Fear of Broilers

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My favorite childhood movie was “The Phantom Tollbooth,” which most people know as a book, but I only know (and insist on knowing) as a movie. Milo, the young protagonist, must travel through Dictionopolis and Digitopolis to make his way to the Castle in the Air to rescue Rhyme and Reason. Only, whenever he says the words “the castle in the air” thunder claps and the sky explodes with lightning.

Which is precisely what happens in my head whenever a recipe says: “use a broiler.”

Why am I so scared of broilers?

It’s not a safety concern or a health concern or anything like that; it’s more an issue of control. When I follow a recipe, say, and it says, “Bake in the oven for 45 minutes” there’s great comfort in the fact that if the recipe is slightly off or if my oven isn’t properly calibrated, the dish will still–mostly–turn out ok and edible.

Not so with broilers. Broilers are the kitchen equivalent of cooking over a campfire–and how many of you have innocently placed a marshmallow on a stick, held it over a crackling fire only to have the marshmallow ignite, its fluffy goodness smoldering in fierce, unforgiving flames, your dreams of a S’more forever squashed?

That’s what a broiler wants to do to your food. It wants to catch it on fire, it wants to destroy it and you and your self-confidence and your appetite and your family and all your accomplishments. This is why I am scared of broilers.

Recently, however, I met a chef who couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful the broiler is; how it’s a chef’s best friend in a kitchen. The direct heat of the broiler does for the home cook what a flaming grill does for an outdoor cook: it quickly brings all the sugars to the surface, producing crackly, golden exteriors and moist, flavorful interiors. The broiler is the answer to my complaint about not being able to grill in a New York apartment: that flame at the top of your oven (or, in my case, below my oven) is your oven’s attempt to turn you into Bobby Flay. And last week, I let my oven cast the spell.

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The recipe I chose was from Elise’s site: Honey Mint Glazed Chicken.

I turned my broiler on and followed Elise’s steps. I cut up a whole chicken and marinated it in a mixture of olive oil and red wine vinegar. Then, I laid the chicken pieces on a tray and sprinkled them generously with salt and pepper:

The big moment came. “The broiler!” (Thunderclap, lightning.)

I inserted the chicken and expected my whole kitchen to explode. The kitchen didn’t explode. I heard some sizzling after a few minutes and, following Elise’s instructions, I removed the tray after 7 minutes to flip the pieces over. They were definitely starting to brown in a very good way.

Another 7 minutes passed (you’re supposed to flip every 7 minutes) and the chicken was starting to look extraordinary. At the 21 minute mark, the chicken was in the running for best chicken every cooked at home.

And just when the chicken was about to be done (I cut in to see), I brushed on Elise’s honey mint glaze: literally, just a mixture of honey, chopped up mint and hot water. Under the broiler it went again and this is what came out:

You can’t really tell in the picture, but this is dream chicken. This is the kind of chicken they serve at restaurants, where the outside is perfectly crispy and charred (and in this case, also sweetly complex with that honey and mint). I knew I’d reached a new stage of cooking consciousness; my fear of broilers had morphed into quite the opposite–an awestruck adulation of broilers. No more thunderclaps, just clapping–a huge audience clapping for my broiler.

Look at the final plate, with instant polenta (made with homemade chicken stock) and sauteed spinach:

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See that chicken? Don’t you want that? I mean don’t you really really want that? Why does that look so good?

The direct heat! The broiler!

Isn’t it amazing when something that’s always been at your disposal suddenly emerges as this wonderful thing that you’ve always overlooked? Like in “Clueless” when Cher realizes she should date her brother? Or how I recently realized if I vigorously brush my cat she will (a) look much, much better and (b) won’t get cat hair all over the apartment?

Such is the case with my broiler; it’s my ruby slippers, I’ve always been wearing them, but I never clicked my heels together. If only I’d known sooner, all my chicken would’ve looked that good. And now that I know, I will be afraid no more. To quote Scarlett O’Hara: “I shall never not broil again.”

22 comments

  1. Love, love, loved this post. :)

    I used to feel similarly about broilers. Admittedly, I got over my fear in increments – broiling bits of bread, mostly. Sometimes fish.

    I commend you for taking on such a big task – it was clearly worth it!

  2. The broiler is my favorite place to put anything that’s almost done cooking in the oven (chicken, fish, etc) to give it that extra oomph of crispiness and golden perfection ala the above pic. mazel tov.

    oh, and “I recently realized if I vigorously brush my cat…” = genuis. I’m laughing out loud.

    Megan

  3. When I lived in Japan I didn’t have a toaster so I would use the fish broiler right underneath my two burner stove. There was only enough room for one slice of toast and you had to flip it after one minute! one minute on each side! I probably caught one piece of toast on fire each week!!!! I am lucky I never burned my whole apato down!! I use mine now to melt cheese on sandwiches. yum. congratulations on your broiler victory!

  4. OMG! I totally envision my kitchen engulfed in flames every time I use the damn thing. I make the kids go in the other room “just in case”.

    Thanks Adam. I thought I was the only one. The chicken looks great! I will make my peace with the monster now.

    Kim

  5. It’s true. You’ve hit the nail right on the spot. I’m terrified of broilers. Like Kim who just commented above me, it makes me feel like my tiny kitchen is going to combust or something.

    However, how can I resist after reading your post? Will keep you posted about my own broiling adventures ;)

  6. Adam, Adam, Adam…

    I haven’t even gotten through this entire post, but had to say something.

    READ THE BOOK.

    Yes, the movie is delightful, and they did a wonderful job keeping to the original story.

    (I’m not just saying this because my father was a 6th grade reading teacher for 35 years.)

    I believe I may have read The Phantom Tollbooth 30+ times over the years. I still pick it up from time to time and let myself get lost in Milo’s adventure.

    I don’t understand your aversion to reading a book that inspired your favorite childhood movie. What are you afraid of?

  7. Okay so I have a serious question that makes me sound like nearly a complete moron.

    I didn’t grow up with a full size oven is my only excuse. At some point in my life, I am positive there were ovens that the broiler was IN the oven (as in, you put the stuff in the same compartment as the oven, but a fire goes on at the top and only the top of the oven so you move the rack closer. or something?). I’ve only recently discovered that my oven (in my new apt) has a drawer on the bottom that is probably not for storing my grill pan, as I’d always used in the past, but rather it IS the broiler. Yes? Yes.

    My confusion lies also in a recipe that Alton Brown has – http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/sirloin-steak-recipe/index.html – that worked excellently for me but seems to assume your broiler is in the oven as well! Well okay I guess my question is, how do I know for sure that my broiler is in the drawer below and not in the oven? And. I guess that’s it. I don’t want to use the broiler drawer because I can’t see what’s going on as it goes on. And how the heck do you clean that thing???

  8. Aw, now I have to go hunt down a copy of Phantom Tollbooth to give to my girfriend’s son. What a great book.

  9. Your post may actually push me to deal with my own broiler-fear (about evenly split between igniting the food and igniting the kitchen) — oh, and I went to Brooklyn Fish Camp last Sunday for lunch. It’s every bit as tasty as you promised :)

  10. Funny, I just used my broiler for the first time in a while last night. Next time try lamb rib chops marinated in olive oil, garlic, honey, mustard, mint, rosemary and S&P. They took about 3 minutes per side and came out great. I served with mint, carrot, and green onion couscous and garnished with chopped mint and lemon zest. Fantastic and fast!

  11. Adam: Congratulations on embracing the broiler. It is truly one of a cook’s best tools, and I don’t know how I’d live without mine.

    Yvo: You’re not a complete moron – you’re actually correct. The broiler in the oven at my parents’ house was located in a separate drawer beneath the oven, but my current broiler is actually in the oven (underneath is an actual storage drawer). You might want to just try turning on the broiler and figuring out which heating element turns on – the one at the top of the oven or the one between the oven and the bottom drawer. As for cleaning/watching what’s going on, my memory is foggy, but I think my parents’ oven floor could be lifted out to see/clean the broiler underneath.

  12. Adam asks: “…how many of you have innocently placed a marshmallow on a stick, held it over a crackling fire only to have the marshmallow ignite, its fluffy goodness smoldering in fierce, unforgiving flames … ?”

    Dude! That’s the BESTEST way to eat a marshmallow! Of course, you have to blow it out first. The bitter crunchy shell is a wonderful contrast to the warm gooey sweetness within.

    And I too vote for The Phantom Tollbooth as being a terrific book too!

  13. Adam

    I have been reading your blog for about a month now ( I’ve read every single post, I think..) I have to say I love it. I can’t explain why, I just do. I’m actually kinda surprised at how much I enjoy reading about your experiences or whatnot. Anytime I am slow at work I pop on here and HOPE that you have posted a new blog today and usually you have and that makes me happy, Thank You Adam!

    I have a fear of the broiler myself. I have never used one, ever.

    The chicken looks sooooooooo good!! I just wish whenever I am reading your blog that I could have samples of whatever it is your making!! Do you think you could arrange that for me Adam?? That would be sweet!

    As far as me getting over my fear, I just don’t know if it’s going to happen anytime soon. My biggest fear with the broiler and with trying new recipes, What if it doesn’t turn out? What if we don’t like it? ( I have very picky eaters)That’s a waste of food and quite frankly I can’t afford to waste any!

  14. When I moved into my Brooklyn apartment 13 years ago, the oven was by no means new and I was terrified as to what was in the broiler compartment. I never looked into it once. Now I have a new stove and can’t wait to be able to broil something!!

  15. Try a furminator on your cat – amazing how much fur you can get off in one session and avoid little whispy kitty hair bunnies floating around for a couple of weeks.

  16. My life hasn’t been the same since I conquered my fear of the broiler and now I broil EVER DAY! Chicken, steaks, pork chops, fish and veggies (asparagus is my fave.) I also like to toss cherry tomatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon zest and the juice of the lemon(sometimes I chop some shallots in there.) Then stir every 6 minutes or so until tomatoes are nice and blistered. You can put it on ANYTHING savory and it’s instant flavor.

    The only time I get scared of the broiler now is when the pilot light accidentally goes out. That requires you to reach inside the broiler with a lit match. I’m always afraid that the broiler will catch somehow while a third of my arm is in there. Yikes!

  17. ‘Like in “Clueless” when Cher realizes she should date her brother?’

    That just made my day.

  18. this was a great post! i have always worried about grease splatters catching that little flame and blowing the gas line up or something. on the other hand, i was really happy to learn that broiling is like an apartment goers grill. i miss grilling like you wouldn’t believe. my excitement quickly chilled, however, when i came to the realization that i have an electric stove/oven. DRATS!

  19. I’ll admit, I got so excited about The Phantom Tollbooth that I haven’t even read the rest of the post yet. I will though. I promise. But I had to chime in and say I LOVED the movie as a child! My favorite part was when they have to “eat their words” and literally put words in their mouthes and chew. LOVE IT! Thanks for the nostalgia :)

  20. Hilarious. Especially because I was overcoming this fear at exactly the same time. And I’m now equally in love, even though there’s still a tiny rumble. My favorite is broiling veggies (so quick! and they’re good for the week) and also finishing off frittatas. Yum! Why’d it take me so long to realize the amazing abilities of the gas broiler?

  21. Hilarious. Especially because I was overcoming this fear at exactly the same time. And I’m now equally in love, even though there’s still a tiny rumble. My favorite is broiling veggies (so quick! and they’re good for the week) and also finishing off frittatas. Yum! Why’d it take me so long to realize the amazing abilities of the gas broiler?

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