Grill Pans – Worth It?

by Elizabeth Skipper | June 26th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

grill panWe tend to grill only outdoors during good weather. I’ve seen grill pans, but I’m not sure if I should spend money on one. Do you find them to be a useful kitchen item?

I do, yes. But it was a number of years after I first bought one that I started using and appreciating them. I wasn’t happy with the lack of grill marks I was getting, and cleaning it was a pain. Then I got another, different one, and things started looking up.

My sous-chef offered to bring her grill pan so we could double up on cooking chicken breasts for a big catering job we were working on. Anything you can do to make the prep go fast is worth it, so that was a no-brainer. Working on my client’s large gas range made it easy to fire up both pans simultaneously. The grilling went quickly, the grill marks were lovely, and the chicken was nice and tender. What made the difference?

The first pan I bought in Switzerland, when I was a grill pan innocent. It was cast iron (good), with low sides (also good), and rounded, low grids that were close together (not good.) Cast iron heats up and retains the heat well, so adding food to the pan scarcely cools it off. Low sides mean you can get at the food easily to turn it, a plus. But rounded grids don’t leave serious grill marks, and the fact that they were low meant that as soon as something fatty like a steak or burgers began to exude some fat and juices into the pan, the food began to fry or steam rather than grill.

The second pan I bought, also cast iron, has nice high ridges. The sides are slightly higher, but still low enough to get at the food easily. The higher, thinner ridges create grill marks more like those you get using an outdoor grill, and keep the food above the juices and fat in the base of the pan. Remember, cast iron should be heated gradually. While you want the pan nice and hot, don’t try to go from 0 to 60 in 30 seconds. Preheat over medium-low to medium heat, never high. Brush the pan with oil just before you’re ready to put the food on; don’t pour it in.

One thing you won’t duplicate is the flavor of outdoor grilling. But with marinades or rubs with smoky ingredients like smoked paprika, chipotle pepper, paprika or chili powder, you can still get mighty flavorful results. I’m not a fan, but if you are, a little liquid smoke will also help with capturing that outdoor nuance.

Do you like paninis? If so, companies like Le Creuset and Norpro make cast iron panini presses. They’re like a square pot lid, only with ridges on the bottom similar to the ones in a grill pan. With one of those, you can make paninis without buying an electric appliance. Most of the electric ones are non-stick, which I don’t like, anyway.

Speaking of non-stick, there are grill pans out there coated with it. I’ve never been tempted, though I’m sure they make clean-up a breeze. To get a pan hot enough to grill on will make it hotter than I’d feel comfortable using with non-stick. Most manufacturers will say not to heat those kinds of pans above a certain temperature, and I’d rather not worry about the possible release of chemicals into the air or the food.

My cast iron pan cleans up easily enough with plenty of hot water and a good stiff brush. Two words of warning, however. Allow the pan to cool off before running water into it. If the water’s cold, the pan could crack. And don’t just put the cooled-off pan into the sink and turn on the water full force. Unless you have a very deep sink, you’ll splash water out of the sink and onto you as well. Those grids deflect the water in a very effective spray pattern. Bet you don’t have to ask how I know that, eh? Tilt the pan at an angle away from you, run hot water down the side of it, and scrub away.

And of course, don’t use any detergent. Dry the pan with a paper towel (there’s always some grease left between the grids) as best you can, and put it in a low oven or on a cooling burner to finish drying. You’ll be good to go next time you have a hankering for grilling and the weather’s not cooperating.

  1. Jeannette says:

    I love my square grill cast iron pan. Being a colonial re-enactor, I clean mine the old fashioned way. I put a teaspoon of Kosher salt in the pan, and with a paper towel, clean out the pan, then rinse it with warm water.
    I love it!
    Thank you for a great article.

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