Summer can be a depressing time for food-loving apartment dwellers like me. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, cooking magazines arrive offering “Juicy Grilling Secrets” and “55 Ways To Spice Up Your Grill,” while most Food Network programming feels like an anthropological documentary about suburban charcoal-worshipping rituals. My heart sinks a little when an otherwise appealing recipe from the newspaper contains some combination of the words build, fire, ash, and coals.
To be clear, I enjoy a flame-kissed hunk of protein as much as the next meat eater, but due to the nature of city living, I have very few options when it comes to grilling outdoors. I have neither the stomach nor the competitive nature to duke it out with my neighbors over the squalid public grills in the park. And before you suggest a portable Weber on the fire escape, know that the Fire Department once gave my building a citation for the three small herb plants that were cheerfully growing out there—that trauma killed my dreams of grilling as quickly as it killed my basil.
But as these last weeks of summer fade into autumn, I’m determined to do what some have called pointless or even impossible: to translate the rugged mystique of grilling for the climate-controlled certainty of the indoors. And I’m here to report that it can be done. As long as you are willing to leave silly notions of manliness, rusticity, and campfire nostalgia—in a word, the aura of grilling—on the stoop, the flavor will be happy to come on in. (I’ve never had much of a taste for aura anyway.)
First, you need the right equipment. As anyone who has conducted Google research on this issue will know, indoor grill can mean many different things. The one thing it doesn’t mean, of course, is bringing an outdoor charcoal or gas grill into the living room—you shouldn’t do that, ever. But the range of grill technology that won’t asphyxiate your family and burn your building down is still broad: There are George Foreman-type contact grills, special appliances called “open” or “freestanding” grills that sit on your countertop, fancy versions built right into your cooktop, and Space Age devices meant to mimic rotisseries and smokers. Even using the open flame of your oven’s broiler kind of counts as grilling—it’s the same concept, just upside-down.
But the best (and most common) type of indoor grill is the hearty, old-fashioned grill pan. This dependable cast-iron skillet (or griddle) is ridged to mimic the grill-marking power of its outdoor cousins, but it’s unfussy enough to only require one or two burners on your stovetop. Grills pans are also relatively cheap (a decent model will set you back between $40 and $80), easy to store in a tiny apartment kitchen, simple to clean, and capable of grilling far more than the occasional panini. (I’m looking at you, Foreman.)
And real, honest-to-God grilling is what we want, after all—a cooking technique more extreme than the ho-hum pan frying or oven baking with which we usually treat a chicken breast. Food scientists define grilling as cooking food relatively quickly with intense, dry, and direct heat (usually from below, necessitating a flip halfway through) and very little additional fat (whether oil or butter). The most noticeable characteristic distinguishing grilled meats and vegetables from foods cooked differently is the crispy crust that forms due to the “Maillard reaction,” a process in which amino acids react with sugars to produce browning and a bevy of wonderful and not entirely understood flavor compounds. Grill pans are very good at producing this reaction (as long as you preheat them long enough), whereas contact grills and similarly enclosed contraptions often end up steaming the food in its own juices rather than grilling it. Moreover, many specialized machines don’t allow for much in the way of temperature control, which makes it difficult to transition from searing a piece of meat over high heat to cooking it through over mellower heat (or vice versa). Not so with grill pans, which are limited only by the thermal nuance of your burners.