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Deep breaths. The broiler is a direct heat source—like a grill—that cooks, melts, and crisps food extremely fast. It will be either a heated rod that gets blasting hot or direct flame, based on whether your oven is powered by electric or gas.
Your broiler will either be located in the top of your oven or in the pull-out drawer underneath the main chamber (this is typical of gas). If you're not sure where yours is, take a minute now to look—make sure the oven is, uh, off before you go poking around. The trays in pull-out units located underneath the oven are situated a maximum of five inches from the direct heat source. They may or may not contain a slatted plate or tray for use, depending whether or not you have tossed it in a manic spring cleaning binge. Drawer units have the benefit of getting hotter than top-of-the-oven broilers, because they're enclosed in a smaller space that better holds heat. On the flip side, the top-of-the-oven unit has the benefit of being able to be adjusted; how close the food gets to the broiler is dictate by where you position the oven racks. Generally speaking, you'll want to place the rack in the uppermost position possible, placing it two-to-four inches from the broiling rod.
We're not talking wood-fired pizza oven temps here. Most broilers max out at about 550 degrees, though the direct flames make it hard to measure exactly. The temperature is less important than the method: Remember, you're cooking with direct, rather than indirect, heat.
Give the broiler at least five minutes to reach full-strength. Broilers typically contain just two settings: on and off. Does yours have "high" and "low" options? Associate food editor at BA Rick Martinez says you can ignore the low setting. If you're going to broil, go big—otherwise, you're just roasting.
Do not put glass under the broiler, even if it's strong and enforced, like Pyrex. It could break and that is just a mess you do not want to deal with. Instead, use a sturdy metal pan that can stand the heat. These $6 sizzle platters are prized in restaurant kitchens for their durability and versatility. A rimmed sheet pan will also do the trick. Line the pan with foil, so the hot grease doesn't stain the metal. It's impossible to scrub off once it's burnt on there. If you have a drawer unit and are lucky enough to still have the tray that came with it, good for you! The broiler tray is typically two-tiered, with holes in the top and a bottom for catching the grease that drips through. Martinez also lines broiler trays with foil so they don't stain. You’ll want to cut a few slats in the foil before broiling (only do this if you have a broiling tray with a removable bottom to catch the drips!), or else the fat will pool around the food and could potentially catch on fire.
And stuff, yes. The key is to choose cuts of meat and fish that cook through quickly. Too big or thick and the exterior will burn before the middle of the meat has time to cook. Choose things like steaks and fillets—pound them thinly before seasoning so they'll cook even faster. Another tip for ensuring your food cooks evenly is to let it sit at room temperature for an hour before broiling. Starting from cold means the food has a longer way to go until well-cooked. If you're worried about the meat burning before it's cooked, adjust the tray so it's further away from the broiler. And keep a close eye! You can also use a broiler to get some golden-brown color on the meat before roasting or braising it. (This is a substitute for searing on the stovetop).
Most spins under the broiler are over so quickly that there's no need to rotate the pan as you would if you were, say, baking cookies. That said: Like your oven, your broiler contains hot spots. Find the hot spots and account for them when cooking. To do this, Martinez suggests an at-home science experiment. Line the broiling tray or sheet pan with white bread and place it under the broiler for a couple of minutes. Once it's toasted, remove it and inspect the pieces. Some will be darker (they're under the hot spot!), while some will be almost blonde. Avoid broiling food where they were situated, because that spot is not hot enough to broil.
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You bet. Some broilers automatically turn off once their optimal temperature is reached. Martinez's trick for avoiding this is to leave the oven door open a crack.