Of the six basic methods of cooking, broiling is the hardest to control.
What are the six basic methods, you ask? They are (1) immersion in hot water or stock (boiling, poaching, stewing); (2) exposure to hot water vapor (steaming); (3) immersion in hot oil (deep-frying); (4) contact with hot metal (pan-frying, sautéing, searing, grilling); (5) exposure to hot air (baking, oven roasting); and (6) exposure to infrared radiation. That last-named method is what we call broiling. (Okay, add the absorption of microwaves to the list if you wish.)
Maybe you think you don’t broil with infrared radiation. But the molecules of anything that’s hot, such as the flame or heating element in a broiler, are emitting infrared radiation, a kind of electromagnetic energy that other molecules can absorb with the result that they become hot in turn. You can feel the warming of the molecules in your face when you walk by anything that’s hot, such as a red-hot furnace or even a range burner that you forgot to turn off. So any cooking method that involves a source of heat, and what method doesn’t? (okay, except microwaves), is cooking the food at least partially by shooting infrared radiation at it.
Broiling cooks food almost entirely by infrared radiation. The heat source, whether a red-hot electric element or a line of gas flames, doesn’t touch the food; it bathes it in intense infrared radiation, which is absorbed by the top surface of the food, heating it to 608 to 700°F (320 to 370°C) and searing and browning it quickly. Then, after you turn the food over, the same thing happens on the other side.
In electric ovens set on “broil,” only the top heating element gets hot, and the food is placed close beneath it. In some gas ovens, the burner may be beneath the oven floor, doing double duty by also heating the oven, so the food to be broiled must be placed even below that, usually in a drawer-like arrangement.
But we all learned in school that heat rises, didn’t we? So how come we can cook food beneath the source of heat? Well, pardon me, but heat doesn’t rise. Heat from a hot object can flow up, down, or sideways. It will flow into any cooler object with which it happens to be in contact. What people mean when they say heat rises is that hot air rises. Heated air expands and becomes less dense, so it floats upward through the denser, cooler air like a bubble in water.
And while we’re picking nits, what we usually call grilling, that is, placing food above red-hot charcoal or gas flames, can also be called broiling because it’s not the rising hot air that cooks the food so much as the infrared radiation. Even so, largely because of the charcoal’s smoke and the juices that drip down onto hot surfaces and vaporize, this kind of broiling imparts very different flavors to the food than “indoor” broiling does.
Broiling is a good cooking method for tender meats, poultry, and fish, because it’s a dry, high-temperature, short-time method. Less tender meats generally need long, moist cooking to break down the collagen in their connective tissue. Beef steaks and other red meats are a natural for broiling, while pork, chicken, and fish have to be watched carefully to prevent their drying out.
The biggest question in broiling is how close the meat should be to the heating element or gas flames, because a small difference in distance can make a big difference in temperature. The right distance will depend on the type and thickness of the meat, on its fat content, and especially on the idiosyncrasies of the broiler itself. As you’ve noticed, your broiler isn’t your mother’s or your neighbor’s broiler. They’re all different. In general, though, the top surface of the meat should be 3 to 6 inches from the heat source, thin meat relatively closer and thick meat farther away so it can cook through before its surfaces char.
Should you leave the door open? Usually it’s left open in electric ovens to prevent hot-air baking and to let the smoke out. In stove bottom gas broilers, the drawer is kept closed because the flames consume the smoke, and leaving it open could make a greasy mess on your kitchen floor.
Should you preheat the oven? It’s generally not necessary, although I’ve seen an almost equal number of “always preheat” and “never preheat” admonitions. The best advice, in fact the only good advice, is to follow carefully the directions in the broiling chart in the instruction manual that came with your oven. The manufacturers have spent a lot of time and effort to determine the best conditions for broiling various kinds of meat in their equipment. If you’re one of those people who throw away instruction manuals, or if you can’t find yours (have you looked in your kitchen’s “everything else” drawer?), you can usually order a free replacement from the manufacturer.
Remember that the fat-catching broiler pan that came with your oven is an important part of the picture, so don’t expect to get the same results with any old pan of perhaps a different size. When I use the recommended broiler pan, shelf height, lack of preheating, door ajar, and cooking time for broiling chicken in my electric oven, it comes out perfectly, even though it looks to me as if the chicken is much too close to the heating unit and the door is open too wide.
It doesn’t pay to second-guess manufacturers. They know their stuff best.