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Grill Pans

Choose a pan that makes your food not only look grilled but taste grilled, too

by Maryellen Driscoll

fromFine Cooking
Issue 59

There are plenty of occasions when a grill pan can be exceptionally handy. To name one: rain. To name another: weeknights (gas grillers excepted). Third: maybe you don’t own a grill—but you sure would like the illusion of having one. After putting thirteen different grill pans through a series of cooking tests, we have one suggestion—don’t pick up just any grill pan. You’ve got to buy the right one.

What makes a good grill pan

During our tests, we discovered two features that set the best grill-pans apart from the mediocre versions.

Raised ridges are better than shallow ones
Grill pans can be divided into two styles: those with well-defined raised ridges, most akin to the bars of a grill and those with shallow ridges reminiscent of speed bumps. We found that grill pans with raised ridges are positively superior when it comes to how the-pan cooks and how the food looks and tastes.

A major problem with speed-bump style pans is that the food sits so close to the pan bottom that it steams, which is certainly no way to cook a steak or a chop. Vegetables turn out limp, watery, and tasteless. (Another quibble with the speed-bump style is that the food doesn’t get the best “grill” marks; the lines are quite wide and blurred.)

Grill pans with distinct ridges raise food higher above the pan bottom so that there’s significantly less buildup of steam as the food sears. But because the food comes in contact with only the ridges, it can be slow to cook through. See the cooking tips at the end of this article for how to work around this.

  • fc052pr041-01.jpg
    Raised ridges sear best.
  • Shallow ridges aren’t as effective.

Cast iron retains heat best
Besides having distinct ridges, a grill pan-should also be made of cast iron. While grill pans can’t perfectly mimic true grilled flavor, cast-iron ones are top-notch at searing, so food tastes almost as if it has been cooked over a fire. This is because of cast iron’s excellent ability to retain heat as well as to heat evenly. It’s for this same reason that better gas grills have cast-iron grates.

Two shortcomings particular to cast iron are its bulk and the need to season it. The three leading pans in our tests address both these problems with “skinny” designs and factory-seasoned or enameled surfaces. The only drawback some manufacturers have yet to solve is the problem of hot handles.

Top picks
Grill-pan top picks (left to right): Le Creuset 10-inch round, Lodge Pro-Logic, 12-inch square, Staub 10-inch round. 

These three grill pans (listed in alphabetical order) stood out as our favorites among the thirteen tested. All are made of cast iron and all have pronounced ridges. They were selected for their superior ability to distribute heat evenly, to cook food with minimal steaming and sticking, and, most important, to deliver great seared flavor.

Le Creuset 10-inch round

Weight: 5 lb.
Material: enameled cast iron in a variety of colors
Retail source: www.surlatable.com

Pros: The ridges are set at a diagonal, so you don’t have to think about how to place the food to get the classic angled grill marks (just align the food parallel or perpendicular to the handles). Shallow pan sides make it easy to maneuver food. Storage couldn’t be more compact. The enameled surface doesn’t require seasoning.

Cons: The handles are small and can get extremely hot.

Lodge Pro-Logic 12-inch square

Weight: 8 lb. 6 oz.
Material: seasoned cast iron
Retail source: www.kitchenetc.com

Pros: The cast iron is already seasoned, and the pan has a generous square cooking surface that holds a lot of food  while-using just one burner. The sloping, shallow pan sides make it easy to maneuver food. A sizable handle and an “ assist” handle on the opposite side make this pan easy to lift.

Cons: It's relatively heavy, and the handles get extremely hot. This brand-new line of Lodge pans isn’t yet widely distributed among retailers.

Staub 10-inch round

Weight: 4 lb.
Material: enameled cast iron
Retail source: www.chefsresource.com

Pros: For cast iron, this pan is remarkably light, and the fold-out handle stays cool. The shallow pan sides make it easy to maneuver food. A pouring lip-lets you drain fat easily. Compact design makes storage simple. The enameled surface doesn’t require seasoning.

Cons: This pan can run hot; adjust your burner as needed. It’s also not widely available. (For the 10-inch round pan, see the retail source above; for other sizes and shapes, try www.staubusa.com).

Cooking on a grill pan

Because the ridges are the only direct source of heat in contact with food on a grill pan, food can be slow to cook through. Here are some ways to deal with that problem, along with some tips on how to prevent sticking:

For beef and pork:

  • Steaks should be relatively thin and preferably boneless.
  • Chops should be thin, about 1/2 inch.
  • Burgers should be shaped slightly flat (they’ll plump as they cook and will shrink in diameter).

For chicken:

  • Avoid bone-in pieces.
  • Boneless thighs or breasts should be pounded to make them more even and thin; butterflying boneless breasts is another option.
  • Chicken tenderloins are your best choice.

For vegetables:

  • Cut vegetables so that they lie flat.
  • A thick vegetable, like a portabella mushroom, will cook through faster if sliced.

To prevent sticking:

  • Heat the pan over medium heat for at least 3 minutes before adding the food.
  • Brush oil on the food rather than on the pan (this also helps to prevent burnt-on oil and smoking).
  • After adding food to the pan, don’t move the food for at least the first minute.

Photos: Scott Phillips

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