A few months ago, my son started to go through a Play-Doh phase. In a desperate attempt to keep at least some of it out of our area rug, I grabbed the broiler pan as a makeshift work surface. It helped. Sort of.
You might say that sounds like the move of someone who rarely uses the broiler. Except I do use it. And I use it a lot. I like it so much that the smaller broiler pan is usually insufficient for what I'm cooking, so I prefer to use a larger baking sheet instead. And who can reliably find both parts of a the broiler pan in the cupboard anyway?
Even without a broiler pan, it's still worth it to make use of this standard oven feature. As chemistry professor and food science writer Robert Wolke has explained, baking cooks food by exposing it to hot air. "Broiling cooks food almost entirely by infrared radiation," an electromagnetic energy emitted by something very hot. "The heat source, whether a red-hot electric element or a line of gas flames, doesn't touch the food; it bathes it in intense infrared radiation, which gets absorbed in the top layer of the food, heats it to 600-700 degrees, and sears and browns it quickly."
If this sounds similar to grilling, that's because it is. Wolke goes on to explain that grilling is, in fact, a form of broiling. Whether you want to replicate that outdoor-cooked appearance and flavor or not, here are tips for making the most of your broiler.
Get to know it. Did you ever go on that getting-to-know-you first date with your broiler? Even if you skipped ahead to cooking with it, the time is always right to get a better idea of how it operates. First, figure out if it runs hot or cold (or fast or slow). Try this test from Cook's Illustrated: Heat the broiler to high (ignore the low setting even when you're cooking for real) and place a piece of white bread underneath. After a minute, the bread should emerge golden. If it's burned, your broiler runs hot, and you may need to reduce a recipe's cook time by a minute or two; pale, and the element runs cool, so try extending the cook time. Hold on to that loaf of bread for the next test Cook's suggests:
Line a baking sheet with fresh slices of bread and broil them until all the pieces are browned (some may burn, which is okay as long as nothing is smoking). Pull out the sheet and look at the browning pattern to figure out where the hot and cool spots are. You can even keep a photo nearby to remind yourself how to arrange or rotate your food every time you want to broil.
Most recipes will also give you a range of how far the food should be placed from the broiler element (our typical range is 4 to 6 inches). Now would also be a good time to track down your oven manual and see what it recommends. If you have an electric broiler, Cook's advises finding the zone where that infrared radiation is most evenly distributed. Do tests by placing a parchment-lined baking sheet on racks positioned at varying distances from the broiler, refreshing with a new piece of paper each time (more below on why you usually want to avoid parchment in the broiler). You'll know you've hit the right spot when the browning covers the whole width of the parchment rather than just concentrated spots.
Broil the right foods. "Broiling is a good cooking method for tender meats, poultry and fish, because it's a dry, high-temperature, short-time method," according to Wolke. "Less tender meats generally need long, moist cooking. Beef steaks and other red meats are a natural, while pork, chicken and fish have to be watched carefully to prevent drying out." Better Homes & Gardens has an impressively comprehensive guide to broiling any kind of food you can think of, and I highly recommend you check it out. When it comes to meat, thinner is typically better.
I especially like broiling for the way it can imitate grilling, especially when it comes to kebabs. Broiling skewered marinated chicken, as in my Simple Butter Chicken recipe, is a no-brainer. Broiling can do wonders for vegetables, too. When I grew impatient with how long roasting slices of eggplant took for my No-Fry Eggplant Parmesan, I broiled the eggplant instead and was thrilled with the super-silky result. Smoky salsa made under the broiler? Yes, please.
In the category of less obvious foods to broil: Don't forget about fruit, whose sugars caramelize wonderfully under the intense heat, as long as you pull them out before they burn. And pizza! After working on recipes for our Voraciously pizza package, I am a believer in the power of the broiler to help you get close to the kind of crust you'd achieve in a wood-fired oven.
Keep certain things out of the broiler. Almost every time I mention tempered glass cookware (a.k.a. Pyrex), I hear from someone about exploding glass. In this case, the warning is warranted: It definitely does not belong under the broiler. In addition to your broiler pan or metal sheet pan, cookware made from ceramic, porcelain and cast-iron (regular or enameled) is a safer bet. And that parchment paper? Fine for a quick test, as above, but since it can hold up only to temperatures around 450 degrees, you don't want to expose it to broiler heat for any longer, or else you risk it burning and disintegrating or, worse, catching on fire.
Because of its quick cooking power, broiling is not the best idea for thick or large cuts of meat, which can scorch on the outside before the inside is done. In other words, probably best to save the whole chicken for roasting (or at least legit grilling, where you can take advantage of indirect heat). Be careful with anything extremely fatty or oily, too, which can make for a smoking - or flaming - mess. If anything has splattered, it's a good idea to wipe down the oven with a damp cloth after it's cooled to a safe temperature.
Be vigilant and smart. The speed and intensity of broiling is great, but it also means that food can go from perfectly browned to burned in a matter of seconds. So don't walk away. Keep your oven light on and look through the window. You can even keep an eye on the food with the oven door ajar, which is what some people recommend with an electric oven to ensure the broiler doesn't cycle off. Rotate and flip your food as necessary.
If you're cooking something that's going to render a lot of fat, consider using that broiler pan so the fat can drain. Otherwise, your food will steam in the fat rather than brown and crisp. If you line the top half of the broiler pan with foil, be sure to poke holes for the fat to drip through. A wire rack set in a sturdy baking sheet (lined with foil, if you like) works well, too.
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Recipe 1: Simple Butter Chicken
Recipe notes: You'll need several metal or bamboo skewers. If using the latter, soak them in water for 30 minutes.
The chicken needs to marinate for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, and up to overnight. The sauce can be made separately and refrigerated for a day or two. Leftovers reheat well in the microwave.
Dried fenugreek leaves are available at Indian markets (look for kasoori methi), as well as some spice shops, such as Bazaar Spices in Washington, and via online purveyors. If you find fresh or frozen leaves, use double the amount called for in the recipe. The curry is still quite good without them, but a teaspoon or two of maple syrup added at the end of cooking can impart some of the same flavor and round out the overall balance of the curry.
Ingredients for the chicken:
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (trimmed of excess fat), cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice (from 1 lime)
Generous 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons garam masala (spice blend)
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 cup plain, full-fat yogurt
1 tablespoon minced garlic (from about 3 cloves)
One 2-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, minced (1 tablespoon)
Ingredients for the sauce:
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
15 ounces canned plain tomato sauce
1/4 cup dried fenugreek leaves, soaked in a bowl of water for 15 minutes and skimmed off the top (see recipe notes)
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon ground cumin
For the chicken: Combine the chicken pieces with the lime juice, cayenne pepper, paprika, garam masala, salt, yogurt, garlic and ginger in a mixing bowl until evenly coated. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, and up to overnight.
Position a rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and set an ovenproof wire rack inside it. (Or use a broiler pan.)
Thread the marinated chicken pieces onto the skewers and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Broil for 10 to 15 minutes, turning once or twice, until the chicken is just cooked through. You should see a little bit of browning on the edges.
Meanwhile, make the sauce: Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. As soon as it melts (without browning), pour in the tomato sauce. Stir in the fenugreek leaves, cayenne pepper, sugar and salt. Increase the heat to medium-high; cook just long enough so the sauce begins to bubble. Reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the butter starts to separate from the sauce, pooling on the surface.
Carefully slide the chicken off the skewers into the sauce, along with any accumulated juices. Stir in the cream and cumin, then cover and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, so the chicken absorbs some of the rich flavors in the sauce.
Uncover the pan and add the remaining tablespoon of butter; once it has melted, stir it into the sauce. Serve right away.
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Recipe 2: No-Fry Eggplant Parmesan
Recipe notes: You'll need a 9-inch square baking dish or pan.
The dish can be assembled up to a day in advance and refrigerated. Let it come to room temperature on the counter while the oven preheats. Leftovers reheat well in the microwave, though the panko won't be as crisp.
3 medium eggplants, trimmed and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices (about 3 pounds total)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing (may use cooking oil spray instead of brushing on the oil)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, finely chopped (1 1/2 to 2 cups)
1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 1/2 teaspoonsdried oregano
28 ounces canned, no-salt-added crushed tomatoes, plus their juices
1 tablespoonred wine vinegar
1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves, torn
1/2cupfreshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
8 ounces low-moisture mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced (not packed in water)
1 cup panko
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano leaves (from 1 stem; optional
Step one: Position a rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Line two rimmed baking sheets with aluminum foil.
Step two: Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with some oil and season lightly with salt and pepper, arranging them in a single layer on the baking sheets. Broil one sheet at a time for 10 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through, until the eggplant is soft and somewhat browned. Turn over the slices and broil for 2 minutes, just until they begin to dry out with a hint of browning on the surface. Let cool slightly. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees.
Step three: Meanwhile, heat half the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook for about 10 minutes, until softened and translucent. Add the garlic and dried oregano; cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly, until fragrant.
Step four: Add the crushed tomatoes and their juices; increase the heat to medium-high and cook just until the liquid starts to bubble, then partially cover, reduce the heat to low and cook for 20 minutes to form a slightly thickened sauce. Stir in the vinegar and basil, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat.
Step five: Spoon just enough of the sauce to thinly coat the bottom of your 9-inch square baking dish or pan. Add a single layer of the broiled eggplant slices, using about a third of them and overlapping slightly as needed. Spread a third of the remaining sauce over the eggplant, followed by a third of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and half the mozzarella. Repeat with another third of the eggplant, sauce and Parm and then the rest of the mozzarella. Finish with the remaining eggplant, sauce and Parm.
Step six: Stir together the panko, the remaining oil and the fresh oregano, if using, in a medium bowl, until evenly coated. Scatter the mixture evenly over the top of the eggplant Parm. Bake (at 375 degrees, middle rack) for 35 to 40 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling, the top is golden brown and the center is hot.
Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.
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Recipe 3: Blackened Salsa
1 medium jalapeño pepper, stem removed, left whole
2 large shallots, peeled and left whole
4 medium (unpeeled) cloves garlic
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
3 to 4 tablespoons water, plus more as needed
Position the top oven rack 4 to 5 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler.
Combine the jalapeno pepper, shallots, garlic and cherry tomatoes in a large cast-iron skillet or a roasting pan; place in the oven to broil for 10 to 15 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the vegetables are blackened all over.
Remove from the oven and reserve the garlic; transfer the remaining vegetables to the bowl of a food processor and let cool slightly.