The Parchment Test: Finding the Broiler Sweet Spot

From Cook's Illustrated | September/October 2014

Finding your broiler's sweet spot for both cooking and browning the exterior of your recipe can be tricky. This test will help eliminate the guesswork.

As we learned with our Broiled Pork Tenderloin (see related content), the intense heat of the broiler can be great for cooking food through while also deeply browning the exterior. But the reflex to position the food as close to the broiler element as possible isn’t necessarily—and in fact is rarely—the best approach. The key to success is finding the rack position that is the sweet spot (or, more accurately, the sweet zone), where even cooking and even browning are achieved simultaneously. This spot will vary from recipe to recipe, depending on the relative height and width of the food, and the desired level of doneness, but the general principle will always apply.

Finding the zone that produces even browning can be particularly tricky with electric broilers. Unlike gas broilers, where the flame heats a single ceramic plate at the top of the oven that then directs radiant heat to the food, electric broilers heat food via multiple rods that have gaps between them. This setup can create hot spots. Since radiant heat is a form of light wave, you can imagine that the rods of an electric broiler are spotlights whose waves diffuse and cover more area the farther from the source they go. To find the zone in your oven that delivers the most even browning, you can broil parchment at each position. Within any given oven there are likely two or three rack positions that will evenly brown the parchment (and your food); which one you should use will depend on the food you are cooking.

TOO CLOSE: The radiant heat is too narrowly focused, so the browning on the parchment is concentrated in spots. By the time there is some browning, the areas directly under the rods will have burned.

SWEET SPOT: The radiant heat waves broaden just enough to evenly cover the entire width of the parchment, delivering even browning.

TOO FAR: The heat is so diffuse that it will take food so long to brown that it will likely overcook. And because of the longer time frame, reflected rays have a more noticeable impact, leading to uneven browning.

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