How to grill if you don't actually have a proper outdoor grill
Ah, grilling season. The perfect time of year to add the smoky flavor of the open grill to your favorite foods. Unless you live in an apartment or in an area with less-than-predictable grilling weather. Have no fear. You can enjoy the flavors of the outdoors rain or shine even if you live on the 14th floor and, at the time, skipping out on the unit with a balcony to save on rent seemed like a good idea.
Tools of the trade
Grilling doesn't require propane or charcoal. It doesn't even require an actual flame, for that matter. It just requires high, dry and direct heat. Which is good, since we don't really recommend the use of propane or charcoal indoors.
Unless you can afford to (and have the authorization to) get a stove with a grill surface built in, there are two main options to substitute for an outdoor grill: stovetop grill pans and countertop grills.
Countertop: Most people assume the countertop grills are the best option. That may or may not be true depending on the specifications of the model. If you're committed to a countertop model, make sure it has the right options:
- Full temperature controls
- Temperature goes above 450 degrees F (an outdoor grill can get as hot as 700 degrees F)
- Lid that doesn't cause your food to steam
Stovetop: Grill pans, on the other hand, are limited only by the maximum temperature of your stovetop. They're also easier to store. These are the features you should look for:
- Cast-iron, because it more closely mimics the outdoor grill's finished product, gets screaming hot and maintains a consistent temperature
- Single-burner grill pans, because cast iron needs full contact with the burners for even heat
I like this reversible grill-to-griddle model from Lodge.
I also like using a single-burner induction cooktop for indoor grilling because I have a glass cooktop on my stove, and I do worry about it cracking either due to high heat or because I drop a heavy cast-iron grill on it. That's obviously optional.
Get that grill screamin' hot
Whether you're using a countertop model or a stovetop one, your indoor grill has to be preheated just like an outdoor grill. For a countertop model, consult the instruction manual, as different grills will take different amounts of time to preheat.
For a cast-iron grill, place it in an oven preheated to the temperature you need to cook at for about 15 minutes. When it's done, using heavy-duty oven mitts, put it on a preheated burner, carefully oil it up, and cook just like you would outdoors. Barbecuing traditionally uses lower temperatures at some point in the process (if not all the way through), whereas traditional grilling (burgers, steaks, etc.) may need higher temps for searing the outside of the meat.
Outdoor grill flavor hack
While it's true that you don't require an open flame to accomplish grilling scientifically, the lack of the smoke that comes with that flame will affect the flavor. There are several ways to mimic that smokiness when you have no choice but to cook sans fire:
- Add smoky spices to your rubs: smoked paprika, ancho chili powder, chipotle powder, cumin, smoked salts.
- Rub the outside of meats with about 1/8 teaspoon of liquid smoke before grilling.
- Use bacon grease as your fat instead of oil or butter.
- Add smoky liquids to your barbecue sauce: liquid smoke, smoked beer, adobo sauce, molasses.
Can grilling indoors ever taste exactly like outdoor grilling? Maybe not, but you might just find that some of these flavors make indoor grilling your preference.