Making your grill (or broiler) shine this summer

Associated Press

Compared to other basic cooking techniques, grilling is hard: the temperatures are high, timing is crucial and slight differences in the thickness or wetness of the food can dramatically affect how quickly it cooks.

Bad design choices by equipment makers—kettle-shaped grills with black interiors, for example—make it harder still. But if you’re willing to do some simple arithmetic or break out a roll of foil, you can reduce the guesswork and get better performance from your grill. Similar tricks work for broiling; after all, a broiler is basically just an inverted grill.

Every grill has a sweet spot where the heat is even. You know you’re cooking in the sweet spot when all of the food browns at about the same pace. In most situations, the bigger the sweet spot, the better. One notable exception is when you need to reserve part of the grill for cooking some ingredients more slowly or keeping previously cooked food warm.

If you find yourself continually swapping food from the center of your grill with pieces at the periphery, that’s a sure sign that your sweet spot is too small.

You can get an intuitive feel for where the edge of the sweet spot lies by looking at the heat from the food’s point of view. I mean that literally: imagine you are a hotdog lying facedown on the grill. If the coals or the gas flames don’t fill your entire field of view, then you aren’t receiving as much radiant heat as your fellow wiener who is dead-center over the heat source. If the falloff in the intensity of the heat is greater than about 10 percent, you’re outside the sweet spot.

You can use the table below to estimate the size of the sweet spot on your own grill. The 26-inch-wide gas grill on my deck has four burners with heat-dispersing caps that span about 23 inches. The food sits only three inches above the burner caps, so when all four burners are going, the sweet spot includes the middle 16 inches of the grill. But if I use only the two central burners, which are 10 inches from edge to edge, the sweet spot shrinks to a measly 5.4 inches, too small to cook two chicken breasts side by side. I can use this to my advantage, however, if I have a big piece of food that is thick in the middle and thinner at the ends, such as a long salmon fillet. By laying the fish crosswise over the two burners, I can cook the fat belly until it is done without terribly overcooking the slimmer head and tail of the fillet.

Sweet spots are narrowest on small grills, such as little braziers, kettles, hibachis, and the fixed grilling boxes at a public parks. If the sweet spot on your grill is too confining for all the food you have to cook, you can enlarge it in several ways.

If the grill height is adjustable, lower it. Bringing the food a couple inches closer to the heat can easily expand the sweet spot by 2 to 3 inches. The effect on the intensity of the heat is less than you might expect: typically no more than about a 15 percent increase.

If your grill is boxy in shape, line the sides with foil, shiny side out. Your goal is to create a hall of mirrors in which the heat rays bounce off the foil until they hit the food. A hotdog at the edge of the grill then sees not only those coals that are in its line of sight, but also reflections of the coals in the foil-lined side of the grill.

The foil trick unfortunately doesn’t work well on kettle grills because their rounded shape tends to bounce the radiant heat back toward the center instead of out to the edges. But if you can find a piece of shiny sheet metal about 4 inches wide and 56 inches long, you can bend the metal into a reflective circular ring and build the coal bed inside of it. All food within the circumference of the ring should then cook pretty evenly.

Jury-rigging a grill in this way wouldn’t be necessary if grills came shiny on the inside and we could keep them that way. But, presumably because nobody likes to clean the guts of a grill, the interiors of most grills are painted black, the worst possible color for a large sweet spot. A black metal surface doesn’t reflect many infrared heat rays; instead it soaks them up, gets really hot, then re-emits the heat in random directions.

Someday, some clever inventor will come up with a self-cleaning grill that has a mirror finish inside, and the sweet-spot problem will simply vanish.



For grills, measure the width of the coals or gas burners (including any burner caps that disperse the heat). Then measure the distance from the top of the coals or burners to the upper surface of the grill grate. Find the appropriate row in the table to estimate the size of the sweet spot, centered over the heat source. This table assumes a nonreflective grill.

To calculate the sweet spot of an electric broiler — which is the ideal vertical distance between the top of the food and the broiler element — measure the distance between the rods of the heating element. Multiply that measurement by 0.44, then add 0.2 inches to the product. For example, if the rods are 2.4 inches apart, the sweet spot is 1.25 inches from the element to the top of the food.

Width of heat source (inches) Height of the food above the heat source (inches) Width of grill sweet spot (inches)
14 3 8.1
14 4 7.7
14 5 7
16 3 9.9
16 4 9
16 5 8.3
20 3 13.2
20 4 12
20 5 11.20
23 3 16.1
23 4 15
23 5 13.3
29 3 21.8
29 4 19.7
29 5 18.9


Photo credit: Ryan Matthew Smith / Modernist Cuisine, LLC

Build the Perfect Pizza in 12 Steps

You can build a great pizza if you master three crucial elements: making the dough, creating the toppings, and baking the pizza. Stretching out pizza dough is a delicate art that rewards patience and practice. Topping a pizza is all about balancing an ideal ratio of dough to toppings that allows the pizza to cook quickly and evenly, producing a combination of crispy, chewy textures. Baking a pizza well requires the right tools: a very hot and stable oven and baking surface, a pizza peel of the right size, and a keen sense of timing. We designed our baking steel to deliver heat quickly and consistently to a pizza.

Follow these steps from start to finish to create pizza perfection.

1. Remove the pizza dough from the refrigerator. Cover it and let it warm up to room temperature for an hour. If the dough was frozen, first defrost it in the refrigerator overnight. Covering the dough keeps the surface from drying out and forming a crust.

2. While the dough is warming, set the oven temperature as high as it will go (260 °C / 500 °F is a minimum), and prepare a baking surface. In dozens of experiments involving more than 100 pizzas, we explored a wide range of materials and methods for cooking pizza at home. Our goal was to find the cooking surface that best transfers heat to raw pizza dough. Every surface will cool to some degree when the pizza goes in, but the dip in temperature should be as shallow and brief as possible. Our conclusion: a dark steel plate just ? in thick is the best option.steel on white

3. Stretch and flatten the dough on a floured work surface by using your fingers to press the middle of the dough flat, and then work the dough outward. Leave a narrow ridge along the perimeter of the dough.

Step 3a Pressing outward

4. Dust a pizza peel or baking sheet with a light, even dusting of flour. Tap the side of the peel on the countertop to knock off any excess flour. If the cooked pizza crust tastes like burnt flour, the peel was overfloured. If the pizza crust sticks, you probably used too little flour.

5. Drape the dough over the back of your hand, and then rotate it slowly. The weight of the dough should gently stretch it to a circular shape and even thickness, 30–35 cm / 12–14 in. in diameter. Small blisters and bubbles should form in the dough. These are good!

Step 3b resting

6. Place the dough onto a pizza peel. Jerk the peel sharply back and forth; this prevents the dough from sticking to the peel.

7. Spread the sauce evenly over the dough, but leave the outermost 2.5 cm / 1 in of the perimeter dry.

8. Sprinkle grated cheese evenly over the sauce.

Step 6 cheese

9. To avoid losing heat from the oven, slide the pizza from the peel onto the baking steel as quickly as possible.

10. Cook the pizza until the crust turns brown and blisters, 2–4 minutes. Some of the larger bubbles should look almost burnt. A well-cooked pizza has scorched blisters on the bottom of the crust—although, pizza can also be delicious without a blistered crust. If you don’t see any blisters, your cooking surface is not hot enough. This is another reason why we recommend using our baking steel.


11. Remove the pizza from the oven by using the pizza peel or baking sheet, and slide it onto a cooling rack. This keeps the crust crisp.

12. Season the pie with fresh basil, chili flakes, salt, and olive oil. Don’t forget to season the very edge of the crust, and give it a little drizzle of oil, too. Serve the pizza immediately.

–Adapted from Modernist Cuisine at Home

How to Calibrate Your Kitchen

We’ve heard of chefs who claim that they can tell temperature by pressing a thermometer to their lips. Setting aside the problem that this technique could lead to a trip to the emergency room, the approach seems highly vulnerable to human error. Leaving temperature control to intuition is a recipe for disaster: dry and rubbery chicken, under-cooked fish, and scalded milk. What’s more, when cooking at low temperatures, being off just a degree or two can make your food not just unpalatable but downright dangerous to eat.

That’s why the most important tool in your kitchen is a quality thermometer, followed closely by a setup that allows you to set the temperature of the cooking environment with precision. With temperature under close control, chefs can relax and devote more of their creative brain power to flavor combinations and new textures.

Cooking food sous vide (sealed, in a low-temperature water bath) is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to achieve such control. Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home include hundreds of our favorite recipes for sous vide dishes. We exploit this technique, for example, to slow-cook chicken to juicy perfection while also pasteurizing it, which requires a minimum holding time at the final temperature to knock any germs down to a safe level. It’s crucial to be able to trust your thermometer, because if it reads 60° C / 140 °F when the temperature is actually several degrees cooler than that, the chicken may not be fully pasteurized when you serve it.

Fortunately, high-quality thermometers are widely available and relatively inexpensive. We prefer digital thermometers because they are easy to read and switch instantly between Celsius and Fahrenheit. Moreover, better models, such as Thermocouple’s Platinum RTD probes, are accurate to about half a degree Celsius (a bit less than one degree Fahrenheit). Even inexpensive digital oven probes are accurate to within 1.5 °C / 2.7 °F, even at low temperature. Analog thermometers, in contrast, are all but useless at low temperatures, and spike-and-dial varieties typically vary up to 2.5 °C / 4.5 °F from the true temperature.

These accuracy numbers all presuppose that your thermometer is properly calibrated, not a safe assumption for many off-the-shelf products. So whenever you buy a new thermometer, calibrate it right away by using the simple, tried-and-true method of verifying that it reads 0 °C / 32 °F in water stirred with crushed ice and 100 °C / 212 °F in water at a full boil (but note that water boils at lower temperatures at elevations above sea level, so you may need to look up the normal boiling temperature at your location). Be sure the thermometer probe doesn’t touch the sides of the container, and give it a few minutes to settle on a final reading. If your thermometer hits these targets on the nose, it is suitable for sous vide and other low-temperature cooking methods. But if your thermometer is off by 2 °C / 4 °F or more, return it for a new one or take it to a professional to adjust it.

Once your thermometer is dialed in, you can move on calibrating other parts of your kitchen. You probably won’t notice a difference in your cooking if your oven is off by a degree or two, but if you can’t set an oven temperature below 200 °F / 95 °C, it isn’t suitable for dehydrating food or slow-cooking a frozen steak to medium rare. Because ovens are notoriously inaccurate at their lower ends, be sure to calibrate your oven at several lower temperatures before relying on it for slow baking or braising.

To calibrate your oven, you need a thermometer with a probe and digital display, tethered together by an oven-safe wire. Preheat your oven fully to its lowest available setting (give it a little extra time to settle), and then clip your probe to the oven rack so that the tip of the probe is near the center of the cavity and points upward and inward. Close the oven door, wait a few minutes for the oven to recover its temperature, and then note the temperature you set as well as the reading on the thermometer. Repeat with the probe placed near a back corner and then near the door. Next, increase the temperature by 30 °C / 50 °F, and repeat. It takes some time to record these measurements for the entire range of your oven, but you only need to do it once, and the resulting picture of your oven’s performance is invaluable. You may learn, for example, why your quirky oven burns cookies on the right side of the sheet even while cookies in the back left corner stay stubbornly raw. Oven walls radiate heat unevenly, so you should expect to see some temperature variations within the cavity. Once you know their magnitude and location, you can compensate for them.

As in an oven, the temperature inside your refrigerator is warmer on some shelves than others; the door compartments are often the warmest. This can pose a safety risk if the temperature in any part of the refrigerator exceeds 5 °C / 40 °F. It is wise to set your refrigerator to a temperature that causes lower shelves to drop below freezing if that is what must be done to keep the top shelves in the door within a safe range.

To test the temperature of your refrigerator, place glasses of water in it at various locations, including the door and the top and bottom shelves. Wait several hours and then measure the temperature of the water (take care not to let the probe touch the sides of the glass). Adjust the refrigerator setting if needed, and then repeat to confirm that all parts are at or below 5 °C / 40 °F.

When cooking or cleaning up after a meal, never put food in the refrigerator or freezer while it’s still hot. We used an infrared camera to visualize how much a bowl of hot leftovers warms the surrounding food in the refrigerator, and the results were shocking. The temperature can rise dramatically and stay above the safety zone for hours, long enough for food to spoil.

Finally, use a thermometer rated for subzero temperatures (many digital ones aren’t) to check the temperature inside your freezer. Generally speaking, the lower the better, because fast freezing produces the smallest ice crystals and the least damage to foods as they solidify. But as long as the temperature is -15 °C / 5 °F or lower, you needn’t worry about microbes multiplying in the frozen food.

No one claims that calibrating your kitchen is fun. But it is important, and once you’ve done it, all your cooking will go more smoothly. You can then focus more of your attention on the creative aspects of cooking without worrying so much about being thwarted (or even made ill) by the vagaries of temperature.

Click here to put your newly calibrated oven to use, cooking steak straight from the freezer!