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The Upside-Down Grill

Too cold to fire up the grill? Embrace your broiler for burgers, brats, and barbeque.

Fine Cooking Issue 121
Photos: Scott Phillips
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It was a yearning for a grilled burger in the dead of winter that made me look at my broiler from a whole new perspective. While I regularly used it for things like browning baked pasta, I had never considered how the broiler could help satisfy cold-weather cravings for summer foods.

Most basically, I thought, grilling is cooking over a flame, and broiling is cooking under a flame. So why not broil foods I’d normally grill? I was thinking of things with short cooking times that benefit from a nice sear, like bratwurst, steak, or that perfectly charred burger I hungered for. Once I started experimenting, I found that there are many similarities between broilers and grills, and I learned a few tricks to reproducing that smoky grilled flavor indoors.

A broiler has shortfalls, but they’re easily overcome

Broiling doesn’t deliver the aromatic smoke that’s created during grilling when fat and juice drip onto charcoal or the hot bars of a gas grill, enveloping the food and giving it that familiar grilled flavor. But I found that ingredients like smoked paprika, smoked salt, chipotles, bacon, and smoked cheese are surprisingly satisfying substitutes for actual smoke.

A broiler also isn’t able to produce the same kind of searing and charring that occurs when food comes in contact with a hot grill grate. But using a broiler-safe cast-iron grill pan instead of your oven’s broiler pan can give you grill marks and a more charred exterior, provided you get the pan searingly hot first.

Heating the pan ahead has the additional advantage of being slightly faster, too, because food cooks from above and below.
Finally, it’s worth noting that broilers and grills over different ways to manipulate temperature. With a charcoal grill, you let the coals burn down until they’re at the right temperature. A gas grill has adjustable settings. With a broiler, you control the temperature by moving the oven rack to change the distance between the heating element and the food.
Once I figured out how to use my broiler as an all-weather stand-in for the grill, I was able to cook up some pretty sensational burgers, as well as steaks, brats, and barbecued chicken. I’ll never look at my broiler the same way again.

Featured recipes

Burgers with Sun-Dried-Tomato Mayo and Arugula
Beer-Braised Bratwursts with Pickle Juice Slaw
Rosemary-Rubbed Rib-Eye with Charred Red Onions
Maple and Chipotle Barbecued Chicken Thighs

Pick the right pan for broiling

Most ovens come with a two-piece broiler pan. The top part is perforated with holes or slits that allow fat to drip down into the pan below, helping to minimize flare-ups. Lining the top with foil and cutting or poking out the perforations makes for easier cleanup.
Broiler-safe cast iron and enameled cast iron are good alternatives with distinct advantages. A cast-iron grill pan creates grill marks; a cast-iron skillet gives meat a nice sear, but the fat won’t drain, so choose lean cuts or trim the fat to prevent it from catching fire.
Never use a glass or Pyrex dish in the broiler, as it can shatter or explode from thermal shock. The broiler can also damage certain nonstick coatings, so check the manufacturer’s directions before broiling in a nonstick pan.

Broiling Basics

Broilers can vary dramatically, so read the owner’s manual for your model, get familiar with how it works, and consider the following:
Adjust the rack position
Make sure the top of the food is at least 2 inches from the heating element to decrease the risk of fat catching fire. Generally, you want the rack to be 4 inches from the heating element, but for thicker or slower-cooking foods like bone-in chicken, move the rack down to avoid flare-ups or charring.
Turn on the fan
Broiling often generates smoke and can set off smoke detectors. It’s a good idea to turn on the exhaust fan, open a window, or both.
Determine if the oven door should be open
Check your owner’s manual to see if it’s necessary and safe to leave the oven door ajar. In some (usually older) models, the broiler will shut off when the oven reaches a certain temperature, so cracking the door will keep the oven cooler and the broiler on. But many new models are designed for closed-door broiling, and leaving the door open can melt the control panel, set off an alarm, or shut down the oven.
Heat things up
You might think that the broiler doesn’t need to be heated for long before you put the food in, but heating the broiler also heats the oven, which helps the food cook through faster so its exterior doesn’t burn. Preheat your broiler according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Do a toast test
There’s huge variation among broilers, so cooking times can vary. The length of time it takes to toast a piece of bread is a good gauge of how hot your broiler is. The cooking times given in these recipes are based on a broiler that takes 1 minute to toast a piece of bread that’s 3-1/2 inches from the heating element.


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