From Season 7: Rainy Day Barbecue
When inclement weather (or lack of equipment) prohibits use of a grill, many recipe writers recommend the stovetop grill pan as the next best option. Basically a skillet (or sauté pan) with raised ridges splayed across the cooking surface, a grill pan is designed to deliver grill marks similar to those made on an outdoor grill. But we couldn't help but wonder: Was there more to cooking in grill pans than mere looks (those beguiling stripes)? Could they really replicate some of the flavor produced on a real grill?
Grill pans come in a dizzying array of materials, shapes, and sizes—small and large, square and round, cast iron and aluminum, with stainless steel, enameled, and nonstick surfaces. Shape and size turned out to matter much less than material, and it soon became apparent that aluminum was the only way to go. Why? The aluminum pans were lighter and so easier to handle, and they produced more distinct grill marks than their cast-iron counterparts. (Which makes sense, given that aluminum conducts heat more efficiently than cast iron.) What's more, it took just one ultra-sticky round of glazed salmon to make us decide that nonstick aluminum is a better choice than a traditional surface. Scrubbing the sticky, burnt glaze and salmon fat from between each and every ridge was, to put it politely, a major chore with both cast iron and stainless steel.
Full testing with hamburgers, flank steak, salmon fillets, swordfish steaks, chicken breast cutlets, panini (Italian-style grilled sandwiches), and sliced zucchini taught us a few things about cooking with grill pans. First, to develop appetizing grill marks, the pan must be preheated. Second, it's best to use a modicum of fat. In out tests, a light coating of oil resulted in nicer stripes than dry food in a dry pan. (Besides, for safety's sake you should not overheat an empty nonstick pan.) Third, cooking foods with wide, flat surfaces will help any grill pan do its best.
All of our winners shared one trait. It wasn't price and it wasn't material, since all the pans were aluminum. It was the design of the ridges. Our favorite pans had wide ridges (5/16 inch or more), which begat wide, substantial grill marks on the food—resulting in larger areas of caramelization and, thus, flavor.
Finally, we noticed a fairly consistent correlation between performance and the method used to construct the ridges. There are two basic approaches: Either the ridges are punched into the metal from the bottom, leaving indentations open to the heat source, or the pan is cast from molten metal, meaning that the ridges are formed by the mold. Cast pans have a solid bottom surface, without exposed indentations. In general, the pans with open indentations delivered better grill marks. Why? The interior of each ridge was directly exposed to the heat source, which facilitated heat transfer.
Are grill pans worth buying? Certainly, they can't replace a real grill. But for wintertime in the Snow Belt (or any time in the "Apartment Belt"), our tests proved that a grill pan can make a practical substitute, especially when you want to "grill" panini and fairly delicate foods such as fish or vegetables.
Victorinox (formerly Victorinox Forschner) 6-inch Straight Boning Knife: Flexible
The nonslip grip and narrow, straight blade let testers remove the smallest bones with precision and complete comfort. Perfectly balanced with enough flexibility to maneuver around tight joints. The low price was a bonus.
|★ ★ ★||★ ★ ★||$19.95|
Wüsthof Classic Boning Knife
Hefty in weight, this knife was a solid performer when removing poultry bones, and the handle was easy to grip, even when covered in chicken fat. Piercing silver skin was a challenge since the tip wasnt sharp enough and the long narrow blade produced slightly jagged cuts.
|★ ★||★ ★ ★||$99.95|
|Recommended with Reservations|
Mundial Boning Knife: Flexible
The sharp tip performed well when removing silver skin, but it was too flexible when maneuvering around poultry joints, leaving testers feeling a lack of control. The heavy handle was slightly unbalanced and became slippery once covered in poultry fat.
|★ ★||★ ★||$19.95|
Shun Gokujo Filet Knife
Designed to replicate a samurai blade, this expensive knife was a disappointment. It struggled to pierce the silver skin, although long cuts were smooth and even. Minimal flexibility and extreme curve got in the way when maneuvering around joints. The smooth handle was hard to grip and slippery.
MAC Boning KnifeChef Series
The large, cumbersome handle reminded testers of an outdoors knife for fishing and hunting. The blade was too wide to maneuver around joints and it struggled to pierce silver skin. Unlike other knives, this boning knife could only slice in one direction, making intricate cuts around joints difficult.
Messermeister San Moritz Elite Flexible Boning Knife
The blade was so flexible it led to erratic cuttings; testers said the knife was hard to control. The blade was not sturdy enough to maneuver around joints and the lightweight handle felt flimsy and unbalanced.