The (somewhat tempered) thrill of the (indoor) grill
When it comes to grilling, I've never let space or common sense get in the way. Stuck in the city without a backyard or patio? Surrounded on all sides by multiple stories of other people? Excuses. I've slowly smoked pork shoulder on a little hibachi grill on a small concrete slab in Brooklyn, and cooked pounds of mussels on my front stoop in Chicago. Both were enormous hassles, requiring borderline irresponsible behavior on my part and pissing off all my neighbors. But I grilled. Because I had to.
That's what we Americans do during the summer, right? We stand over barely contained infernos, tending enormous hunks of meat and the most beautiful in-season produce. We do it because just about any food tastes better after licked with fire, and because access to a grill is every American's summer right.
Then winter comes. And no matter how butch you are, there are days when standing outside, cloaked in a puffy parka, pushing some sausages around a grill is just not cool—in fact, it's just cold. That's why the holy grail for grillers, whether it's winter or you just don't have a yard, is a convenient and safe way to grill indoors.
I've experimented with grilling indoors in numerous American metropolises, and none of them have gone well. As anyone who has ever attempted to crank the heat as high as it goes knows, grilling indoors has one enormous problem: smoke. Without it, you aren't grilling, yet it has to go somewhere. And if you're not careful, it will shroud your entire apartment, setting off every smoke alarm along the way. (And if you'rereally not careful, it will spill out into the hall and set off those alarms, too.)
But there's nothing like attempting to do the impossible, right? So I set out to try a host of indoor grilling options, to see if any stacked up.
The most common replacement is the grill pan. And if it's grill marks you're after, it's grill marks you'll get. I'd even say that you can get more distinct lines with the grill pan than a regular grill. And if you get the pan rip-roaring hot, you'll also get a passable, if slight, char-grilled flavor—just without any charcoal aroma.
Yet, problems abound. If there is one thing grill pans do extremely well, it's produce smoke. I remember cooking fajitas on a grill pan at a friend's apartment in Philadelphia, and 30 seconds after the meat hit the grill pan, the plumes were so thick I could hardly see the terror on my friend's face as he raced to grab a towel to wave in front of the smoke detector. Sadly, skirt steak needs far more than 30 seconds, so I refused to give in, and continued to cook the meat until its required doneness, at which point it was hard to see anyone in the apartment at all. It's a design issue—fat gets stuck in the grill pan's grooves, and with nowhere to go, it vaporizes.
Restaurants get around this problem by sucking all the smoke away instantly with an industrial hood. But most apartments have shoddy vents stuck to the bottom of microwaves, or, just as likely, no vents at all. You can get creative with a series of fans positioned around the room, but it'll be loud, obnoxious, and you'll probably set the smoke detector off anyway.
A much better idea is your oven's broiler. Here you'll get an honest-to-goodness flame, albeit one that cooks food from the top, instead of the bottom. The broiler does high heat well, searing meat and vegetables quickly. But no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise, it just doesn't feel like grilling. Most of the time you're huddled over the oven, awkwardly fiddling with ingredients. It's about as far as you can get from defiantly standing in front of a well charcoaled fire like a proud American. You might as well be bowing to the Soviets.
Where does that leave us?
A couple new products hope to restore the honor of indoor grilling, while also cutting out the smoke.Stephen's Stovetop BBQ is an 11-inch grill that sits on top of your stove. It's made of three parts: a non-stick grill, a drip tray, and a hollow aluminum base pan that allows the stovetop's flame in.
Like your average man, I tore open the packaging and went about testing the product before I read any instructions. I stuck the grill on my largest burner, cranked the heat to high, and got to work. Though smoke appeared almost immediately, the impressive results spoke for themselves—beautifully charred chicken with crisp skin, which honestly tasted like it came from the backyard.
Only while cleaning up did I realize that part of the aluminum base had melted, pooling on my stovetop like T-1000 from Terminator 2. Returning to the instructions, I realized that it very clearly advised against high heat. In fact, it recommends medium-low to low heat. Talk about a big wet blanket. Further testing at the gentle setting proved that you could get good grill marks, and a very, very slight charred flavor, but you'll miss the rush.
I needed real power.
The Kenyon City Grill looks like a grill. Clad in stainless steel, with a hefty lid and a large grilling area, this feels like the real deal. Instead of charcoal or gas, an electric coil runs below the grill grate. Below that is an aluminum pan, which you fill with water before every use. These precautions help cut down on the amount of smoke—not completely, but enough to make life much more livable. More important: the electric coil gets hot.
I've been testing this product for the past month, and when cranked to high and sufficiently allowed to warm up (about 15 minutes), it's never let me down. I've grilled pounds of veggies and cooked a massive 2-inch thick ribeye until glorious browned on the outside and medium-rare inside. It's almost too easy—plug it in, turn the knob to high, and never even think about the dangers of a live fire (or the annoyance of refilling a propane tank). Sure, you'll miss the pyrotechnics and aroma of a real grill, but it's the closest you'll get to the real thing.
Of course, shelling out for a $400 indoor grill isn't practical for most of us, which led me down the dark hallways of affordable alternatives. Charcoal grill grates are far too thin to work, but what if I tossed a heavy-duty gas grill grate in my oven? I cranked the heat up all the way (a sweltering 550°F.) and gave it a shot. To catch the drippings, I copied the setup of City Grill, placing a roasting pan filled with water underneath the grill.
What a terrible idea. First thing I noticed was that the oven refused to preheat all the way. The water in the pan began to boil, thus regulating the temperature with steam. And the last thing I wanted to do was steam food. Adding the pan of water only moments before setting the food on the grates helped, but I still had issues. Even when preheated for an hour, the grates never got as hot as I wanted. That meant that the food cooked mostly by the radiation from the oven, and not from conduction from touching the grates. Along with some meager grill lines, the food never tasted like it was grilled.
I needed some real firepower, which led me back, however reluctantly, to the broiler. If you preheat the grill grates first in the hot oven, and then transfer to under the broiler, your food will sport some pretty solid grill lines, while the broiler brings the necessary high heat.
Is it perfect? Hell no. In fact, it's fussy. And grilling is supposed to be easy, lighthearted—summery, dammit. So I'm shelling out for the indoor grill. Compared to the emotional cost of going eight months without grilling, this thing is cheap.
Click through below for grilling mistakes to avoid:
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