How we tested
Grill grates are designed to be spread out, with space between them providing direct exposure to intense heat so that you get the charred, caramelized, slightly smoky taste of perfectly grilled food. Why, then, would you ever need cookware that stands between you and your grill?
While open grates are fine for steaks, burgers, or bone-in chicken pieces, grilling small or delicate items such as seafood or vegetables can require acrobatics to prevent them from falling into the fire. Whether you’re cutting zucchini into planks, wrapping fish in foil, or skewering chunks of boneless meat, a new category of cookware promises an easier option. Shaped like indoor cookware but perforated to allow exposure to the fire, grill cookware is designed to contain and cook smaller, more fragile foods without special preparation—and without sacrificing grill flavor, good browning, or even some charring.
That said, there’s no consensus among manufacturers on style or material. Grill cookware comes in three starkly different designs (woks, skillets with handles, and rectangular sheet pans) and in materials that run the gamut from wire mesh, aluminum, and stainless steel to enameled cast iron and porcelain- or nonstick-coated steel. To determine for ourselves which design and material (if any) worked best, we rounded up models priced from about $5.00 to $50.00 in all three styles and a range of materials. We also threw in an adjustable pan that allows the user to manipulate the size from large to small and a disposable aluminum model that could be cut, bent, and shaped.
The Hole Story
Because recent tryouts of other grill accessories (presses and baskets) taught us that most of this equipment isn’t worth buying, we approached testing with skepticism. As we grilled flaky cod fillets, medium shrimp with chopped vegetables, and batches of quartered potatoes over a gas grill, our caution proved sound: More than half the grill cookware performed poorly.
The worst were the grill woks. This style of grill pan features a narrow bottom and high sides that kept ingredients crammed together and made food steam rather than brown for results so lousy we eliminated such pans from consideration. Also on the cutting block: any grill pans (irrespective of design) with nonstick coatings. High temperatures made this type of cookware emit fumes the first few times we used them, tainting food with a chemical smell and taste.
But some pans did impress us, especially as we learned how best to use them. Across the board, we found that preheating the pans on the grill helped our food cook faster, with much better browning and flavor. We also learned which features matter most:
- Go for Broad and Low
The broad cooking surface and low sides on grill skillets minimized steaming and promoted browning; sheet pans (also known as “grill toppers”) were even more spacious, allowing us to stir food less often and thus maximize caramelization. They also accommodated much larger portions (say, a half-dozen fish fillets at once).
- More Holes are Better
Cookware covered in holes performed best, while pans featuring solid, unperforated edges (a design akin to wrapping food in foil) trapped heat and steamed food. But not just any holes will do. Too-large openings limited the pan’s usefulness, allowing pieces of food to fall through and into the grates. Better pans had holes no more than ¼ inch in diameter.
- Sturdy Construction is Critical
Several pans were so flimsy they warped like potato chips on the hot grill, cooking unevenly as we struggled to stir food uphill and down. The adjustable model was one of the worst. Tightening a knob locked its two sliding half-trays into the desired size, but the overlapping half warped upward, trapping food in a metal sandwich.
- Material Matters
Grill pans coated with porcelain, a nonstick alternative, were less than ideal, accumulating a sticky residue after several uses that was hard to scrub away. Heavier stainless steel without a coating was a top performer and did not warp on the hot grates like pans made of other materials. Because steel is dense and less conductive than other metals, preheating it gave us the right combination of retaining and then conducting heat slowly and steadily to brown delicate foods without burning. One cast-iron model would also have been outstanding if it had smaller holes—and wasn’t so heavy and pricey.
- Edges Are Essential
Grill toppers designed as flat sheets with no raised rims were difficult to manage: Chunks of potatoes, shrimp, and vegetables tossed over their surfaces scooted off. A few pans had three raised sides and a single flat one, but we preferred models with four raised edges, which kept everything in place. Skillets had the advantage of higher sides all around (but not too high to trap heat and cause steaming).
Winner Shares Well
When the smoke cleared, we found two models worth adding to our grilling arsenal. One is made of sturdy stainless steel that retains enough heat for excellent browning. Its surface is covered with narrow 1/8-inch slits that let in grill flavor and discourage steaming without letting food fall through; its four rimmed sides also contain food nicely, and the raised handles are easy to grasp with grill mitts. It offers a generous cooking surface yet fits easily on our recommended gas and charcoal grills. You can even rotate the pan 90 degrees and push it to one side of a gas grill if you want to share the space with chicken or steak. As an added bonus, the pan’s notched corners allow the edges of the grill lid to slide into them and close smoothly.
A grill skillet nearly tied for the top spot. This model is made of steel mesh that allows maximum grill exposure and flavor and ensures minimum food loss. Lightweight and easy to use, it produced moist fish fillets with a crisp surface that didn’t break or stick to the mesh. Two minor gripes: It offers less surface area for cooking than our winner, and because the skillet’s handle (which is not removable) protrudes just like on an ordinary pan, we kept absentmindedly grabbing it with our bare hands, forgetting that the 600-plus-degree heat had turned it searingly hot.
The bottom line: If you choose a good design and the right material, grill pans can be a definite improvement over futzing around to prevent food from falling through the grates. We’re sold.
After preliminary testing, we eliminated grill woks and any cookware with a nonstick coating, which narrowed our lineup to nine pans: seven rectangular “grill toppers” and two skillets. We used them to cook shrimp, vegetables, potatoes, and cod fillets on our favorite gas grill, the Weber Spirit E-210, and tested them for size on our recommended charcoal grill, the Weber One-Touch Gold.
We measured the cooking surface of each pan, not the outer dimensions.
We preferred pans that produced good grill flavor and tender, browned whole medium shrimp and chopped vegetables; nicely browned, moist cod fillets that remained intact; and crisp-skinned potato quarters with moist interiors.
We preferred abundant small holes, heat-retaining materials, a broad cooking surface, and sturdy, no-warp construction.
We considered pan weight, handle placement, and other factors that increased comfort and ease while manipulating the pan.
We favored pans that were easy to clean but did not downgrade pans for the slight blackening expected from use on the grill.