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.
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.