Kibbeh at its most basic is a blend of meat, bulgur wheat and spices. It’s served throughout the eastern Mediterranean. There baked, fried, roasted, grilled, and even raw kibbeh varieties. Kibbeh is often called the national dish of Lebanon and Syria. Beyond those two countries it is popular from Turkey through Egypt, with everyone adding their own twist. They have even migrated to South and Central America as people have moved around the globe.
Not only is there wide variety in the ways you cook kibbeh, what you make it from changes too. Lamb is the most traditional, although varieties with goat, fish, and beef are common. There are even vegetarian versions. Tzatziki, tahini, or (in South America) salsa verdeKibbeh are all served with kibbeh. Of course, try any other condiment you like. Kibbeh is both very traditional, and very adaptive.
Though there are may varieties, today, I am focusing on only one. A delicious fried croquette lamb and bulgur wrapped around a succulent lamb filling. This style kibbeh is a popular treat on a meze platter (along with koftas, falafel, and tabboulah.)
A Bit of a Project
This is a food that I have wanted to try for a long time. I guess it has always intimidated me with its process. Read anything about kibbeh, and you quickly learn it is served only on special occasions. Traditionally, kibbeh is very labor intensive and only a special occasion food. But despite its effort, it many people considered it a comfort food, and worth the effort. Something so beloved has to be worth trying has been my reasoning, so I decided to try.
I will be honest — it is a bit of a project to make kibbeh. But it is also true that with the help of modern kitchen equipment, it is not as labor intensive as it once was. Having a food processor at hand makes all the difference. The grating of the bulgur and lamb for the shell can be an hours long process done by hand. With a food processor, it is minutes.
Once I realized this, I got over my intimidation and the rest of my work was more relaxed decided. In the end, I am glad that I stuck with it. These turned out every bit as delicious as I’d imagined. Making them is still a bit of a time commitment — it took be about an hour and a half, start to finish. But it was worth it.
The Start of the Process
The first part of my process has been going on for a long time. Like I said above, I’ve wanted to make this for a long time, so I researched it for several years. I have found and read every recipe I could about how to make kibbeh. I have asked questions of Lebanese and Syrian chefs I know. I’ve watched YouTube videos. It won’t shock you to learn there are many many variations on the basic recipe. Everybody’s spices are different. All the ratios are different. Everybody’s technique for shaping is different. And yet they all arrive at the same delicious place.
With so much out there (and so much history), I’m not breaking any new ground. What I have done is create my own recipe from the most common parts of all the other recipes. What I hope to do, rather, is to show you that this is worth a try. And to I hope I have boiled all that research down into an easy to understand format.
Prepping the Spices and Bulgur
Making kibbeh starts with what I will call two “prep” steps before you even get to making the recipe proper. The way I approached it was to make my spice blend and soak the bulgur. The spice blend gets used for both the filling and the shell. For that reason, it is best to make up a small batch before hand to save you time during those steps. The bulgur takes some time to soak to go from bag to ready. Start it early, and it will be ready when you need it.
As I said, every recipe for kibbeh that I saw was different, and the spices used was one of the biggest differences. I have created a blend for you to use in your first kibbeh based on the spices I saw occur most often in other recipes. Feel free to adjust or adapt these spices to your own preferences. Leave out spices you don’t like, or add those that you do. In the end, you’re eating this kibbeh – not me, so make it your own.
The other prep step you need to do is super easy, but requires waiting. Bulgur is not ready to eat out of the bag — it needs to soak first in hot water. Put your bulgur in a bowl with a pinch of salt. Then pour boiling water over your bulgur until it covers it by about a half inch. Stir briefly to combine, then cover it and let it sit until the bulgur absorbs all the water. It needs to soak at least 30 minutes.
Making the Filling
While the bulgur is soaking, it is a perfect time to make the filling. In a small skillet, melt the butter over medium high heat. Once the butter melts and has begun to bubble a bit, add the onion and garlic. Turn the heat to medium low, and sauté the onions until the begin to get softened and translucent. Add the spice blend and mix to combine. When the spices begin to get fragrant, add the lamb meat, and the sumac. You can also add a tablespoon of pinenuts here if you’d like, but I opted not to do that in my recipe.
Cook the lamb, stirring frequently, until all the pink has gone away and the lamb is fully browned. Taste for seasoning, and adjust the salt if necessary. Remove from heat and set aside until the you need it again when forming the shells.
Making the Shells
Now we turn our attention to the kibbeh shells. This involves turning the bulgur, lamb, and remaining onion into a dough like paste. That dough is then portioned for the individual shells. This is easiest if you have a food processor (in fact, the ‘labor intensive’ part of kibbeh comes from not having a food processor.). Put the onion, garlic, and remaining spice blend in the bowl of a food processor. Run and process until the onion is very finely chopped and a bit watery.
Next add the bulgur, which should be done soaking by now. Process with the onion until a smooth mixture begins to form. Finally, add the remains ground lamb. It is best to spread the lamb around the top of the bulgur instead of plopping it in one place.
Process the lamb and bulgur until a smooth, slightly pink paste begins to form. The ‘dough’ should begin to gather in the middle of the processor into a semi ball like structure. You want this ‘dough’ to hold its shape when you take a bit and roll it into a small ball.
From here, we start the process of putting the filling inside the dough to create the kibbeh shape. I watched several videos on how to do this, and decided to go my own way. My approach is strictly not traditional, but it is what I can do and still achieve the right shape in the end.
Filling the Shells
I started by using a 1oz scoop to portion out the lamb & bulgur dough. If you don’t have a scoop, that is the same as 2 tablespoons. Or divide your dough into 16 equal portions. No matter how you do it, roll them into meatballs.
Next I used my index finger to make a hole in the center of each. Don’t go all the way through, but try to get more than half way through your meat ball with the hole you make. Rotate it a bit to make the top of the hole a bit wider than the rest — this will make it easier to add the filling
I used a teaspoon to measure the filling, and put 1 teaspoon in the hole in the top of each meatball. I had about a teaspoon and a half of filling remaining when done, so I divided that among the meatballs by hand. Using your index finger again, gently press the filling into the holes in the meatballs.
Shaping the Kibbeh
Now comes closing the meatballs and shaping. The most important thing I can tell you here is to keep your hands wet throughout the process. It helps to have a small bowl of water handy. Wet hands makes the shaping go so much easier.
Another important point is don’t let the process intimidate you. In the beginning, it intimidated me. I was sure I wasn’t going to be able to do it. But shaping the kibbeh was much easier than I thought it would be.
Start by pulling some of the dough over the hole with the filling. Be a bit gentle so you don’t tear the rest of the dough. Once you have closed the hole over the filling, roll the balls to shape them. A back and forth in one direction between the palms of your hands does the trick. You want the middle to stay fat, and the ends to come to gentle points. The kibbeh will look a lot like a mini American football when you are done. Be sure to wet your hands again between each kibbeh.
Once you’ve shaped all the kibbeh, put them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before frying. An hour would be better! This step is essential for to allow the oils in the filling and the shell to solidify before frying. If you skip this step, your kibbeh could fall apart during the frying, making a big mess.
While frying isn’t the only way to cook kibbeh, its the one I’m using. While the kibbeh is resting in the refrigerator, fill a pan large enough to hold 4 kibbeh with about 2 1/2 inches of oil. You want enough oil so that it will cover the kibbeh while they are frying. The exact amount you use will depend on the size of the pan you use.
Heat the oil over a medium heat until it is ready. “Ready” is about 350F. If you have a candy thermometer, it is handy here. If not, you will be ready when you see the oil begin to shimmer like there are small ripples. To test the oil, take a small scrap of the kibbeh dough and put it in the oil. If the oil is ready, it will sizzle immediately. If the oil isn’t ready, not much will happen, and the scrap will sink to the bottom.
When the kibbeh have rested and the oil ready, time to start frying. Using a slotted spoon or a wire spider, gently lower 2 kibbeh into the oil. Repeat for an additional 2 kibbeh so that you have 4 kibbeh in the oil. For my size pan, I stuck to 4 kibbeh at a time so the oil didn’t cool too much. If the oil is too cool, the kibbeh would be soggy and the cooking time longer.
Fry for about 8 minutes each, until the outer shell is evenly golden brown. Using your spoon, gently turn over the kibbeh a couple of times to be sure it cooks on all sides. Carefully remove the kibbeh from the oil and place on a plate lined with paper towels to cool. Let them rest for several minutes before serving because they will be very hot.
Remove the kibbeh from the oil, and place on a paper towel lined plate or baking sheet to rest and cool a bit. They will be very hot. Repeat the frying process with the remaining kibbeh
If eating as a meal, about 4 kibbeh make a decent sized portion. I served mine with some homemade tzatziki. Tahini is also a traditional condiment as well. Or course, you can use the condiment of your choice (Buffalo kibbeh?) .
In the end, since I was only serving two people for dinner, I only cooked eight of my kibbeh. I froze the remaining eight. I placed them on a sheet pan in the freezer until they froze solid, then put them in a plastic bag to store.
You can fry them direct from frozen, but you will need to add 2 – 3 minutes to the cooking time.
- 1/4 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp ground coriander
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- 1/4 tsp paprika
- 2 TBS unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup onion fine dice
- 1 clove garlic finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp spice blend
- 1/4 lb ground lamb
- 1/2 tsp sumac optional
- kosher salt to taste
- 3/4 cup medium bulgur wheat
- 1/2 cup onion fine dice
- 2 clove garlic rough chop
- 1 tsp spice blend
- 3/4 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
- 1/2 lb ground lamb
- Oil for frying
- Prepare spice blend by adding all the spices to a small bowl and mixing to combine
- Put burger wheat in a medium bowl, and add boiling water just to cover. Let rest about 30 minutes. While resting, prepare the filling
- Melt butter in a skillet over medium high heat
- When the butter is simmering, add the onions and saute until beginning to soften
- Add 1/2 tsp of spice blend and stir around in the onions to evenly coat
- When the spices begin to get aromatic, add the lamb and sumac. Cook until the lamb is fully browned (no pink remaining). As the lamb cooks, use the small spatula to break up the lamb.
- When done, set aside until ready to fill the kibbe
- In the bowl of a food processor, add the onions, garlic, and spice blend.
- Process until onion is finely minced
- Add soaked bulgur wheat, and process until smooth and damp consistency
- Add kosher salt, fresh ground black pepper and lamb
- Process until an emulsified blend that sticks together and holds its shape when pinched between your fingers
- Remove lamb/bulgur mix from the food process and transfer into bowl
- Scoop about 1 oz/2 tablespoons of the lamb/bulgur mix and shape into a ball. Repeat until all the mixture is used (about 16 kibbeh balls). Keep any small loose crumbs of the shell for testing the oil later.
- Using your index finger, make a hole in the middle of each ball, but do press all the way through to the bottom
- Scoop about 1 tsp of the filling mixture into each hole, gently pressing it in if necessary
- Keeping your hands moist, carefully pinch the top of each shell to close around the filling. Gently roll the kibbeh in your hands to fully close each shell and give it the traditional shape.
- Shape each kibbeh ball to be wider in the middle, and tapered at each end. A kibbeh should look roughly like an miniature American football.
- Once all the kibbeh are shaped, let rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
- While kibbeh are resting, prepare the oil for deep frying
- Place about 3” of oil in a deep pot and heat over medium heat until it reaches about 350F. See note.
- Using a slotted spoon or wire spider, gently add up to 4 kibbeh to the oil at a time.
- Fry for about 8 minutes each, until the outer shell is evenly golden brown.
- Using your spoon, gently turn over the kibbeh a couple of times to be sure it evenly cooks
- Carefully remove the kibbeh from the oil and place on a plate lined with paper towels to cool.
- Let them rest for several minutes before serving because they will be very hot.