For many of us, the start of summer in the US conjures up nostalgic thoughts of a great American pastime: backyard barbecues.
But what if you have neither?
Urban areas have limited outdoor access, and even if you have the space, grilling equipment can be prohibitively expensive. Here’s how you can get the best parts of backyard grilling anyway.
You absolutely cannot grill indoors without a grill pan. I use a cast-iron reversible grill and griddle that fits over two burners, but if you don’t have the storage space, there are smaller versions on the market.
A cast iron grill pan is heavier and can be harder to clean than its non-stick counterpart, but the flavor and grill marks you can get are much closer to the outdoor barbecue, making it well worth the trade-off.
Once you have a seasoned pan, you are ready for the first step of indoor grilling, which is all about using grill marks to impart flavor, texture, and the barbecue look to whatever you’re cooking.
To create what celebrity French chef Jacques Pepin calls the “perfect crosshatch pattern” on your meat or vegetables, place what you’re cooking lengthwise on the grill pan, let it cook, rotate it 90 degrees, let it cook, flip it over, let it cook, then rotate it 90 degrees to finish cooking. Your time in each step will vary depending on the thickness of what you’re cooking. For example, you’ll want to sear a one-inch steak for about 1 minute, 30 seconds at each stage for medium-rare doneness.
To achieve the slow-roasted flavor and texture that people love so much in outdoor barbecue, you could heat up your home for hours in the summer braising in the oven—or, as is my preference, use the combination of an electric pressure cooker with your oven’s broiler to get essentially the same result.
A countertop pressure cooker will cook your food using built-up steam pressure. As the boiling point of the liquid in the pot is raised, the flavors concentrate at an accelerated pace. As Kitchn explains:
The extra-high heat of the pressure cooker also promotes caramelization and browning in a surprising way—we’re not used to food caramelizing when it is cooking in liquid. But the flavors created in a pressure cooker can be really deep and complex—unlike regular steamed foods.
Once a meat is sufficiently cooked in the pressure cooker (10 to 45 minutes depending on the cut), you can transfer the cooked meat to a sheet pan and briefly use your broiler setting to get that char you would enjoy from an outdoor grill.
“Think of your broiler as an upside-down grill,” Epicurious writes. “Instead of heat coming from the bottom, it comes from the top. While you won’t get those pretty grill marks (or the smoky flavor you’d get from charcoal), you can usually achieve a decent char.”
While many home cooks will think to use a grill pan to get a nice char on a piece of flank steak or chicken thigh, side dishes are often overlooked. This is a shame, because grilled corn is a significant improvement on its boiled brethren.
For yet another level of grill flavor for an entree, you can take a combination of charred peppers, onions, and chiles and give it a whirl in the blender to create a sauce, like this one from Smitten Kitchen. No blender? No problem. This burnt scallion gremolata is also divine.
Any good at-home barbecue will begin with a homemade dry rub, but to add new layers of grill flavor, consider adding some smokey elements to meat, fish, or vegetables.
Ingredients like smoked salt, mezcal, and chipotle peppers can all add that background hint of smoke without access to charcoal or a wood-burning grill.
“Smoke is the spice that is not on your spice rack,” says AmazingRibs.com founder “Meathead” Goldwyn in his book The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling. But the grillmaster cautions to use any element of smoke sparingly, as the flavor can be overwhelming: “Think of smoke as a seasoning, like salt. Use too much, and you can ruin the meal.”
There are many new kitchen gadgets you can add to your repertoire to help with your indoor grilling adventures. As Cheryl Jamison writes in Smoke & Spice, stovetop smokers can give you an end result that is ”not quite true barbecue, but it’s close enough to fool a foreigner and tasty enough to inspire yelps of joy in a Carolina pork lover.”
Per Jamison, here’s how it works:
“The ‘barbecue pit’ of choice is a crafty, inexpensive device called a stovetop smoker. You place wood dust or chips—packaged with the smokers—in the bottom of a rectangular pan. A drip tray and food grate go directly above. You cook over the front and back burner of a stove, using low to moderate heat to gently ignite the wood and generate a puff of smoke, which is trapped inside the pan by a tight-fitting lid and absorbed by the food during the cooking process.
In the video above, celebrity chef Michael Voltaggio demos how you can use the tool to impart smoky flavor in salts and sauces. The smoke can be used to flavor a finished dish, or can be aimed in a food processer to blend the smoke directly into a soup or salsa.
And remember—whether you’re testing out a smoker or marking off your steaks, you can always let your cat give you a hand.