Setting the oven to ‘broil’

Home cooks, who seem to love almost every innovation, generally disdain the humble, if omnipresent, broiler. As evidence, check out the cookbook shelves: You’ll find books galore on slow cookers, microwave ovens, even spiralizers. Not a broiler cookbook in sight.

But this disdain is a distinctly modern development. Until a couple of decades ago, broilers had a robust culinary life. Home cooks routinely used them as a quick and convenient alternative to grilling. Our mothers pressed them into service for steaks and chops (which I must admit my mother ruined by cooking them until they were gray and dry).

Restaurants were bastions of broiling. Most had broiler stations rather than grill stations. Broilers still exist in most restaurants, but they have been made smaller and given a funny name, salamanders.

If you never stopped using your broiler, you are to be congratulated. I am happily becoming reacquainted with mine. It began sometime around the time my friend and frequent co-author Chris Schlesinger called me with an invitation.

“Come on over,” he said. “I’m broiling some fish.”

From someone else, that might have been less remarkable. But from Chris, it was the equivalent of: “Come for dinner. I’m poaching some T-bones.”

For 20-some years, Chris has been a vocal and unswerving champion of live-fire grilling. The only times I had ever heard him mention broiling was as a second-rate fallback for cooks either too lazy or too clueless to head outside and get the fire going.

Chris’s brother-in-law, Rick Guidelli, has used the broiler as an instrument of instigation. “How are you cooking those chops?” Chris would ask as he came through the door at Rick’s house. When Rick replied, “Broiling them,” Chris would become quietly apoplectic, if such a thing is possible. At that point, Rick usually chuckled.

But one day last winter, Chris’ partner, Suzanne, wanted steaks for dinner and the snowstorm outside was too severe even for Chris’ storied dedication. Suzanne did not want the smoke from a black-pan approach. So into the broiler went the steaks, and a convert was born.

“I don’t know why I was such a snob all those years,” he confided to me.

With all the ebullience of a newfound recruit, Chris in recent months has used his broiler for everything from cod fillets to chicken thighs. Most often he tosses accompanying ingredients into the pan as well, so what you end up with is pretty close to a one-pan dinner.

Along the way, he has developed a particular affection for unpeeled citrus, which turns sweeter and takes on a lovely bit of char under the broiler. As a by-product of his culinary crush, Chris has converted most of his friends to broiler enthusiasts, too. It took some doing.

Paradoxically, Chris’ first cooking job, at Blue Pete’s in Pungo, Virginia, was working — wait for it — at the broiler station. So it is perhaps not a complete surprise that at this later point in his culinary career he has rediscovered the tool.

Then, too, broiling has quite a bit in common with his first love, cooking over fire. There is the obvious fact that it’s a method of high-heat cooking that uses direct exposure to flames. And there’s the less widely recognized fact that it’s unpredictable.

Like every fire, every broiler has its quirks and peculiarities. Different versions heat to different temperatures, and the distance between heat and rack varies from oven to oven. So, as with grilling, it rewards active involvement on the part of the cook.

You need to check in on the food often, moving it around if some parts are cooking faster than others, or moving it lower in the oven if the outside seems to be charring and the interior isn’t cooked through. As Chris says, “You have to keep an eye out, and you need to resort to your cook’s intuition sometimes, too.”

There are also a few rules that will make your broiler more reliable and effective.

First, always heat the broiler for at least five minutes; ten is better. Second, as with the grill, choose relatively thin and tender ingredients to cook. Fish steaks and fillets, chicken pieces and steaks and chops all fit the bill. Nobody should be trying to cook a whole chicken or a roast in a home broiler.

You also need to pay some attention to the distance between the heat and the food. In most ovens these days, the heating element is at the top, so to get the food close enough to cook quickly, move the oven rack to its highest position; this will generally put the food about 3-4 inches from the heat source. If you have an old-fashioned under-the-oven type, the distance from the heat source to the food is fixed, but it is usually about 4 inches.

One way a broiler differs from a grill (other than that it is inside a metal box rather than under the open sky) is that in most models the heat source runs down the middle of the oven. This means you have to either line up all the food underneath that source or, more practically, rotate the pan during cooking to try to even out the cooking.

Don’t use glass dishes, even Pyrex, in your broiler, because they will likely crack. A metal roasting pan works well, but a disposable aluminum roasting pan, which can be reused several times, is perhaps the best choice.

If you follow Chris’ example and start experimenting, you will soon have another potent weapon in your cooking arsenal. And, really, what could be sweeter than a great new cooking tool that’s been in your kitchen all this time?

Broiled Chicken Thighs with Oranges, Fennel and Green Olives

Time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 bulb fennel, cored and thinly sliced

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

2/3 cup pitted green olives, halved

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon Maras pepper (or substitute 2 teaspoons paprika plus 1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Cracked black pepper

1 orange, cut into eighths, but not peeled

8 smallish (about 5 ounces each) bone-in chicken thighs

Preparation

1. Heat the broiler (to high if you have the option).

2. Combine the fennel, onion, olives, garlic, Maras pepper and 2 tablespoons oil in a large bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss gently. Spread this mixture in a 9-by-12-inch baking dish or disposable foil pan and scatter orange sections on top.

3. Add the chicken and remaining tablespoon of oil to the now-empty bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Place thighs on top of fennel mixture, skin side down.

4. Place under broiler with pan about 4 inches from the flame and broil for 10 minutes, turning pan front to back after 4 minutes. Turn chicken skin side up and continue to broil, switching pan back to front after about 3 minutes and broiling until the skin is crisp and dark brown and the chicken is opaque throughout (or until center of flesh registers 165 degrees on instant-read thermometer), 5 to 7 minutes more. Serve with crusty bread or couscous to soak up the juices.

Crusty Broiled Cod with Littlenecks and Chourico

Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup panko, lightly toasted

1/4 cup chopped parsley

3 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

4 5-ounce pieces cod fillet, about 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick

1 lemon, quartered

2 tablespoons medium or hot smoked paprika

Salt

Cracked black pepper

1/2 pound chouriço, diced medium

12 littleneck clams, well washed

1/2 cup dry white wine

Preparation

1. Heat broiler (to high if you have the option).

2. Combine panko, parsley, garlic, lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl, mix well and set aside.

3. Rub cod and lemon quarters all over with remaining oil, sprinkle with paprika, salt and pepper, then place in 9-by-12-inch shallow baking dish or disposable foil pan. Arrange chouriço and clams around cod and pour in wine. Place under broiler on top rack (about 3 to 4 inches from flame) and broil, turning dish back to front after about 5 minutes, until fish is almost opaque and littlenecks are open, 10 to 12 minutes.

4. Sprinkle panko mixture over the cod and return to broiler until crumbs are crispy golden brown, another 2 to 3 minutes.

5. Split cod, clams, chouriço, and lemon among 4 shallow bowls, pour pan juices around and serve.