This beef kofta recipe makes traditional Lebanese kafta – grilled, spiced, ground meat kebabs that are made throughout the Middle East. Cooked at home, served at restaurants, and grilled in parks at family barbecues and gatherings on weekends and holidays, these Arabic minced meat kebabs are one of the most beloved dishes in a region that loves its grilled meats.
Our easy beef kofta recipe will make you the mouthwatering Lebanese kafta or spiced minced beef kebabs of the kind that we used to eat when we lived in the Middle East. Arabic restaurants were on every corner in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, our homes for almost eight years, and we’d tuck into Lebanese food or some other kind of Arabic food a few times a week.
While summer might be barbecue season in many countries, come winter in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, on cool weekend nights, Middle Eastern expat families from around the region would head to their favourite public parks for picnic dinners, setting up portable grills and small barbecues to make kebabs for moonlit meals under the star-filled skies.
Terence and I would be on our evening stroll when we’d get a whiff of the smoky aromas of grilled meats wafting our way. On our walk home, we’d stop by the liquor shop for a bottle of red and drop into our favourite Arabic restaurant to order a take-away feast: hummus, baba ganoush, fatoush, tabbouleh, kebbeh, and a mixed grill with lamb kebabs, shish tawouk (garlicky chicken) and beef kofta. Or kafta if you prefer!
So which is it? Beef kofta or kafta? It was ‘beef kofta’ in the United Arab Emirates and other Arabian Peninsula countries, as well as at Arabic restaurants in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt. But, oddly enough, it’s ‘beef kafta’ in Lebanon, which explains our usage of both spellings here, so more cooks get to find our recipe.
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Beef Kofta Recipe for Classic Lebanese Kafta – Grilled Ground Meat Kebabs
Our easy beef kofta recipe will make you traditional Lebanese kafta of the kind we used to eat in the Middle East – both in the Levant, especially in Lebanon and Syria, where we travelled extensively researching and writing travel guidebooks, as well as in the UAE, where we lived and worked and ate Arabic food frequently.
So what’s the difference between Arabic food and Lebanese food? ‘Arabic food’ is an umbrella term to describe the food from the Arabic-speaking world, because, to borrow a term used by locals here in Southeast Asia to describe the cultures of this region, they’re a bit “same same but different”.
While Lebanese food, Syrian food, Palestinian food, Egyptian food and so on can all be called Arabic food, not all Lebanese food is the same as all Syrian food, nor are all Jordanian dishes the same as all Iraqi dishes, etc, though I’d say they all have more in common than they do differences.
Traditional dishes can vary from one country to another, from province to province, city to city, between city and country, from village to village, and even from one family to another family in the same village, depending on the availability of ingredients, local culinary traditions, and personal taste.
Cuisines also evolve over time, especially in diasporas, so a beef kofta recipe from Tripoli might produce a very different beef kafta to that of a Lebanese-Canadian chef in Toronto. A cook can lose contact with their motherland or have to adapt recipes according to ingredient availability, not to mention the changing tastes of their children who’ve grown up in a culinary culture far removed from that of their culinary heritage.
And let’s not forget that home cooks, chefs, cookbook authors, food writers, and recipe developers all love to experiment. So the recipes you might stumble upon in a food magazine, recipe site or food blog might be very different to the recipes for traditional dishes that you were raised on or tasted on your travels in the Middle East.
And in our case, very different to the traditional dishes we ate living in places where, while the cuisine might not have been our own, was a cuisine we ate frequently, became very familiar with, and, especially in the case of Syrian food and Lebanese food, cuisines with which we became smitten.
Now for some tips to making this beef kofta recipe for classic Lebanese kafta.
Tips to Making this Beef Kofta Recipe for Classic Lebanese Kafta Grilled Ground Meat Kebabs
I’ve got some important tips to making this beef kofta recipe for classic Lebanese kafta, starting with the spices, because kofta are spiced in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Kofta Seven Spice Blend Called Baharat
The spice mix used to flavour beef kofta is an Arabic spice blend called ‘baharat’, which means ‘seven’ in Arabic, and is usually translated as a Middle Eastern Seven Spices mix or in this case Lebanese Seven Spices blend.
In the Middle East, you can buy baharat from a spice merchant at a souq (traditional market) or supermarket. Outside the region, a supermarket with a good Middle East section should sell baharat, otherwise a specialty Middle Eastern food shop. Amazon also has baharat.
Baharat is used in Middle Eastern cooking right across the region, but is thought to have originated in the Levantine cuisines of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. Baharat is essentially the Middle Eastern equivalent of ras el hanout, the essential spice blend of the Maghrebi cuisines of Northwest Africa, or garam masala, the popular spice blend used in Indian cuisines and South Asian cuisines.
Like a beef kofta recipe, although the baharat recipes are all fairly similar, there’s no singled codified Seven Spice blend. Like a lot of recipes in a lot of cuisines, there are national variations, regional variations, local variations, variations from restaurant to restaurant, and family to family.
Having said that, the list of spices on my ingredients list below essentially make a typical Lebanese Seven Spice mix recipe. If you do some research, you should find that most other Lebanese Seven Spice blends are the same if not fairly similar, with just one or two or three spices that are different.
I’ve spotted some beef kofta recipes that call for a couple of teaspoons of baharat or Seven Spice, and then half a teaspoon of this spice and half of teaspoon of that spice. Those kinds of recipes assume that your baharat doesn’t include the spices that are in addition to the baharat.
So if you’re making one of those beef kofta recipes, and you’re buying baharat in a supermarket, you need to check the label to see what’s in the little bottle before adding the rest of recommended spices on the ingredients list, so you don’t double-up.
If you’re cooking up a Lebanese feast for family or friends, I suggest making everything other than this beef kofta recipe first, so prepare your hummus, baba ganoush and tabbouleh before you embark on your kofta, although I’d recommend leaving your fattoush as close as possible to serving, as it can get soggy.
Prep Tips for Smooth Kofta Making
- if you’re using wooden skewers, soak them in water at the start.
- If you’re using small metal skewers, which are better, as they help cook your kofta from within and result in more evenly cooked kofta, lay them out on a tray and rub olive oil along the skewers.
- Fill a bowl of water that you can dip your hands, as the minced meat mixture is sticky.
- Have your raw meat-friendly plastic cutting board ready
- Lightly grease another baking tray large enough to hold all the raw beef kofta after shaping them.
- If serving pita bread with your kofta, lay the pita out on a tray and keep it warm in the oven on low.
- If making your kofta well ahead of the meal, cover the pita with foil so it doesn’t crisp up.
How to Make the Beef Kofta Mix
The first thing to do is to make your baharat or seven spice blend by stirring all the spices and seasonings together in a small bowl or jar until well incorporated. You’ve essentially created your own Seven Spice blend. Easy, right?
Next, I use the back of a big serving spoon to combine the spice blend, ground beef, finely diced onions, minced garlic, and finely chopped fresh herbs in a big mixing bowl until thoroughly incorporated.
I don’t recommend using a food processor, as that will create a super-fine, dense paste that can result in dry kofta if you’re not careful. Plus you still want some texture, as that’s where your meaty juices lie, in those little pockets of fat that you don’t want to blend out of existence.
For the same reason, you also don’t want to use ultra lean beef. You want some beef with a fat content of around 10-15%. A little fat is good. If you’re only reading it after you’ve bought your lean beef, then add a teaspoon or two of olive oil.
How to Shape the Beef Kofta
This beef kofta recipe calls for a long cigar or sausage-like shape. That’s because that’s how the beef kofta came when we lived in the Middle East, and there’s a reason for that: it results in even cooking of the kofta.
I like to scoop out a handful of beef mixture, first form it into a patty in my hands, and then I roll it back and forth a few times on my raw meat-friendly cutting board until I have a nice smooth sausage shape.
I then carefully slide a skewer through the centre from one end of the raw kofta to the other, squeezing and shaping the sausage-shaped raw kofta around the skewer, then lay the raw kofta skewer down onto the greased tray, and repeat until the mixture is finished.
How to Prevent the Kofta from Falling Apart
I’ve spotted a few first-time kofta makers asking for tips to how to keep the kofta together so it doesn’t fall apart, including a certain food writer in a story on how to make perfect kofta…
There are no real tricks to keeping kofta from falling apart. It’s a combination of using beef with some fat content, rolling the raw meet as I suggest above, giving it a final squeeze around the skewers, and sealing the raw kofta meet before leaving it to brown and char.
If you’re not cooking kofta on an outdoor grill on barbecue over much higher heat, but you’re making the beef kofta indoors on a griddle pan on the stove, sealing the raw beef kofta first helps (see below).
Refrigerating the beef kofta if you have time is another trick: that’s when you could make your fattoush.
How to Cook the Kofta
Cooking kofta on an outdoor grill or barbecue over wood or charcoal is best to achieve a smoky flavour. In those parks in Dubai, families would do their kofta in a BBQ grilling basket over a small portable grill.
Our beef kofta recipe calls for a griddle pan (or grill plate with griddle side) as I love those charred stripes. (If you want me to add tips for cooking the beef kofta on an outdoor grill or barbecue, just let me know in the comments below.)
Heat your griddle pan, greased with a little olive oil, over high heat, then lay out the kofta skewers in a row and initially keep turning the kofta kebabs, one by one, in the order of how you laid them out, for a minute after laying them down, until they turn grey, to seal all sides. This keeps the juices in and prevents them from sticking.
Once you’ve done that, you can leave the beef kofta for a few minutes (if the heat is too hot, turn it down) until one side is brown and has charred stripes. Then turn them all over (again, in the order you laid them out) and leave them for another few minutes until the other side is brown and charred.
That timing should result in a medium-rare doneness, and once you remove the skewers they will keep cooking and be medium by the time you serve them. Obviously cook them for longer if you like them more done.
You could use a digital meat thermometer to make sure the kofta are cooked to your liking, however, I use the old fashioned method of pricking the first beef kofta I laid down with a wooden skewer. If the juice that runs out is clear, they’re ready. Remove them all one at a time as you laid them down so that they’re evenly cooked.
If you need to grill the kofta in batches (depending on the size of your griddle pan), then transfer the first batch to the oven with the pita bread while you cook another batch. I usually lay them on top of the pita breads so the bread soaks up some of the meaty juices. Some cooks prefer to spread the pita bread on top and that’s good too. If you don’t want your pita to start to crisp up, lay some foil on top of that.
When all the beef kofta skewers are ready, transfer the warm pita to a serving platter, pile the beef kofta kebabs on top, brush them with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle them with sprigs of fresh parsley and/or mint, and I serve immediately with hummus and baba ganoush, and salads of fattoush and tabbouli. Recipes for those coming soon!
Beef Kofta Recipe for Lebanese Kafta – Grilled Spiced Ground Meat Kebabs
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp ground allspice
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground coriander
- ½ tsp ground cloves
- ½ tsp white pepper
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp salt
- 500 g ground beef - not lean, needs some fat content
- 1 medium onion finely diced
- 1 garlic clove - minced
- 2 tbsp flat leaf parsley - finely chopped
- 2 tbsp mint - finely chopped
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- fresh mint or parsley sprigs
- lemon wedges
- warm pita bread
- fattoush salad
- If using wooden skewers, soak in water; if using metal skewers lay them out on a tray and rub olive oil along the skewers. Ready a bowl of water for your hands, a raw meat-friendly plastic cutting board, and lightly grease another tray large enough for the raw beef skewers.
- Lay out some pita bread on a tray and warm in your oven on low.
- In a small bowl, stir the spices and seasonings together until well blended.
- In a mixing bowl, use the back of a large serving spoon to combine the ground beef, spice blend, finely diced onions, minced garlic, and finely chopped fresh herbs until thoroughly incorporated.
- Using clean hands, scoop out a handful of beef mixture, form it into a patty, roll it back and forth onto the raw meat-friendly cutting board until you have a smooth sausage shape, then carefully slide a skewer through the centre, squeezing and shaping the sausage-shaped raw kofta around it.
- Lay the raw kofta skewer down onto the greased tray, and repeat until you’ve finished the mixture. Dip your hands into the bowl of water occasionally to prevent the meat mixture sticking.
- Heat a griddle pan greased with olive oil over high heat, lay out the kofta skewers in a row from left to right and cook over high heat, turning them again a minute after laying them down to seal in all sides, then leave the kofta for a few minutes until one side is brown and has charred stripes, then turn them all over and then leave for a few minutes until the other side is brown and charred.
- Check if the kofta are ready by pricking one with a skewer; if the meat juices run clear they're ready. Remove them in the order you laid them down. If you need to grill the kofta in batches, transfer the first batch to the pita bread in the oven, while you cook another batch.
- When all the beef kofta skewers are ready, lay them to the warm pita bread, brush the kofta with extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with sprigs of parsley and/or mint.
- Serve immediately with bowls of hummus and baba ganoush and salads of fattoush and tabbouli.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make Lebanese beef kofta recipe as we love to hear how our recipes turn out for you.