The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, May 15, 2019 1:00 am

Fire up the broiler

Overlooked option can be used to make memorable meals

Becky Krystal | Washington Post

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.

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.” 

I especially like broiling for the way it can imitate grilling, especially when it comes to kebabs. Broiling skewered marinated chicken is a no-brainer. Broiling can do wonders for vegetables, too. 

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! 

Keep certain things out of the broiler. Almost every time I mention tempered glass cookware (such as 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 parchment paper? Fine for a quick test, but since it can hold up only to temperatures around 450 degrees, you don't want to expose it to broiler heat 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. Be careful with anything extremely fatty or oily, too, which can make for a smoking – or flaming – mess.

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. 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.

No-Fry Eggplant Parmesan

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)

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 large onion, finely chopped (11/2 to 2 cups)

1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced

11/2 teaspoons dried oregano

28 ounces canned, no-salt-added crushed tomatoes, plus their juices

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves, torn

1/2 cup freshly 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

Position a rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Line two rimmed baking sheets with aluminum foil.

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 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 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.

Meanwhile, heat half the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook about 10 minutes, until softened and translucent. Add the garlic and dried oregano; cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly, until fragrant.

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 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.

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.

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) 35 to 40 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling, the top is golden brown and the center is hot.

Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

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 jalapeño pepper, shallots, garlic and cherry tomatoes in a large cast-iron skillet or a roasting pan; place in the oven to broil 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.

When the garlic is cool enough to handle, discard the papery skins; add the garlic to the food processor, then add the sherry vinegar, salt and water. Pulse or process briefly until the mixture is pureed but still a little chunky. Taste and adjust salt as necessary; thin with water as needed. Serve immediately or refrigerate up to 1 week.

Simple Butter Chicken

For the chicken:

11/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (trimmed of excess fat), cut into 11/2-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)

11/2 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)

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 

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

11/2 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 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 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.

For 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 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 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.

Sign up for our Food newsletter

Sent Wednesdays