It's right there, invisible, inside your oven, the most underappreciated, taken-for-granted appliance in your kitchen: the broiler.
Bread machines, microwaves, sandwich-makers, electric grills and other "must-haves" come and go, but the broiler is always there. Hundreds of books are written about grilling, roasting, frying, even microwaving and steaming, for crying out loud, yet the broiler is largely ignored. The broiler is free — that is to say, you already own one — and easy to use. It is essentially an upside-down grill, but it produces results you cannot duplicate any other way. It even has a couple of distinct advantages over the outdoor grill and the countertop version.
As a boy, I watched my mother broil almost every night in our oversize "rotisserie," which took up half the counter space in our modest Manhattan apartment. (I fear that she, too, was a victim of gadget marketing; our oven broiler remained unused.)
As a young food writer, freed from the constraints of the city, I wrote about the joys of wintertime grilling. As a middle-aged food writer, I'm writing about the benefits of wintertime broiling: you don't have to brave the weather, and you get a warmer kitchen. All you need to do is turn a dial (or, these days, frustratingly, push a couple of buttons, one of them several times). And — a real bonus that you do not get with grilling, either indoor or outdoor — the juices of whatever you're broiling stay in the pan. You've probably seen cookbook directions that start "on the grill or under the broiler," as if they were the same thing. Broiling, though, requires some different techniques, and it's taken me some time and a little rewriting of the rules to optimize my skills. First of all, forget about broiler pans and aluminum foil. As everyone knows, the pan is nearly impossible to clean (which explains the aluminum foil), and it's designed to allow the valuable juices — mostly fat, but, hey, fat is flavor — drip through the grate and into the bottom. What good are the juices doing you there? The problem with most of today's meat is not too much fat but too little, so there's no need to get rid of it. Another problem with broiler pans is that they trap air under the food, keeping the underside cool, which makes turning necessary, increases cooking time, and reduces browning. By using a skillet instead, you eliminate all these problems.
Most modern broilers are now unfortunately equipped with thermostats, so they cycle on and off, never really getting hot enough. Start by heating your oven to its maximum temperature, typically 550 degrees; then turn on the broiler. While the oven is preheating, leave a skillet or a grill pan (a ridged skillet) inside. The best pans for this are cast-iron, enameled cast-iron, or heavy-duty steel — not stainless steel, but what chefs call "black steel." Almost needless to say, this pan must be all metal and not flimsy. Keep potholders handy.
In most cases, that skillet will stay as close to the heating element as possible, about two or three inches away. That's roughly the distance you want if you have an old-fashioned under-oven broiler, even though it will allow you to put the food closer, almost in contact with the flames. Adjustments may also be needed with a really powerful broiler, of the kind more often found in restaurants, where two or three inches may be way too close. After a little experimenting, you'll find the ideal distance for your broiler. (My broiler, on which all of my calculations are based, is 17,000 BTU, and is typical. Some broilers, including most electric ones, are closer to 10,000 BTU). Finally, do what it takes to keep the broiling element on. Most broiling happens so fast — often in less than 10 minutes — that if the element cycles off, it will throw off your timing. It's not disastrous, but it's a nuisance. I have taken to shoving the skillet as far back on the oven rack as I can, and leaving the oven door open a crack.
Now you're ready. What can you cook? Almost anything, although some foods are more cooperative than others: meat of all kinds, especially steaks and chops; fish, from steaks like tuna or swordfish to fillets both thick and thin; shellfish; chicken (usually best without skin, which, as every experienced griller knows, readily catches fire); and even vegetables, especially tomatoes, peppers and chilies.
The technique varies little from one ingredient to the next. For one-inch steaks (rib-eye or sirloin are best), have the meat at room temperature and dry it well. Broil in a preheated skillet about eight minutes for medium rare; turning is unnecessary. You may want to serve it bottom-side up, especially if you use a grill pan.
For one-inch fish steaks or thick fillets, brush the fish lightly with olive oil first. Cooking time for medium to medium well will be less than 10 minutes.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts will take five or six minutes, less if they're thin. Thighs need about 10 minutes; you may have to move the oven rack down a notch if they brown too quickly.
Turn scallops or shrimp in extra-virgin olive oil and salt before broiling for about three minutes. Simply toss clams or mussels into the preheated skillet. They're done when they open, within 10 minutes. If shells start to crack, remove the open mollusks and return the pan to the oven.
Thin fish fillets, like flounder, are a little different. Preheat the pan for about five minutes, remove it, and pour in about three tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, then put the fillets in the oil. Time under the broiler will be 90 seconds to 2 minutes, rarely more.
There. If I'd told you I had an appliance that could brown like a grill, was as convenient as your oven, and cooked most food in less than 10 minutes, you'd buy it. But you don't need to.
Best-selling cookbook author Mark Bittman is the creator and author of the popular New York Times weekly column "The Minimalist," and one of the country's best-known and most widely admired food writers. His flagship book, "How to Cook Everything" (John Wiley and Sons, 1998), is currently in its 14th printing and has, in its various formats, sold more than a million copies.