Top | Front Burner

Playing with fire

(article, Helen Rennie)

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p(blue). Editor's note: Helen Rennie wrote the Front Burner column from January to June 2007.

Let’s face it: There’s something irresistible about playing with fire. People who can’t normally boil an egg get that spark in their eyes when the weather is finally warm enough to grill, and most of the engaged couples I know register for crème-brûlée torches before cutting boards. 

I have nothing against smoking, grilling, or torching, except that they steal all the glamour from the most versatile open-fire technique in the kitchen: broiling. 

Broiling is one of those sadly misunderstood techniques. Everyone knows the word; it stares at us from the temperature-control knob every time we turn on the oven. We’ve even seen it on restaurant menus, usually connected to fish (“served fried, grilled, or broiled”). But when a recipe says, “Broil for 4 minutes,” we’re suddenly stuck. 

I can’t say I’m surprised that half the students in my cooking classes have never used a broiler (or at least not correctly). I guarantee you that the June issue of every cooking magazine will be all about grilling, with tips, techniques, tools, and recipes for everything from steaks to strawberries. But have you ever seen a broiling issue of Gourmet? 

I think it’s about time we gave broiling its due.

What is broiling?
In American English, broiling means applying direct heat to food from above. Think of it as upside-down grilling, with the food on the bottom and the flame on top. (To make things more confusing, in the rest of the English-speaking world this technique is called “grilling,” and what we call “grilling” in the U.S. is called “barbecuing.”)

Why would I want to broil?
Unlike grilling, broiling can be done in any weather. Fragile foods that might fall through the grill rack, such as fish fillets, do quite well under the broiler. Juices that might otherwise disappear, sizzling, into the fire are instead concentrated by the broiler’s high heat and make a perfect sauce. 

If your counter space is precious, using the broiler eliminates the need for a toaster. Broiling is perfect for toasting thick slices of bread, making vast quantities of cheese or cinnamon toast, melting the cheese atop French-onion soup, and finishing off frittatas. Just watch everything closely so it doesn’t burn. 

I have a gas oven. Where is my broiler?
In gas ovens, broilers can be hiding in two places: at the top of the oven, or in a separate drawer under the oven (yeah, the place where many people store their pots and pans). You might think that crouching with your food near the floor is a pain, but that gas broiler is worth the trouble. It really browns beautifully, even in the cheapest gas ovens.

I have an electric oven. Where is my broiler?
In electric ovens, the broiler is always at the top of the oven. Although it’s easy to find, it’s often not very useful, since the coil doesn’t adequately cover the area above the food. Another annoying aspect of electric broilers is that if any juices splatter onto the coil, they burn. So you might have plenty of stink without much browning of food. 

[%image "helen's fish" float="left" width=400 caption="Check salmon under the broiler often; a slightly fattier piece than you're accustomed to cooking will throw your timing off." credit="Photo courtesy Helen Rennie"]

Of course, some electric ovens are better than others, and it’s definitely worth giving your broiler a shot. If you can’t get it to do its job, you might have better luck with a toaster oven, where the heating coils cover the top more evenly. Broiling with electricity is like grilling with George Foreman’s grill: if that’s your only option, go for it, but realize that it’s not the real spirit of the technique.

What temperature should I broil at?
Some ovens misleadingly have two knobs: the temperature-control knob, and the knob that says “bake,” “broil,” and “off.” You might thus think you can broil at any temperature, but no. Commercial broilers, called salamanders, allow you to adjust the intensity of the flame, just like you do on the stovetop, from low to high. But home broilers don’t allow adjustments, and the oven temperature has nothing to do with how much browning you’ll get from your broiler.  Some sophisticated home ovens have two broiler settings — high and low — but that’s as much control as you’ll get. 

How close to the heating element should I place my food?
All broilers are a little different, and you’ll have to experiment to find what works best for you. As a rule of thumb, the food should be about 4 inches from the heating element. 
If your broiler doesn’t allow you to raise and lower the broiling pan, try using an inverted metal baking dish as a riser. 

If you have a gas broiler and you’re not getting much browning, try placing your food closer. If you have an electric broiler, you might get better results placing your food farther from the coil, since the lack of browning could be due to the coil going around the food rather than over it. Moving the food lower will at least allow you to make more use of the radiating heat. 

Do I have to keep the oven door open while broiling?
In many old ovens, the heating element went off once the oven reached a certain temperature, so it was helpful to leave the door open to prevent the oven from reaching that temperature. In most modern ovens, the heating element stays on when the oven is set to broil, so there’s no need to leave the door open. 

Some electric oven manuals suggest leaving the oven door open a few inches. It will keep the oven cooler, giving you more time to brown the food without overcooking it. Of course, some electric broilers won’t brown anything, open door or not, even after 20 minutes.

What pans can I broil in?
All ovens come with a broiler pan and a rack that fits into it. The broiler pan comes in handy, since it’s the perfect size for your broiler. I always wrap mine in aluminum foil to make clean-up easy; throw away the foil, and dishes are done. The rack, on the other hand, is completely useless. It makes clean-up difficult and allows all the juices to drip out of the food. 

If you can’t locate your broiler pan, don’t worry. You can broil in any metal pan (as long as it doesn’t have plastic or wood handles) or in ceramic dishes that are specifically designed for broiling (many ramekins and gratin dishes are). Don’t put glass baking dishes (including Pyrex) under the broiler; they will crack. 

Why did my food come out black?
Broiling is a very intense technique. Never put something under the broiler and leave the room, even if you’ve made this dish 10 times and know that it always takes 5 minutes to brown. All it takes is a slightly fattier piece of salmon to throw your timing off; the more fat, the faster it will brown. The first few times you use a new broiler or broil a new ingredient, check your dish every 2 minutes. 

What if the food catches on fire?
Avoid pouring marinades and sauces over your food while broiling it, as oil and sugar can cause flare-ups. If you are marinating your food before cooking, let the marinade drip off before placing the food in the broiler pan; if you have a very sensitive broiler, dab the food with paper towels to absorb most of the oil. A thin coating of oil is all you need when broiling. 

If the food does catch fire, don’t panic. Turn off the oven and leave the food where it is. When the flames subside, move the food to the middle of the oven to finish cooking. It’s probably brown enough by now anyway.

Don’t remove a flaming dish from the oven. Don’t pour water over it. And don’t wave a towel over it. Your oven is designed to withstand very high temperatures, but your oven mitts, towels, and the rest of your kitchen aren’t. 

Have fun playing with fire.

p(bio). Culinate columnist Helen Rennie is a food writer (check out her blog) and cooking teacher living in Boston.

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