a squeeze of lemon might also be permitted, but it is the purity of flavour and smoke that I’m chasing. 

Vegetables can be used in the same way. I like thick asparagus spears cut into two-centimetre pieces and grilled quickly, the heat blistering the sometimes-tough asparagus skin and imparting its own unique flavour. I also like garlic yakitori. Take whole peeled cloves of garlic, roughly the same size, and gently blanch them in salted water for a few minutes until they are tender but not soft. Refresh in cold water, pat dry and skewer. Grill the garlic over gentle heat – it will colour quickly, so be sure to use the cooler edge of your grill. Brush with a little sauce and sprinkle with a touch of salt before serving.

Drink pairing:

Baird Rising Sun Pale Ale, Shizuoka, Japan ($8.99) – Leanne Altmann, sommelier, Supernormal


Serves 4-6

Yakitori sauce

  • 1 cup mirin
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • ½ cup dry sake
  • 2 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 2 spring onions, pale stems only
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2cm piece ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

Chicken hearts

  • 50g sea salt
  • 500ml water
  • 300g cleaned chicken hearts
  • flat bamboo skewers

Chicken thighs

  • 4 boneless chicken thighs
  • 8 spring onions, white and pale green stem only, cut into 2cm-long pieces
  • flat bamboo skewers


  1. In a saucepan, bring all the ingredients to a simmer. Reduce the heat and cook gently until it has reduced in volume by half. The sauce will be thick and glossy. Strain and cool to room temperature before using.

Chicken hearts

  1. Stir the salt into the water until it dissolves.
  2. Place the chicken hearts in the brine and leave for three hours in the fridge to cure. 
  3. Soak the skewers in water for 30 minutes to stop them burning on the grill.
  4. Remove the hearts from the brine and rinse them in water. Skewer the hearts and brush with a little yakitori sauce. Leave the hearts in the fridge for half an hour to marinate and dry.
  5. Brush a little oil on the hearts and cook over a hot grill, turning every minute or so and brushing the top with sauce each time you turn them.

Chicken thighs

  1. Soak the skewers in water for 30 minutes prior to grilling.
  2. Cut the chicken into 2cm cubes.
  3. Working with one skewer at a time, alternately thread five pieces of chicken with four pieces of spring onion, piercing the spring onion pieces perpendicular to the skewer.
  4. Brush with a little sauce and leave to marinate in the fridge for half an hour.
  5. Cook over a hot grill until just beginning to brown. Brush with yakitori sauce and continue cooking, turning and basting with sauce every 30 seconds, until the chicken is cooked through and glazed with sauce. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 31, 2015 as "Dream house barbie".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Andrew McConnell is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.