This easy and authentic chicken shawarma will be a weekly dinner staple! The juicy chicken is heavily seasoned with a mix of warm middle eastern spices and cooked in three different ways: oven baked, air fried, or on the stove-top using a cast iron skillet!
If you love chicken shawarma, this authentic middle eastern recipe is going to be a favourite, served with toum. My step-by-step method will walk you through how easy it is to make.
What is Shawarma?
Chicken shawarma is a popular middle eastern street food, with its origins tracing back to the Ottoman Empire. Traditional chicken shawarma consists of well-marinated pieces of meat stacked on a large rotating vertical spit, slowly roasted as the spit rotates. The meat is sliced off once cooked and perfectly flavourful.
Shawarma can be made from lamb, beef or chicken. It is the most popular street food in countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine. It's also a large part of Iraqi street food, although it is called by a different name there (Guss, which means to "cut" or "slice").
The Arabic word "shawarma" is derived from the Turkish word çevirme, which refers to the turning rotisserie. Shawarma is very similar to Turkish doner kebab, and the Greek gyro. However, each of these have different spices and flavourings that each region has adapted to.
Shawarma that is traditionally cooked on a rotating spit is juicy and tender, because the meat slowly cooks as it rotates and is sliced off when the outer layer is cooked and develops char on the meat. The meat is also layered with pieces of fat that melt and keep the meat juicy and flavourful.
In this recipe, I have thought about how traditional shawarma is made and what the key factors are to shawarma being flavourful and juicy, in order to replicate these factors when cooking it at home. This recipe does exactly that! And if you're more of a beef person, I recommend the beef shawarma.
The Best Chicken Shawarma Marinade
The chicken shawarma marinade is what makes the dish! Shawarma is flavoured with a blend of warm middle eastern spices. I have tested this marinade many times, tweaking elements as I go, and it's finally perfected.
Here are the spices for the shawarma seasoning mix:
- Cumin; essential for that quintessential middle eastern flavour
- Cinnamon and allspice; a powerful combination in most middle eastern recipes that work wonderful in shawarma too
- Cardamom; a little bit of cardamom goes a long way and adds wonderful aroma
- Clove; a strong spice that also can be used sparingly but adds depth to the mix
- Paprika; I use mild paprika and love the colour it adds
- Cayenne; this can be adjusted to your taste, depending on how spicy you like your chicken shawarma
- Salt; of course - the most important flavour enhancer!
Aside from the above spices, this recipe also uses olive oil, lemon juice and onions to create the marinade.
Many people use yogurt in the shawarma marinade, which is known to tenderize chicken, but I don't think its required, especially if you're using chicken thighs as opposed to chicken breast.
When I tested the recipe with a yogurt marinade, the yogurt ended up making the chicken more wet, and hence it was harder and took longer to get colour and charring on the chicken.
Ingredients for Chicken Shawarma
Now that we discussed the shawarma spice mix, onto the rest of the ingredients:
Chicken: I recommend chicken thighs as opposed to chicken breast. Traditional chicken shawarma is layered with fat, which helps add flavour and tenderness to the chicken. Thighs offer a good amount of fat to achieve just that.
If you must use chicken breast, which I sometimes do if it is the only cut I have available, it will still work. But for optimal results, stick to thighs!
Spice Mix: A generous amount of the shawarma seasoning mix will ensure the shawarma is perfectly flavourful.
Lemon Juice & Olive Oil: The lemon juice helps with tenderizing the chicken and adding acid to balance the flavours. Olive oil enhances the flavour with more fat. These liquids are also used to create a paste from the powder spices.
Garlic: A bit of garlic is used for flavour. You can also use toum if you have it on hand, just add a couple of tablespoons. Ensure you don't use too much garlic so it does not overpower the other spices.
Onions: These are optional, but thinly sliced onions mixed in with the marinade add more flavour and sweetness.
How to Make Authentic Chicken Shawarma - Step by Step
This chicken shawarma recipe is as easy as authentic shawarma can get. Most of the process is passive marination time, and it only takes 20 minutes to cook. There are three main steps:
Step 1: Make the shawarma marinade.
Mix together the ground spices, olive oil and lemon juice and mix well to create a paste.
TIP: Creating a paste first with the seasoning ensures that they are mixed well when coating the chicken, and avoids uneven seasoning.
Step 2: Cut the chicken into strips and marinate with the spice paste and the onions.
When testing this recipe, I found that cutting the chicken thighs into strips is much better than marinating and cooking them whole. The chicken strips optimizes the amount of surface area that is in contact with the marinade.
Cutting the chicken into strips also make it much quicker to cook and achieve browning.
Marinate the chicken for at least 1 hour, or overnight. Marinating overnight is highly recommended and enhances the flavour so much.
Step 3: Cook the chicken shawarma.
In the next section, I discuss three different cooking methods that I have tested and recommend. My go-to method is usually on a sheet pan in the oven, because I can make a large quantity.
TIP: Make sure you take the chicken out of the fridge 1 hour before cooking, to ensure it comes to room temperature.
For the sheet pan method:
- Preheat the oven to 450F. Add oil and heat the sheet pan for 5-7 minutes until hot
- Place the marinated chicken on the sheet pan, ensuring you spread it out
- Roast the chicken for 10-15 minutes until you test a piece and its fully cooked through
To get more charring on the chicken, you can broil it for a few minutes once its cooked and before removing from the oven.
Plate the chicken shawarma and serve it either as wraps or as a shawarma plate with rice and other sides.
Chicken Shawarma Cooking Methods
There are many ways to replicate authentic chicken shawarma at home. Each of the methods I have listed below are excellent, and you can pick your chosen method based on what appliances you have and the quantity you are making. Let's walk through each one.
Method #1: Oven Roasted Sheet Pan Chicken Shawarma
The sheet pan method is the one I recommend for this recipe if you are making a large quantity and if you want to avoid a mess on your stove. Here is how to cook chicken shawarma using this method:
1. It's important to pre-heat the sheet pan and add enough oil to the pan before adding the chicken. The hot pan will sear the chicken from the bottom, which is the secret to a well-charred chicken shawarma using the oven.
2. The chicken pieces must also be spread out and not too close together, to prevent the shawarma from steaming and releasing moisture. Spreading out the chicken ensures they crisp up and develop colour.
3. Finally, using a high oven temperature is also important. I recommend 450F in order to ensure the chicken sears from the outside and does not overcook from the inside.
TIP: I recommend placing the chicken shawarma directly on the pan, without using parchment paper, to achieve a better sear. However, parchment paper will also work if you want easier clean up.
Method #2: Stove-Top Cast Iron Chicken Shawarma
The stove-top method is excellent if you are looking for a quicker recipe that does not require pre-heating the oven.
It will also work if you want are making a smaller quantity. For a large quantity, you'll have to work in batches. Here is my recommended method for stove-top shawarma:
1. Start by heating the cast iron skillet for a few minutes and adding a few tablespoons of olive oil. It's important that the skillet is hot to achieve a sear as soon as the chicken makes contact with the skillet.
2. Ensure that the chicken pieces are spread out as pictured below. If the chicken is placed too close together, they will steam and start to release moisture, which will not achieve browning (which is where all the flavour is!).
3. Avoid overcooking the chicken by flipping them once you achieve a sear, and cooking them for a total of 5-7 minutes. You can break open a piece to ensure it is white inside.
If you don't have a cast iron skillet (I recommend this one by the way - inexpensive and amazing quality), then you can use a regular skillet as well. Follow the same exact instructions!
Method #3: Air Fryer Chicken Shawarma
Using the air fryer is also a great way to make this shawarma recipe. However, depending on the size of your air fryer basket, you may need to work in batches. Here is the air fryer method:
1. Start by pre-heating the air fryer to 400F. It's important that the air fryer is hot when placing the chicken inside in order to achieve a good sear.
2. Lay out the chicken with a bit of space around each piece and avoid overcrowding.
3. Air fry for only 8-10 minutes until cooked through. You can flip them over halfway, but it's not necessary.
The air fryer is a great way to make shawarma if you love to use it, and it's really quick as well!
How to Make the Chicken Tender & Flavourful
Three are three main tips to keep in mind for tender and flavourful chicken shawarma:
1. Use chicken thighs which are a more tender cut of chicken, with more of the fat retained.
2. Marinate the chicken, ideally overnight, but for at least 1 hour.
3. Ensure you do not overcook or overcrowd the chicken to achieve optimal tenderness and flavour.
How to Make Ahead and Meal Prep Chicken Shawarma
Shawarma is perfect for meal prep. You have two options:
- Marinate the chicken and place in the fridge to use over 2-3 days. Cook it when you need it.
- Cook the shawarma and store it in an airtight container in the fridge. Use it over 4-5 days by simply re-heating it on the stove top.
Chicken shawarma makes a great addition to lunch time salads, bowls, and wraps.
How to Serve Chicken Shawarma
There are three main ways that chicken shawarma is served traditionally:
1. As a chicken shawarma wrap
As a wrap, shawarma is rolled up in either pita bread, markouk bread or lavash bread. You can use any thin flatbread. Traditional chicken shawarma wrap fillings include:
- Toum. This is essential with chicken shawarma and is the best part! If you don't have toum, you can also serve it with a yogurt tahini sauce.
- Pickles. These can be any regular pickles or the middle eastern pink pickled turnips.
- Fries. They can be served on the side, or inside the wrap. I highly recommend you try them inside the wrap!
The shawarma wrap is also typically pressed on a grill at the end until crispy.
And that's it! But of course, if you love fresh vegetables in your wrap, feel free to also add chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions or parsley.
2. As a chicken shawarma plate or platter
Often times when at middle eastern shawarma restaurants, you can choose either a wrap or a plate. For the plate, it typically comes with the following components:
- Yellow rice or white vermicelli rice. Rice is so delicious with shawarma!
- A fresh salad like fattoush or tabouli.
- Toum or tahini sauce
- Hummus for dipping
- A side of pickles
If you're hosting a large group or serving it family style, you can create a shawarma platter with all of the components and allow everyone to mix and match their own plate.
3. As a chicken shawarma salad. You can toss the shawarma over your favourite salad and drizzle with a tahini yogurt sauce for a healthy lunch.
More Middle Eastern Recipes You'll Love!
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20-Minute Authentic Arabic Chicken Shawarma
For the Chicken:
- 750 g boneless skinless chicken thighs (approx. 7 large thighs)
- 1 onion thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- ½ lemon, juiced
- 4 tablespoons olive oil divided
For the Seasoning mix:
- 2 teaspoons cumin powder
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon ground
- ½ teaspoon clove ground
- ½ teaspoon cardamom ground
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Pre-heat oven to 450ºF
To Prepare the Chicken:
- Cut chicken thighs into thin strips, roughly ½ inch thick
- Mix the lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil with all the spices and combine to create a paste
- Mix the marinade with the chicken strips and the sliced onions
- Marinate the chicken for a few hours in the fridge (you can skip this if in a hurry) or ideally overnight
To Cook the Chicken Using Oven Method:
- Place 3 tablespoons of olive oil on a large sheet pan and evenly spread it out. Heat the empty sheet pan for 5-7 minutes in the oven
- Lay chicken on the heated baking sheet and bake at 450ºF for 15-20 minutes until fully cooked through. Test one piece to ensure its white on the inside and that juices run clear
- You can broil for a few minutes if you want additional colour on the chicken
- Serve the Shawarma with toum sauce or yogurt tahini sauce, pita bread and an assortment of your favourite vegetables to make a wrap.
- It's best to use chicken thighs rather than chicken breast for this recipe, since they will offer a more tender and flavourful result
- For a stove-top cast iron cooking method or an air fryer method, refer to the body of the post
- You can also serve the Shawarma over rice or salad. Refer to serving suggestions for more details