Welcome to Ask Elazar, a column in which Eater staff writer Elazar Sontag answers your highly specific and pressing cooking questions.
I’ve always been sort of terrified/befuddled by the broiler in my oven, so I mostly just pretend it isn’t there. What’s the best way to use it?
Some broilers, like that elusive one, are placed in a separate compartment below the oven, but most are located at the top. In electric stoves, the broiler is a coil of metal that gets hot as hell but never lets out flames. In a gas stove, a powerful broiler resembles something more like a very handy flamethrower or blowtorch. In other words, broilers come in a lot of shapes and sizes. But for the most part, they serve a singular purpose: to give food the kind of grill-kissed color, taste, and texture that the regular heat of an oven doesn’t deliver.
Once you get the hang of broiling (and — cough — figure out where in your oven the heating element is), it will quickly become a cooking method you’ll turn to over and over again. But before you get going, make sure you have the right baking dishes. Avoid nonstick cookware, which can’t handle the heat of a broiler, and glass dishes, which can crack. Cast iron, sheet pans, and broiling or roasting pans are your best friend here.
Without further ado, here’s how to get the most out of your broiler.
Relinquish control (of precise temperature)
An oven is designed to be set to a relatively exact temperature and stay there. A broiler, on the other hand, usually has two settings: hot and really fucking hot. In a gas oven, this may be the difference between small flames slowly crisping a piece of meat and much larger ones licking right up against your food. In an electric oven, the heat will radiate from metal coils, but the idea is the same. Some ovens just have a single on/off option for broiling, which works too, though your control is a little more limited.
If you have the choice of options, a hotter broil is great for quick-cooking dishes, or for putting color on a big piece of already-cooked meat like a hunky reverse-seared rib-eye or a roast. This can also be the right setting for proteins like fish, which benefit from the direct heat and are prone to overcooking if left to bake for too long. Whereas an oven set to bake — even cranked up to 500 degrees — tends to slightly steam watery vegetables or cuts of meat coated in a marinade before the food starts to brown, a broiler comes in hot and fast, crisping as soon as the flames appear.
In general, I use the higher broiler setting for chicken breast and other quick-cooking proteins, as well as watery vegetables that have a tendency to steam when baked and cheese that needs some browning. My rule of thumb is that if it cooks quickly at a high heat on the stovetop, it will cook quickly under the high heat of a broiler, too.
Broiling under high heat will give you beautiful results in just a few minutes, as long as you don’t walk away and incinerate your dinner. One way to avoid accidental incineration, and to gain slightly more control over the oven’s temperature while broiling (especially on the higher-heat setting), is to leave the door ajar. If you’re going for intense, grill-like heat, this extra bit of airflow will release any steam that could otherwise be trapped and prevent immediate browning. Leaving the oven open also gives you a chance to peek inside and closely monitor the cooking process — which, at such a high and direct temperature, won’t take long. But if you do burn the shit out of a piece of fish (guilty) or turn broccoli florets into unrecognizable black nubs (also guilty), that’s okay too: It’s all part of your character development as a cook.
Using a lower broiler setting will still give dishes a lovely crust, but it will happen slower, and you won’t have to hover quite so anxiously by the stove. This lower heat is great for ingredients that take longer to cook or are thicker, and that would burn on the outside without cooking through at a higher temperature. Maybe you’re working with a two-inch pork chop, a cauliflower steak the size of a brick, or large chunks of onion that take a little longer to soften before they caramelize.
A low broiler setting is also excellent at pulling extra moisture from ingredients once they’ve been baked, blanched, or cooked in some other fashion. The sweet potato takes particularly well to this double-cooking method. Split open a cooked one, drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle with flakey sea salt, then slide it under the broiler to slowly crisp up and caramelize around the edges. The recipe developer Rick Martinez uses a similar method, breaking the cooked sweet potatoes into large chunks, dousing them in good oil and plenty of salt, and letting the oven crisp up all the corners.
If your broiler has both heat settings, then there are times when you might want to use both. Start with the less intense heat of a lower broil setting to get the cooking process going, then finish off with a blast of flames (or a blast of red-hot broiler coils). This works well for denser vegetables that need a little more time, or slightly bigger pieces of meat that don’t need to be slow-cooked or braised, but are well served by a little more time in the oven.
Whether you go high or low, think about the desired outcome before you turn on the oven. Looking for intense browning and even a few spots of grill-like char? Probably a job for the highest setting. More mellow, even browning? Let the low-and-slow heat do its thing.
Distance is key
Once you’ve figured out the level of heat you’re going for — which won’t take long, since you’ve got two options at most — the other variable to consider is distance from the heat source. If you’re following a recipe and there’s a broiling step included, it should specify where in the oven to put your pan. Something to keep in mind is that in some ways, distance will have a greater impact on your finished dish than heat level.
If the broiler is blasting full force, but your pan is sitting on the very lowest rack in the oven, you’ll end up with a cooking setup more similar to the ambient heat of an oven than that of a hot grill. There’s nothing wrong with this, and if you want to cook something a little less intensely while also letting it develop some color from the direct heat, this might be the best way to do so. That said, my philosophy is that if the pan is in the lowest third of the oven, you might as well just crank the knob to 350 or 400 degrees and leave the direct-heat cooking for another time.
In the upper two thirds of the oven, there’s still a lot of room to play around. When I want something really close to the heat, I’ll turn a cast iron pan upside down, put it on the uppermost rack, and place another pan on top of that. This jury-rigged approach is fantastic for getting intense browning on ingredients that might overcook if they’re farther from the heat, therefore taking longer to develop desired color and caramelization. I most often use this technique for filets of fish, but it’s also great for developing crispy bits on a tray of roasted cabbage or any number of other vegetables. Do be cautious, as a splatter of oil or a little too much sugar so close to the heating element can go up in flames — in which case it’s time to turn off the broiler and open a few windows.
I nearly always use the oven’s top rack when broiling, because the farther the food is from the heat, the more I start to wonder why I didn’t just bake instead. We’re going for color, for char, for caramelization! Lean into it! Of course, not everything fits on the top rack, and quick-burning ingredients like cheese or sugar might need a few extra inches to prevent disaster. There are also certain dishes which simply don’t fit on an uppermost rack, like a whole roast chicken. When it comes to whole chickens, or other cuts of meat that aren’t a consistent thickness, your safest bet is to move them a little farther from the heat. This way, wings or drumsticks or a thinner part of a rib roast will have time to develop color before the thicker part — closer to the heat — has scorched.
Don’t burn the house down, but have fun with it
With a little common sense and some practice, you’ll wonder why you haven’t cooked with the broiler forever. Sometimes, I’ll go days without turning on the oven at all, relying just on the stove top and the heat of the broiler. This is especially true in the summer, when letting the oven preheat and run for an hour turns my kitchen into a steamy, sticky sauna. Your sense for how far something should be from the broiler and how long it needs to cook will improve every time you turn it on. Along the way, you’ll get to enjoy all the crispy bits and crackly crusts that a broiler provides. And if something burns while you’re in another room, well, welcome to the broiling club.