"With spring on the horizon, I've started thinking about grilling. But as an apartment dweller with no grill, the grill pan is the only viable option. Have you conducted any tests on grill pans? Other than the obvious aesthetic benefit from the grill marks, I'd love to know how a piece of meat cooked on a grill pan might compare in flavor to one pan-seared and one cooked on a proper grill. Basically: do grill pans provide any actual flavor, or are they just for looks?"
—Sent by ryanm
I get it: some people simply don't have outdoor space or access to a real grill. I counted myself amongst you poor souls at some point, and may find myself in your ranks again if the fire department ever discovers that I've been grilling on my legally-too-small-to-grill-on deck (all they'd have to do is look up—their station is right below me). So the question is, can a grill pan—you know, those heavy pans with the deep ridges inside them—serve as a suitable substitute?
The good news is they're decent at giving you grill marks and a good degree of charring, which does impart a bit of the characteristic grilled flavor to meats and vegetables. The bad news is they don't even come close to imitating the real thing.
Let's first talk about what they can do.
The flavor of grilled food comes from a number of factors. One of them is the contrast and mix of flavors you get in your mouth when bits of charred food and simply browned food mix. This is a characteristic of high heat cooking—the hotter you cook, the bigger the differential will be between the most-cooked bits and the least-cooked bits. Grilling takes this to the extreme, adding smokiness and a bit of bitterness to the standard array of flavors you get from browned meats.
Grill pans are great at mimicking this char. When you put, say, a steak on a grill pan, the parts directly in contact with the metal absorb a tremendous amount of heat—the heat going into the bottom of the pan from the burner is all conducted into the ridges, thus square-inch for square-inch, the parts of the meat actually in contact with metal will cook much faster and thus char more efficiently than meat cooked in a flat pan on the same burner.
At the same time, the valleys in the pan provide efficient escape channels for water vapor coming out of the meat, allowing the pan to maintain its temperature better than a regular flat skillet.
So far, so good. But what about the bits of the meat not in direct contact with the metal?
Let's take a look at what happens on a real grill:
With a real grill, cooking takes place primarily via two methods: conduction and radiation. Conduction is the direct transfer of heat energy from one solid body to another, in this case, from the hot grill grates to the steak. Radiation is the direct transfer of energy via electromagnetic waves, and it requires no intermediary medium—think: the warm sun's rays on your face.
So on a regular grill, not only will the meat get grill marks from where it is in direct contact with the hot metal grates, but the spaces in between will also be cooking (and cooking fast) via direct radiation from the hot coals or burners. It's this feature that allows you to get that combination of charring and browning (known as the Maillard effect) that provides grilled meat with such a complex, delicious, meaty flavor.
"A hot grill pan, on the other hand, will barely cook via radiation at all."
A hot grill pan, on the other hand, will barely cook via radiation at all. There's a small amount of radiation coming out of the valleys of a hot grill pan, but compared to the intense radiation emitted by hot coals, it's negligible. Here's a quick way to prove this: next time you grill, hold your hand out close to, but not touching the grates. You should be able to hold it there at most a matter of seconds. Do the same thing over a hot grill pan, and you'll be able to hold it there far longer (do not try actually touching the grill lines).
Similarly, if you place a steak on a hot grill pan, it'll char where it's in contact with the metal, but it will barely brown where it's not. The flavor is noticeably less meaty as a result. This can be mitigated to a degree by rotating the meat on the grill pan a few times as it cooks in order to spread the heat out and give it some better browning, and to preheat the pan over high heat for a very long time (of course, you'll also smoke out your apartment doing this).
There's another downside to grill pans: with a regular grill, lots of flavor—particularly the smoky, ever-so-slightly acrid notes of grilled meats—is developed when fats dripping from the meat hit the hot coals or elements underneath, vaporize, and ignite. Those vaporized fats then leap up and leave deposits of flavorful compounds on the surface of your food. Now, too much of this is a bad thing—we've all been to that backyard barbecue where the burgers ended up engulfed in flames and came out tasting like they'd been to the seventh circle of hell and back—but when well-controlled, a few small flare-ups can be a good thing for flavor.
Flare-ups will never occur on an indoor grill pan. At least, they shouldn't if you don't want your house to burn down.
So long story short: a grill pan will deliver flavors that a standard pan won't—more char, a tiny bit more smoke—but will require you to shut off your fire alarms to do so. And no indoor method that I know of is a replacement for the combination of super high radiation and conduction levels you can get from an outdoor grill.
And for the record, a real coal-burning grill will get hotter and produce better flavor than any gas grill on the market, including the fancy new "infrared" models.