Just because it's 10 below and your front steps are buried under the world's biggest snowdrift, it doesn't mean you can't still enjoy a good burger. In fact, we'd say it's the perfect time to fire one up. We're not talking about some grease-laden concoction you fry up in that crusty old pan you call a skillet. No, we're imagining the kind of moist, juicy burgers you live on all summer long-the kind you can only get with a lot of smoke and a hot grill. Or so you thought-because we're about to tell you how to get that fresh-from-the-grill taste right in the warmth and comfort of your snowed-in house. (Don't worry: You're not going to be lighting those trusty charcoal briquettes in the middle of the kitchen or garage, either. That's for the guy down the block who's just itching to make the 10 o'clock news.)
CHOOSE THE RIGHT WEAPON
Indoor grills are just as versatile as the outdoor variety, and you can cook almost anything on either kind, says Steven Raichlen, author of Indoor Grilling and the host of Barbecue University on PBS. The trick, he says, is modifying your outdoor technique to match whatever you're cooking with inside. And while a giant cooking pit built into the middle of your living-room fireplace might be ideal, there are two other options out there that work just as well and are a hell of a lot safer and more affordable.
Contact grills. Definitely the most convenient indoor-grilling option-and the appliance that made George Foreman a household name. For anybody who's been living in a secluded bunker for the past 20 years, these electric grills heat on two sides, plug in and sit on your countertop, and have a removable drip pan to catch the fat that runs off your food.
Pros: "Since the grilling surfaces make direct contact with the top and bottom of the meat, your food cooks twice as fast," says Raichlen.
Cons: When you cook food quickly, it's much more likely to dry out and become tough and chewy.
Best for: Burgers, paninis (sandwiches), grilled cheese, fish, and tofu.
What to buy: Stick with a Foreman-there's a reason it's the industry leader. Raichlen also recommends the Uno ProPress panini grill by Villaware.
Grill pans. Imagine a skillet combined with a grill: These large pans have raised ridges on the cooking surface that allow grease to drip and collect away from your food. The pans go right on the stove like a normal skillet and are available in single- or double-burner varieties that cover half your stovetop. Pros: "These pans are great because they take up so little room in the kitchen and get screaming hot," says Raichlen. They also create great grill marks, which add flavor to meat (and look really cool).
Cons: If too much grease collects between the ridges, it can start to smoke.
Best for: Anything dense and chunky, especially steaks or fish.
What to buy: Look for a large cast-iron pan with high, sharp ridges. Raichlen recommends any of the models made by Le Creuset or Lodge.
What to avoid: Electric grills. These plug-in versions of an outdoor hibachi usually have a broiling section at their base and a grilling surface on top. But according to Raichlen, they're also underpowered, release foul odors, and tend to smoke a lot-especially indoors. "Stick with a contact grill or grill pan instead," he says.
TWEAK YOUR TECHNIQUE
While the basic idea is the same whether you're grilling indoors or out (heat grill, slap food on, leave it there until done), Raichlen says there are some subtle differences to consider when you're cooking indoors.
Buy better meat. When you're grilling up the perfect burger, you need the right ground beef. Raichlen recommends a 50/50 mix of sirloin and 85%-lean ground chuck. (Either buy two separate packs and mix them at home or have your butcher mix them for you.) "I like the chuck for flavor, and the sirloin for a little finesse," he says. And that 15% fat will help prevent your burger from drying out.
Size it right. Burgers need to be thicker when cooked on an outdoor grill because the heat is so much more concentrated-there's the immediate heat from the rack, plus radiant heat from the coals or flame, and it's all trapped under a closed lid. Indoors, your patty doesn't need to be as generous, says Raichlen. Shape the burgers into inch-thick patties that are just slightly larger than your bun.
Keep things simple. When it comes to burgers, Raichlen is strictly a purist: He likes to add just salt and pepper. If you're cooking steaks or chicken, though, you'll probably want to treat the meat with a marinade or dry rub to add extra flavor. Just make sure you remove all the excess marinade from the meat before cooking it-when you cook indoors, wet meat tends to stew, not grill, and that can make it tough and rubbery. Raichlen's technique: Just before you put the meat on the grill, wipe o the excess marinade with the blade of a rubber spatula, then rub the outside of the meat with oil.
Avoid the cold. Everything that goes on an indoor grill should be room temperature. Cold foods lower the temperature of the cooking surface, which can prevent your food from getting that ideal crust.
REFINE YOUR SETUP
Just as you wouldn't fire up an outdoor grill before cleaning it and making sure it wasn't located next to a superflammable dead tree, you need to make a few basic preparations before cooking indoors.
Plan for some smoke. Ideally, you should use a contact grill next to an open window so the smoke can escape. If you don't have a convenient window in your kitchen, put the grill right on your stovetop and turn on the exhaust fan. (The fan should take care of any smoke from grill pans, as well.)
Use a little elbow grease. Before you get started, put a little olive oil on a folded paper towel and run it over the top and bottom of the contact grill or the grooves inside the grill pan. This prevents the food from sticking, gives you a better sizzle, and helps the meat form a better crust. Most important: It also makes cleanup a breeze.
Let the grill heat up. No matter what you're using, an indoor grill simply won't reach the same temperature as an outdoor model. A George Foreman gets up to 325 to 350 degrees and a Uno ProPress reaches 400 to 425 degrees, while a typical outdoor gas grill heats up to about 650 degrees. A grill pan gets plenty hot, but not as much of the meat is coming into contact with the really hot part. So you'll need to give the pan a good four to five minutes to preheat thoroughly. Contact grills will tell you when they're ready; if you're using a grill pan, turn the heat all the way to high, give it a few minutes, then hold your hand over the surface. When you can feel a lot of heat coming off it, it's time to grill.
Adjust your cooking times. Charcoal and gas grills are right in the middle when it comes to cooking times. Contact grills take less time (because they cook both sides of the food at once, eliminating the need to flip), and grill pans take more time (because they cook by radiant heat rather than direct heat).
Clean up the mess. Contact grills are easiest to clean while they're still hot, says Raichlen. (The exception: Newer contact grills that have removable, dishwasher-safe plates.) So unplug your contact grill while you're eating, then warm it up again before cleaning. Wiping it with a wet paper towel should be sufficient. If your grill pan is cast-iron, wash with hot water only. If it's not, use soapy water and scour the thing down with a plastic-bristle brush.