As much as I enjoy grilling, there are days when inclement weather forces me to move the party indoors. If you find yourself in the same situation—or if you still haven’t decided which grill you should buy—there are ways to replicate the flavor and texture of grilled food right in the kitchen. Read on to learn how to grill without a grill.
A Word About Flavor
Before we begin, let’s take a look at why grilled food tastes so darn good in the first place.
When food is cooked, the proteins break down into amino acids, which creates a chain reaction with the natural carbohydrates. This phenomenon, known as the Maillard Reaction, results in a scent and flavor combination that taps into our deepest instincts.
Because the Maillard Reaction is triggered when the ingredient’s outer surface is exposed to high temperatures (usually between 300 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit), methods like boiling and steaming won’t produce the same effect. Although there are other flavor-boosting methods, nothing quite compares to the taste and texture of grilled food.
Before we delve into the various methods for recreating the grilling experience, let me reinforce one important point: You should never use your grill indoors, even if it’s in your garage. Doing so could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, which results in the deaths of over 400 people per year in the US alone.
No matter which technique you choose for indoor grilling, make sure the area is well-ventilated. Turn on your oven’s overhead fan, as well as any ceiling fans that might be in the vicinity, and open the windows if weather permits. We would also advise trimming any excess fat from the meat products in order to cut down on the smoke factor.
How To Grill Without A Grill
In essence, a broiler works just like a grill. While the grill’s heat comes from the bottom, the heat from the broiler radiates from above. This means you won’t wind up with any impressive grill marks. However, if it’s a good sear you’re looking for, a properly functioning broiler works wonders.
First of all, make sure your oven is actually equipped with a broiler function. Some models only feature a broiler drawer, which won’t work as well for these purposes. Position an oven rack 4 to 8 inches from the broiler element, depending on what ingredients you use and how quickly you want to cook them.
Next, place the ingredients on a broiler pan. These are usually included with the oven itself, but you can invest in a separate one as long as it’s the right fit. Alternatively, you can use a heavy rimmed baking sheet lined in aluminum foil. If you’d like, you can apply a thin coating of neutral oil to the pan beforehand.
Broil, leaving the oven door ajar, for 8-10 minutes, flipping the ingredients about halfway through that time. If they appear to be cooking too quickly, you can either move the rack further from the heat or adjust the cooking time.
For grill marks that look just like the real thing, try investing in one of these beauties.
Grill pans are outfitted with a series of deep ridges that allow the fat to settle away from the ingredients, so you don’t wind up with a greasy mess. A cast-iron model will last a lifetime if it’s treated properly, so it’s a great investment. Even better, grill pans are usually set at a reasonable price point.
Using a grill pan is simple. Just set the pan over the designated burner, turn the heat to high, and grill the food as you normally would. The pan needs to be exceptionally hot in order for grill marks to appear. If the food appears to be burning, turn the heat down to medium-high.
Because grill pans tend to take up a lot of cabinet space, you might want to consider another technique if you have a smaller kitchen. We would also recommend going easy on the marinade when using a grill pan. If there’s too much marinade on the meat, it will burn as it drips down between the ridges, which will make the pan more difficult to clean.
Cast Iron Skillet
If you have a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, you can use it as you would a grill pan. The material heats quickly and evenly, giving that prized sear to steaks and other hearty cuts of meat.
Marinate or season your ingredients as desired, then heat the skillet over medium-high heat. Add a small amount of oil—not too much, or the food will be sauteed instead of seared.
When the pan is hot, add your chosen ingredients and cook until they’ve reached the desired temperature. Flip steaks and other meat products halfway through cooking. If you’re using the skillet to sear vegetables, they can be tossed more often to ensure even browning on all sides.
If you don’t have a ridged pan, you can approximate the grill marks using a hot skewer. Follow the directions outlined above, then heat a metal skewer over the flame on a gas-fired burner (you can also use a culinary torch). When the skewer is red-hot, press it onto the surface of your seared protein to create clearly defined lines on the exterior. If the skewer begins to stick to the surface of the food, simply reheat it and repeat the process as necessary.
Although smoking and grilling aren’t exactly the same thing, you might achieve the flavor you’re looking for by setting up an indoor smoker.
To start, turn on all your fans and open at least one window. Use aluminum foil to line a disposable grilling pan. Add a layer of wood chips (such as apple or oak) and top this layer with another sheet of aluminum foil. Set a rack on top and add a third layer of foil, poking a series of holes in this top layer.
Set a burner to high and place your makeshift smoker over the burner. When the pan is emitting a steady stream of smoke, set your ingredients on the foil-covered rack. This technique works best with smaller ingredients. Cover the food tightly with yet another layer of foil.
Leave the ingredients in this makeshift smoker for about one minute before removing them and continuing to cook as you normally would. We would advise switching steaks or pork chops to a broiler or grill pan to give them a bit of texture as they finish cooking.
This is another fine substitute if you were hoping to use the grill for a low-and-slow cooking application, such as braising or smoking. Candidates for the crock pot include pork butt (also known as Boston butt), beef brisket, and bone-in chicken thighs.
This is one of the most carefree techniques listed here. Season your ingredients as desired (see Experiment With Seasonings, below, for ideas), then add them to the crock pot and set the heat to low. We would recommend starting the process in the morning if you plan on eating the results for dinner—most cuts of meat take 6-8 hours to cook when you use this method.
If it works with the flavor of your dish, saute a handful of diced onions in brown sugar until they’ve had a chance to caramelize, then add them to the crock pot along with your raw ingredients. This will mimic the taste of an authentic barbecue.
Electric grills are also available. Because these units don’t burn actual fuel, they don’t pose a carbon monoxide risk.
Some models are designed to cook food from the bottom, as a traditional grill would. Others are double-hinged to sear both sides of the food at once. To keep the experience as authentic as possible, I would recommend the first version over the second. Just prepare the ingredients as you would if you were using your outdoor grill.
Speaking of caramelizing, a kitchen torch provides another unique way to add that distinctive char to steaks and pork chops. You can even use it on vegetables that have been coated in a thin layer of olive oil.
Prepare your ingredients as you normally would, using a saute pan or skillet. When the food is nearly done, use your caramelizing torch to apply a golden crust to the exterior. As a bonus, you can use it to give a glossy sheen to creme brulee when it’s time for dessert. Take a look at this video tutorial for tips on using a caramelizing torch.
Smoking guns are another option. These tools do just what they describe—they douse foods with a blast of real smoke. While they work well for smoked cheeses and craft cocktails, I prefer to stick with other techniques for hot foods. Smoking guns are also fairly pricey, so they should be considered only if you’re serious about grilling indoors on a regular basis.
Experiment With Seasonings
Although you won’t get the same smoky flavor from indoor techniques, you can attempt to recreate the effect by getting creative with seasonings.
Smoked salt makes an invaluable addition to any kitchen. All grilled foods should be seasoned with a dose of salt anyway, but the smoked variety imbues the ingredients with an added richness.
If you can’t find smoked salt, you can use kosher salt mixed with a bit of smoked paprika. This won’t work for all ingredients, but it makes an excellent addition to meat and seafood, particularly shrimp.
Another option would be to substitute regular olive oil for smoked olive oil. These oils are infused with wood flavor after they’re pressed, which creates a reasonable facsimile of the effect you would get from cooking over a real fire.
Fans of spicy foods might enjoy adding a hit of chipotle peppers to marinades and grill sauces. These have a naturally smoky taste and are typically sold canned, but powdered versions are also available.
Use liquid smoke as a last resort. This condiment is produced by burning hardwood chips or sawdust and collecting the smoke particles so they can be condensed into liquid form. Because it’s made from real smoke, it does impart a heavy dose of flavor—so heavy, in fact, that it should only be used in small doses.
If you enjoy the taste of grilled food as much as I do, you’ll want to use the method as often as possible. Fortunately for all of us, there are ways to simulate those flavors without setting foot outdoors. Now that you know how to grill without a grill, you can hone your barbecuing skills every day of the year.
Best of luck to you, and happy grilling—without the grill!