How Well Do Grill Pans Compare To The Real Thing?

If you don't have the space for an outdoor grill or the money to invest in a relatively pricey piece of equipment, you might reach for the next best thing: a grill pan. Grill pans go right onto the stovetop and purport to be a substitute for people who don't have a backyard grill. But are grill pans really a decent swap for the char and smoke of an actual grill?

While grill pans can help get that grilled look on your meat or veggies by searing in char marks in all the right places, the truth is that the heat of a stovetop pan can't exactly compare to the way an actual grill cooks. Grills cook through both direct heat when the food touches the hot grill grate and by what's known as radiation — the process of cooking through the waves of heat coming up off the hot fire or coals. This mixture of heat varieties provides two different flavors and textures to your meat or vegetables, and the occasional flare-ups that occur impart that classic grilled flavor.

No substitute for grilling

While visually, a grill pan might be able to approximate something similar to an actual grill's char, in reality, grilling is much more than visible marks on a slab of meat or spear of asparagus. As the food cooks, especially meats, fat and juices drip down through the grates and hit the hot flames or coals below. This causes flare-ups, which singe the food with direct flames and provide that smoky, slightly burnt flavor that you just can't get on the stovetop. If you really love that campfire taste, you can also use wood chips, herbs, or other enhancements to impart further smoky flavor during the cooking process on a grill. 

With a grill pan, the only way to cook is by searing directly on the pan's surface. While you can certainly get a good Maillard reaction in a searing hot grill pan, the results simply won't taste the same as cooking over the open heat of a grill.

Getting grilled flavor without a grill

If grilling outside is impossible for you, there are still some ways to help make your meal taste closer to the real thing. One simple way to add that smoked flavor is to use seasonings, such as smoked paprika, chipotle seasoning, or even smoked salt. Adding these spices to the marinade or rub before cooking will help bring in some of those characteristically smoky flavors you would get from cooking on an actual grill. 

You can also employ liquid smoke; this product, which is made naturally by taking wood-burning smoke and condensing it into a liquid, can be brushed onto meat or veggies for a punch of smoky flavor. You can purchase liquid smoke in a number of different varieties, including mesquite and hickory. Overall, though, grilling on a grill pan isn't exactly grilling. It'll do in a pinch, but if you're looking for those authentic barbecue flavors, you won't match cooking on the real thing.