For those of us multi-unit dwellers who are forced to respect the city fire code, the cooking appliance and gadget industry has come up with a number of alternatives, some bad, some good. There are "contact grills" (thank you, George Foreman), grill pans, even electric grills. All of them claim to be able to produce those delicious grill marks. In fact, few do...
Contact Grills - I'll admit that George had the right idea when he developed his "Lean, Mean, Grilling Machine," but he fell short mimicking the actual cooking method. I've tried several contact grills from a number of manufacturers and I'm never able to get anything better than flabby chicken with yellow stripes where the grill marks should be and only on one side. Half the time, the top grill never touches the meat. Worse yet, the meat often ends-up being steamed instead of "grilled". And don't get me started on how hard they are to clean unless you have the one model with removable grilling plates.
Electric Grills - I honestly have never tried one. If someone out there has, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Just looking at the things, I'm pretty sure you won't get much better results than a contact grill. There's just no way the heating element can do the kind of damage direct contact with an open flame can do. That, and they must be a pain to clean.
Coated Grill Pans - Basic knowledge of searing technique tells us that grill marks and "crust" are made by having the food in contact with a very hot pan or rack such that it sticks to the metal until the crust is formed. Then, it releases. So, I ask, how would you get good grill marks with a teflon-coated "nonstick" grill pan? The best it can do is put those sad yellow lines on it like the contact grill. Plus, liquid leaks into the troughs between the ridges of the pan and turns into steam, steaming your meat.
My Favorite: Cast Iron Grill Pans - My personal vote goes to cast iron grill pans such as those made by Lodge Cookware. Why? First of all, nothing holds heat like cast iron. If intense heat is what you're after, cast iron is a no-brainer. This intense heat actually makes black grill marks instead of yellow ones. Also, the "grill" ridges are high enough that your food isn't going to come in contact with the valleys between ridges. They're sharp too, not rounded like coated grill pans, so they're going to leave well-defined marks on the food. The best part is that if you run the pan on high, drippings from the meat will drop into the valleys, burn, and actually produce a moderate amount of smoke that goes back up into the food giving it real food flavor. Just don't forget to run the hood fan or you'll smoke yourself out of house and home (and set-off the smoke alarms to boot). My only complaint is the size, but they're so cheap, you could probably buy two.
Tips for Cooking with a Cast Iron Grill Pan
- Even if your pan is "seasoned" at the factory, season it yourself again. It'll make it easier to clean. Coat all surfaces of the pan with vegetable shortening and place the pan upside-down in the oven with a sheet pan covered in aluminum foil on the shelf below it to catch any drippings. Heat the oven to 450 degrees and let the pan "bake" for 15 minutes or so. You will want to open some windows and turn on the hood fan. This will produce smoke.
- Pound the meat with a mallot until it's an even thickness so it cooks evenly. If working with chicken, use the smooth side of the mallot and work until it's about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.
- If using a marinade, blot all excess marinade off the meat with a paper towel before grilling. Most marinades have a lot of sugar in them that will burn too soon and actually fuse itself to your pan. It's not easy to remove and you'll have more smoke than necessary.
- If using dry rubs or simple dry seasoning, blot the meat dry with paper towels. Add a bit of oil to the meat and put the dry rub on top of that. Let it sit for a few minutes to improve flavor (or refrigerate up to 4 hours).
- Pre-heat the pan on your stove's largest hob on the highest setting. Do not oil the pan. It'll only produce smoke. Add the meat and sear on both sides to get your grill marks. If the meat is thick, reduce the heat to medium and cook the meat through. Alternatively, place the entire pan in a hot oven to finish cooking the meat to the desired temperature.
- Clean your pan while still warm using a stiff wire brush like this one. Scrape any stubborn char off with the back (wood) side of the brush. After it cools, rinse the pan with water and a small bit of dish soap to get the black bits out of the pan. Wipe thoroughly with a paper towel to remove any further residue and dry thoroughly. Exposed iron will rust if left wet.
- Die hard cast iron enthusiasts tell you never to scrape the pan with metal or wash with soap because it'll ruin the seasoning--the black coating formed by use that gives the pan its non-stick feature and prevents rusting. In the case of the grill pan, I make an exception, as I don't really want chunks of burnt food becoming part of the "seasoning". As long as you oil your pan properly after cleaning (see below), you won't have a problem with the seasoning.
- After every use, pour a small amount of vegetable oil into the pan and rub it into the pan with a paper towel. A slightly warm pan will absorb the oil better. Let it sit until it dries a bit before storing.
2-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
seasoning or dry rub of your choice (lemon pepper, cajin, garlic + pepper, etc.)
1) Cover each chicken breast with a piece of plastic wrap and pound with the flat side of a mallot until chicken is 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Pound from the center, pushing outwards.
2) Place chicken on a plate or plastic board. Blot dry, then add olive oil to the top surface. Sprinkle generously with your spice rub and salt. Turn chicken over and repeat. Let sit with rub for about 5 minutes.
3) While chicken rests, heat the grill pan on your stove's highest setting. Use the hood fan to cut-back on smoke.
4) Place the chicken pieces on the grill pan with a pair of tongs, being sure to not place them too close or they'll steam. If cooking 4 breasts, work in two batches. The chicken should immediatly make a sizzling sound and stick to the pan. Let it stick for at least two minutes.
5) When the chicken releases from the pan, turn it a quarter turn to make a grid pattern on the underside of the meat. Sear another 1-2 minutes.
6) Turn chicken over and sear the other side as you did in step 5. Turn the heat down to medim-high and cook chicken until it registers 160-165 on a meat thermometer. Remove with tongs and serve.