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How to use the broiler to fire up your home cooking

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 explained in a 2001 story in The Post, 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.”

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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.

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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.

More from Voraciously:

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