Few things have come and gone through my kitchen that I have loathed as much as my late grill pan. Designed to stretch over two burners, its size and large handles made it unwieldy and hard to store. It was allegedly nonstick, but food still burned and stuck, and yet I couldn’t scrub it for fear of ruining the coating. After years of collecting dust and resentment, it was recycled in one of those county-sponsored events. Good riddance!
But then I started cooking with a cast-iron grill pan in our Food Lab and began to feel less smug about all the extra space — now filled with other tools, of course — I had freed up in my cabinet.
Count chef and cookbook author Elizabeth Karmel, who wrote our outdoor grilling guide, among the fans of the grill pan. “I lived in an apartment in New York for many, many years without any outdoor space,” meaning she used her grill pan a lot. She even uses a grill pan to teach grilling classes.
So how do you make the most of this tool?
Pick your pan
Don’t just take my word for it. There are a number of reasons cast iron is superior. Its ability to retain heat means you’ll get those great grill marks and caramelization. America’s Test Kitchen also found that cast-iron grill pans boasted taller, more distinct ridges, because nonstick aluminum pans aren’t strong enough to hold up to being stamped into more dramatic peaks and valleys. The better ridges give you more distinct grill marks and can lead to better cooking by elevating food — burgers, for instance — out of the fat or other liquids it has rendered.
Karmel also recommends looking for a grill pan that comes with a lid, or at least includes the possibility of buying a lid, so that you can do all your cooking on the stove top. (Otherwise, you can choose to finish especially larger pieces of meat in the oven.) When you put a lid on, you’re cooking with both the direct heat of the pan as well as the indirect heat of the closed environment, which also more closely replicates an outdoor grill.
Don’t expect exactly the same process or results as a grill
Yes, you can cook a lot of the same food in a grill pan as on a grill. But you may have to adjust the recipe. Karmel says you need to use a variety of cues to know when the food is done rather than just relying on the time in your grilling recipe. Look at the outside of the food. Is it browned? For meat, using an instant-read thermometer is the best way to know for sure whether your meat has been properly cooked. You can also see whether the meat has contracted in size, as Karmel says meat generally reduces by 15 to 25 percent in size.
Of course, you’ll never be able to replicate the smoky flavor of an outdoor grill on a grill pan. It’s fine to accept that, knowing you’ll have the grill marks and caramelization. “Two out of three ain’t bad,” Karmel says. Or you can experiment with ingredients — smoked salt, smoked paprika, even smoked olive oil — to add some of that outside taste back into the mix.
Crank the heat, at first
Like their skillet cousins, cast-iron grill pans need time and energy to heat up properly, so start by turning the heat to at least medium-high. That will also help give you a proper initial sear and the coveted grill marks. Karmel likes to check the heat by flicking a few drops of water on the pan. If they immediately skip and scatter, the heat is right. But once you add the food (Karmel likes to oil the food and not the pan), you’ll probably want to turn down the heat. The food should brown but not burn.
Choose your food
“Any protein works really well in a grill pan,” Karmel says, ticking off chicken breasts, pork chops, pork tenderloin and steak, particularly flank (she has a recipe for grill pan chimichurri flank steak in her new book, “Steak and Cake”), as obvious choices. “It’s one of the best ways to make delicate seafood like scallops,” she says. “Even a fish steak is great.” Karmel also recommends trying spatchcocked chicken or Cornish game hens. Vegetables — eggplant, asparagus, onions, zucchini among them — are great, too. Karmel prefers doing fruit, such as strawberries, watermelon, pineapple and stone fruit, on a grill pan inside. Unlike on a traditional grill, you won’t lose the juices and sugars that caramelize and provide extra flavor, especially when the fruit is not as sweet or ripe as you might want.
You can turn your grill pan into a panini press, either with a lid designed for the purpose or just another heavy skillet. A grill pan can also be used to cook bacon, which some people appreciate as an added benefit of helping to season the cast iron.
Take care of the pan
Caring for a cast-iron grill pan is pretty much the same as a cast-iron skillet. Pay attention to the seasoning, don’t let it sit around wet, and the more you use it, the better the pan will cook and build its own nonstick coating. The ridges are the only tricky part. You can buy specialized tools for cleaning in between them, but Mark Kelly, the public relations manager at Lodge — the cast-iron cookware brand whose 10½-inch square grill pan was named an America’s Test Kitchen’s best buy — recommends what I have found most effective: Make a paste of water and coarse salt, and scrub away.
“If you like grilling and you prefer not to work with charcoal or gas outside, it’s a good alternative,” Kelly adds. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s very versatile.”