While the stovetop and oven get all the attention, the broiler is an incredibly powerful cooking tool you should learn to love.
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There's a broiler in almost every kitchen—though it probably doesn’t get used much. It's as much a part of a typical range as an oven and a stovetop, but often goes neglected. It's actually understandable why some novice cooks find the broiler intimidating—the blue jets of flame look terrifying. But if you give broiling a try, you might find that it's one of the most satisfying ways to cook. Here's a primer.
Broilers use intense radiant heat to cook food, just like a grill. An overhead heating element produces temperatures upwards of 600°F, which elicits the delicious Maillard reaction, imparting that browned, unmistakable taste of grilled foods.
In older ovens, broilers are usually found in a compartment below the main oven cavity. In this location, the broiler doubles as the heating element for the oven itself. This configuration does have a downside, though—the broiler is just inches off the floor, so it's inconvenient to reach it.
Fortunately, most manufacturers today have moved the broiler into the oven cavity itself, installing a dedicated broil element on the oven’s ceiling. Aside from easy access, this design allows the cook to adjust the distance between the food and the broiler—some broilers only have one temperature setting, so moving the rack up or down is the only way to control the heat.
There are a few secondary upsides to having the broiler in the main oven. It can cut down on preheating times, and be used for compound heating options such as convection/broil, which can work well for cooking foods that are difficult to flip, such as fish.
Some broilers allow for temperature adjustment, like gas grills. You'll sometimes find low/high settings or low/medium/high settings. But many broilers are simply either on or off. They work just fine—you can’t turn down a charcoal grill either.
Adjustability aside, each kind of broiler design distributes heat in its own way. Gas broilers shoot flames out from a center rod, providing varied amounts of coverage—usually with a hot spot toward the oven’s center. Electric broiling elements are distinguished by how many times the heating element passes over the oven. A “U” shape would be a 2-pass broiler, and an “M” shape would be a 4-pass broiler. We've seen up to 10 passes on electric boilers. Infrared broilers emit heat evenly from a rectangular surface, a design that prevents (or at least greatly reduces) the incidence of hot spots.
To test a broiler, we put temperature sensors under the broiler and see how long it takes to hit 600°F. In actual use, you don’t need to preheat a broiler more than five minutes, but our approach gives us good insight into a broiler’s power. If a broiler isn’t powerful, it’s not the end of the world—they'll all basically get the job done. But those that can cook entirely with radiant heat (rather than relying on hot air as a backup) should produce the tastiest dishes.
You can use a broiler anytime you’d use a grill—for burgers, chicken, steak, fish, and much more. It has an elegance over other Maillard cooking methods—grilling, baking, and pan frying—as it can be done quickly, inside, without contaminating food with smoke (it’s upside down, and smoke rises!) or excess oil. In fact, it’s generally a good idea to go easy on the oil in marinades, since flare ups aren’t unusual at such high temperatures.
When you’re broiling meat, use a broiler pan. Broil pans can deal with the draining fat, helping to prevent all sorts of bad stuff, from heart disease to home fires. Vegetables don’t have marbled fat to burn off, so we recommend using a lightly oiled oven tray to roast potatoes, carrots, onions, peppers, kale, or other veggies. Since broiler heat is extremely directional, it is important to flip your food so it cooks evenly. Think of it just like your gas grill and watch your food like a hawk. At high temperatures, the line between browned and burned can be easy to miss.
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