One of my favorite things to do in Japan is go to a yakitori bar and eat the entire menu. Of course my favorite thing is tsukune (followed by blistered shishitos) which are chicken meatballs. Originally, tsukune were made with the leftovers of a butchered chicken as a way to sell every part of the animal. Now, it’s pretty hard to make an authentic tsukune at home since they are traditionally done on a yakitori grill. However my method for making them in the oven will still result in a delicious, and near authentic Japanese Tsukune.
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Because tsukune were meant to use up the less desirable parts of the chicken, they feature a good amount of fat and cartilage along with the meat. That’s why I think the best thing to do is to mince your own chicken thighs. I know, it sounds like a lot of work, but it is totally worth it at the end for these delicious skewers.
Mincing the chicken thighs seems like a lot of work, but it really is quite fun. After removing the meat from the bone I just start hack chopping away at everything until I get to the desired consistency. If I used a meat grinder I would get something much more fine, but as I don’t have one this is the next best thing.
While you are mincing the chicken thighs you also should put your skewers in some water. This will help prevent them from completely burning in the oven (although they still can blacken a bit) which will make the final presentation look better.
For the tsukune mixture I use the mince of five chicken thighs, one finely chopped shallot, one egg, and three chopped green onions. I also add about a tablespoon of potato starch as a thickening agent, which helps everything bind. Then I simply knead the entire mixture really well. You want to treat it like you are kneading bread rather than mixing a meatball. The end result will almost be like a sticky paste (but it won’t actually taste pasty, as long as you don’t add too much potato starch.
I then oil my hands with a bit of vegetable oil and then shape some meat into a cylinder. I skewer the meat with two skewers and place them on a silicone lined baking tray. You can also use parchment paper, but we are putting the tray extremely close to the top of the oven so a silicone mat is better to avoid fires.
I make a yakitori tare which is a traditional glaze for tsukune. I tend to make a big batch and use it for plenty of Japanese grilling, but you can make it quite quickly as well. It is best if it is done before even starting on the tsukune however. Just add equal parts of sugar, soy sauce, mirin, and water and simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.
While making tsukune in the oven may sound ‘wrong’ it still tastes great. You lose out on a bit of the smoky flavor, but that’s a fine trade off for not starting a fire in your kitchen. Put in the tray as close to the top burner/broiler as possible and set your oven to 225 Celsius. Now begins the fun part. Cook the tsukune in the oven for 10 minutes, then remove the tray.
Flip the skewers and brush on some yakitori tare using a pastry or basting brush. Place the tray back in the oven, but this time on a middle shelf and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven, flip again, brush on more yakitori tare, and replace the tray back on the topmost shelf closest to the burners. Remove in five minutes, or once you see the sauce start to caramelize (this is due to the sugar).
Traditionally tsukune is served with a raw egg yolk, and maybe some more chopped green onion. If you are uncomfortable with raw egg yolk you can skip that, however eating tsukune with raw egg yolk is literally one of my favorite meals. You can also sprinkle over some coarse sea salt or furikake.
I end up using about 1 egg yolk to dip per 2-3 tsukune, so you may be wondering what to make with all the leftover whites. You can of course save them in the fridge in a sealed jar until you are ready. I recommend my Egg White Frittata if you want food, Cocoa Hazelnut Meringue Cookies if you want dessert, or the Japanese Silver Fizz if you want to try an egg white cocktail.
Tsukune (Japanese Chicken Meatballs) つくね
- Baking Tray
- Silicone Mat (highly recommended)
- 5 Chicken Thighs bone in, skin on
- 1 Shallot finely chopped
- 3 Green Onions finely chopped
- 1 tbsp Potato Starch
- 1 Egg plus more yolks for dipping
- 2 tbsp Water
- 2 tbsp Soy Sauce
- 2 tbsp Mirin
- 2 tbsp Sugar
- In a small pan simmer together the yakitori tare ingredients until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Set aside. Also at this point put your skewers in a tray of water to soak.
- Remove the chicken thighs from the bone and mince everything with a sharp knife. Chop until you get something slightly more rough than ground.
- Add the chicken thigh mince to a bowl along with the egg, potato starch, green onion, shallot, and a pinch of salt. Knead everything together for quite a while, around 10 minutes should do it. Treat it like kneading bread, you want to knead for so long the mixture is sticky-tacky.
- Preheat your oven to 225 Celsius. Oil your hands and shape the mixture into elliptical cylinders. Run them through with two skewers and place on a silicone mat lined baking tray.
- Place the tray with the tsukune on the topmost rack of the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Remove, flip, and brush with the yakitori tare sauce. Place back in the oven on a middle shelf and bake for another 10 minutes. Remove, flip, brush with more yakitori tare, and place back on the topmost shelf for 5 minutes, or until the sauce begins to caramelize.
- Serve these tsukune with a raw egg yolk and some more chopped green onion. You can also sprinkle a bit more coarse salt right on top.