I was watching a British baking show the other day, and they kept referring to putting something in the oven “to grill.” Hold on, I thought, what are they talking about? Then the penny dropped and I realized it was one of those "the Brits call it this and the Yanks call it that" moments. Chef Jerry Pellegrino set me straight explaining that what they were referring to is what we call "broiling.”
To be sure, there is little difference between broiling and grilling. The latter involves placing your food very close to and above a heat source, usually some sort of flame, while the former, broiling, involves placing it under the heat source, usually a heating element in your stove. Upside down grilling.
What I never realized is that the heat that does the work is actually called "radiant heat". Much to my surprise it is not a flame per se that does the job, it is actually light in the form of invisible electromagnetic infrared waves. I kid you not.
These rays don't really heat the air, but they seriously heat up any solid object they come in contact with. Your average inside-the-stove-broiler will produce between 500° and 550°. That's mighty warm.
My hunch is that your in-stove broiler is the most under-utilized feature of your oven. And that is a shame, because if used properly, the broiler is extremely efficient. Primarily there are two uses: to do the cooking of a food item, which, as in grilling outdoors, has to be turned at least once; or to finish off an already cooked item by adding that artistic bit of golden brown to the top of the dish. In either case, broiling gets the job done very quickly, so you need to pay attention.
Most oven broilers have a high and low setting. Stick with high, because otherwise you might as well be baking.
What you do have control over is the distance below the broiling element. Ovens have slots every 1 1/2" or so to allow for the preferred placement of your racks. What you want is to have your food about 2" to 4" below the element, depending on what it is. You must keep in mind that getting the food too close will end up in scorching the food before the inside cooks.
Firm, durable proteins like meat or poultry can tolerate a close exposure to the broiler. But for more delicate items like fish or crabcake, you'll need to back off.
If you don't have a proper two part broiling pan, it's fine to use a rimmed baking sheet lined with tinfoil, supporting a wire cooling rack, which will allow for air circulation under the food.
Since overhead height is an issue, you may need to flatten your food. Steaks
are ready made, but a whole chicken needs to be cut up and butterflied to get the job done.
Here are some other tips.
1. Give your broiler about 5 minutes to heat up. It will work much better if it is.
2. You can leave the oven door open to keep an eye on your food. We're not worried about trapping hot air, just exposing that steak to the heating element.
3. Stand by your oven when broiling. Things can go from golden brown to coal black in a matter of seconds, so pay attention. Do not walk away.
4. Ignore suggested cooking times, and use your senses, including common sense.
5. Nearly every kind of food will need to be turned at least once for even broiling. Keep those tongs handy.
6. If you brush olive oil on your food prior to broiling, keep it light. Too much oil will flare up and make for a nasty mess.
7. Don't over-trim your steaks. Broiling will melt most of the fat, and caramelize the rest for a unique savory flavor.