It's easy to spend way, way too much money on the backyard grilling setup of your dreams, but you don't really need it to enjoy a good char on a steak or a plate of tender-crisp vegetables. The broiler pan that comes with your oven will give you similar results, and it's genuinely easy to use.
Broiler vs. Oven
When you roast something in your oven, most of the cooking takes place through what's called "convective" heat. That's what happens when the heat from the oven's elements is circulated around your food by the movement of hot air. Your broiler also gets hot while it's in use, generally 500 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, but that's not the important detail. If you crank your oven to 500 degrees, it's definitely a high heat cooking method, but it still won't be the same as broiling.
Broiling works by heating the broiler element until it emits infrared rays. This radiant energy is separate from the amount of actual heat involved, which is why the sun can give you a nasty burn even in mid-winter while you're skiing. It's what makes broiling such a powerful technique.
Consider Your Broiler Pan
The broiler pan that came with your stove's oven is designed to handle the intensity of the broiling cooking method. If you pick one up, you'll notice right away that it's heavier than a regular baking pan. That's so it won't warp or flex in the heat.
Most pans come in two pieces. The top is pierced with several slots so fat and juices that cook out of your foods can drain away rather than remaining at the surface where they can ignite. The bottom is relatively deep and provides a place for the fat to collect. Nonstick coatings generally don't do well under intense heat, so broiler pans are usually made of enameled steel instead.
Positioning the Broiler Pan
If you look at your oven, the top two positions for your rack are very close to the upper heating element. Those are used for broiling. While the oven is cold, put a rack in the top position and slide your broiler pan onto it. You'll see that the pan is very close to the element, only a few inches away. If you change it to the next position down, the top of the broiler pan should be 4 to 6 inches from the element.
The top position is what you'll usually use for thin, quick-cooking foods like asparagus, fillets of fish or thin steaks and chops. The lower position is for foods that are a bit thicker and will need more time to cook, like a heftier steak or a chicken quarter. The further you get from the broiler element, the less intensely it'll brown – or burn – your food.
Using Your Broiler Pan
To broil on your broiler pan, position your rack first while the oven is cold. Slide the pan onto the rack, then preheat your broiler for at least five minutes or as directed in the manufacturer's instructions. Remove it from the oven, position your food on the pan and then slide it back under the broiler.
Broiling isn't a "set and forget" cooking method. You'll need to keep at least one eye on your food at all times because most things cook in 10 or 12 minutes, and they can go from not quite ready to setting off your fire alarm in the blink of an eye. You may have to flip longer-cooking items once for even cooking, but you generally won't have to do this with thinner items.
Be careful not to have your face over the oven door when you open it to turn or food or take out the pan. The blast of super-heated air that escapes can be pretty painful.
A Few Important Tips
To speed cleanup in the absence of a nonstick coating, many sites suggest lining the broiler pan with aluminum foil. If you do that, cut through the foil over the drain slots so fat can still drain away from the cooking area and not pose a fire risk. Also – and this is important – most sites only speak of lining the top of the pan. The fat's going to drain into the bottom of the pan, so you should line that as well.
Don't use parchment paper on the broiler pan because it'll usually catch fire. If you want that easy, nonstick release, spray the aluminum foil with nonstick spray or buy the kind that is specially treated to give a nonstick surface.
Barbecue sauce, ketchup and many other sauces and condiments are high in sugar, and they'll caramelize and then burn in just a few minutes under the broiler. If you're going to use them, brush them on for just the last two or three minutes of cooking time.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.