Restaurants give a lot of thought to how food is presented because food that looks good is more appealing. The really good stuff appeals to multiple senses, which is why restaurants use sizzle plates to serve some dishes. A big slab of steak at the steakhouse, or a fajita at your neighborhood Mexican joint, wouldn't be the same without that little bit of drama that comes from hearing and smelling the food on that hot plate.
At home, you might not need to "sell the sizzle" the way restaurants do, but it still adds a definite something to your meal.
Introduction to the Sizzling Plate
You'll see sizzlers called a lot of different names, though they're all pretty similar: sizzle plate, sizzler plate, sizzle platter, sizzling plate, sizzling steak plate, fajita sizzler and so on. They're round or oblong, generally anywhere from 11 inches long down to 8 or 9 inches, and usually 4 to 6 inches across.
You'll see them sold in kitchen supply and restaurant supply stores. The most visually appealing ones are made of cast iron and look rather like a scaled-down skillet. More utilitarian models are just small oval pans made of stainless steel or lightweight aluminum. They're less showy, but restaurants buy and use them in huge quantities.
They're typically used with a heatproof base, made of wood or some other nonconductive material, and are often sold as a set with the base and matching sizzler plate paired together.
Cooking on a Sizzle Plate
Sizzle plates are used in a couple of different ways in restaurant kitchens. At the simplest level, they're a scaled-down substitute for a sheet pan. If you're roasting or broiling a single portion, a little sizzler just makes more sense than a big sheet pan. That's true for restaurants where every plate is a one-portion meal, and equally so for homes where you're cooking for one or two.
Not only is the small sizzle plate a suitable size to go in your dishwasher, its small surface has less space for juices and sauces to char and become stuck to the pan. That's a win-win. They also fit nicely into most toaster ovens as well as the increasingly sophisticated countertop convection oven that a lot of home cooks use.
Serving on a Sizzle Plate
As handy as sizzle plates are for actual cooking, it's the drama they bring to your table that's the main selling point. Steel and cast iron sizzling plates work best for serving because they retain their heat better than the lightweight aluminum variety.
First, preheat the sizzler or sizzlers. You can do this on the stovetop, but usually it's easier to stack them in the oven and crank up the heat. Allow at least 5 to 10 minutes at 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4 or 5 minutes under the broiler.
While the sizzlers are heating, prepare your food. A sizzler recipe will almost always encourage you to slightly undercook your meat and vegetables because they'll continue to cook on the hot plate. If you're using heavy cast iron steak plates, for instance, don't cook the steak all the way to your preferred doneness because the hot plate will bring it further. If you like medium-rare, for example, stop at rare and let the plate take it the rest of the way.
Once the food is ready, remove the sizzler from your oven – carefully! – and place it on its heatproof base. Finally, transfer the cooked food from your sheet pan, grill or skillet to the sizzler.
Make It Sizzle
The final step is to make your food sizzle as you bring it to the table. You'll need some liquid for that and maybe a few drops of fat, which ideally would come from the cooking juices. Just tip the pan and pour a few drops onto each sizzle plate to make it hiss, and then serve immediately.
If you don't have pan juices, you can deglaze the pan with a splash of wine, citrus juice, steak sauce or some other suitable liquid, and then pour that onto your sizzlers. If you're making a sizzling brownie with ice cream, your chocolate or caramel sauce will do the trick.
A Word of Caution
It's important to bear in mind that slinging hot plates around your kitchen creates the potential for some nasty burns. Always use a heavy-duty heat pad or oven mitt when you're handling the sizzler, and check that it sits securely in its heatproof base. Don't use sizzlers to serve small children, who might forget the danger and get burned.
Serving on sizzlers is also a really bad idea after a long day of drinking, so if you have a major celebration planned you should make a point of serving those fajitas first and maybe ordering pizza for your late-night munchies.
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.