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The Lost Art of Using the Damn Broiler

Guys, there’s no need to grill your steaks in freezing temperatures when you have a grill in your stove

Recently, a man did something fairly impressive: ABC 7 political reporter Craig Wall bravely endured 2-degree weather during Chicago’s big freeze-out to cook his wife a steak.

“My wife wanted a steak, so I renewed my man card and braved the temps, before the wind chill got below zero (it’s 2 above) and grilled for her,” he tweeted. “For us.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. First off, I didn’t realize one’s “Man Card” even could expire, nor that it came with an automatic renewal feature for acts of romantic heroism. But if so, I suppose this qualifies. When I was eight months pregnant, my daughter’s father maneuvered a car across an icy hellscape to procure an Oreo Blizzard from Sonic, which I deemed impressively risky for an equivalent payoff, even if I never considered it in such terms.

As for Wall’s efforts, it’s unclear how much time he spent in the actual chafing wind, but he gets extra Man Card points for including what looks like a beer in the photo while he cooks. Nothing goes better with a light buzz than frostbite. Whatever a Man Card is, it’s clear it demands maximum suffering.

Is Wall merely the public face of a longstanding trend? At least one reply to Wall’s tweet suggests that this is a thing called Blizzard Meat and men love it.

Wall may have felt that such risks were worth it for the payoff of love, but were they worth it for the payoff of a good steak? Or is this just another case of man making an impractical extraordinary effort when there’s a much easier solution?

That solution is this: You have a grill inside already. It’s called the broiler. Many commenters quickly pointed this out: that there were plenty of options right inside the warm comforts of his own home that could’ve produced just as juicy a steak.

Which begs the question: Whither the lost art of broiling?

Broiling is the same thing as grilling, just with the heat up top instead of underneath. Both use intense heat (about 550 degrees) for the pleasures of charring and caramelization. Ideally, you want that heat source to be about 4 to 6 inches away, and with broiling, and it’s far healthier if you catch the fat juice in a pan below, and far tastier if you let it cook right in it. It’s all over in under 10 minutes, too. The main drag of broiling is the fire hazard and high propensity for burning and flare-ups, or what you might call a kitchen fire.

When I grew up, in the ’80s, we were too poor for a gas grill and too lazy to wait for charcoal to evenly distribute its magical fire powers, so my mom tossed stuff in the broiler all the time, back when they were in a separate drawer below the oven (now they’re often in the upper third). Cheesy toast, a pan of vegetables, and later, when we could occasionally afford them, steaks. I don’t think we ever cooked anything that didn’t catch on fire for a second in the broiler, but to us, that was part of the fun. I carried this tradition into my 20s, making steaks this way most of the time using only olive oil, salt and pepper, and then turning once, usually after the first fire pops.

But it doesn’t seem like anyone broils anymore. I looked around to find out why, and I discovered the broiler is just hiding in plain sight, being awesome. Mark Bittman at the New York Times says his mother broiled every night when he was a kid, too, and calls the broiler the most underappreciated, taken-for-granted appliance in the kitchen. You already have one, so it’s basically free, and all you have to do is turn a dial.

Bon Appetit expresses the same bewilderment. In an persuasive argument for dropping everything and broiling something immediately, they argue that it’s the “easiest way to make crispy, beautifully browned food a reality,” and that “it’s the closest thing you can get to a grill in the comfort of your home, with open flames (if you have a gas-powered stove) coming extremely close to the surface of your food.”

They suggest its magical melty powers for finishing off lasagna, nachos or pizza. Or finishing a roasted chicken or wings so the texture achieves that magazine-ready golden brown. Or finishing a steak so it gets a crispy caramelization. And so on.

While their broiler affections seem intensely focused on the back end of a dish, I maintain you can do a steak from start to finish on broil alone, as I’ve done steaks and asparagus for ages. When you do it right, it’s not only as good as anything you’d gas grill, but arguably better, and to do it right, all you have to do is lightly season and watch the damn thing so it doesn’t burn.

There’s a perfect crispness and perfect juiciness when you broil anything right: steaks, fish, chicken, shellfish and vegetables. I asked the MEL staff for their broiler recommendations, and our Dudestrologist Erin Taj says she uses it for sweet potatoes and vegetables like broccolini. Senior editor Nick Leftley, MEL’s resident Brit, says broiling is “just how we always did a fried breakfast growing up — bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, everything would go under the broiler except the eggs.”

Correspondent Tierney Finster broiled steaks for Valentine’s Day, like she always does. “I always broil steak,” she says. “I have an old oven with a broiler and just popped in some New Yorks on high at first to fake sear, and then broiled a while longer at a lower temperature. I like grilled meats, but prefer skirt steak or beef kebabs on the grill. Broiling thicker steaks gives the meat a tastier char than the grill and activates their marbling better. Also my mom and grandma were both always broiling ‘good meat.’ Like, they would cook an on-sale piece on the stove, but better cuts in the broiler.”

I asked Nashville foodie, critic and cookbook author Nicki Pendleton Wood, who wrote Southern Cooking for Company, her broiling take. “The flavors aren’t really similar, if you’re grilling with wood,” she tells me. “Broiling gives the charring of the sugars, but not a smoke flavor.”

She said her favorites are steaks broiled after a rub with garlic, rosemary sprigs and coarse salt, and chicken thighs with a thin coating of Thai chili sauce broiled until the edges are crisp. “I didn’t replace my grill when it died,” she told me. “So I’m a broiler these days, or I cook on the fire pit. The oven is convenient and easier to clean. There used to be some worry that wood-grilled meat had carcinogens, but that’s pretty much been generalized to all high-heat methods of cooking meat. So, eat up!”

Given all this, it’s a wonder the humble, high-powered broiler is not more widely praised. Maybe everyone really is broiling all the time, and broiling just doesn’t sound sexy. Bittman suggests it might have something to do with age. “As a young food writer, freed from the constraints of the city, I wrote about the joys of wintertime grilling,” he writes. “As a middle-aged food writer, I’m writing about the benefits of wintertime broiling: you don’t have to brave the weather, and you get a warmer kitchen.”

Still, lack of sexy is no reason to overlook its extremely functional purpose. Think about it: You get ease of use and cleanup, the same crispy gains of the grill, extremely fast and good results — and, above all else, a tiny amount of manageable danger. That makes it actually more practical, which is probably why it’s not a Man Card sort of move in the first place. Your loss.