How we tested
When you can’t fire up the grill, it’s handy to have a stovetop grill pan. Though it can’t replicate the flavor of the open flame, a ridged grill pan does make crusty, tasty char-grill marks on meat, fish, or vegetables. Some grill pans even come with presses for panini and grilled cheese sandwiches. We gathered eight pans in stainless steel, nonstick-coated aluminum, and enameled and plain cast iron. The price range was dramatic—from about $20 to nearly $200.
Every pan made appetizing grilled sandwiches and left grill marks on zucchini planks and strip steaks. But some marks were more crisply defined than others. Pans with broad, shallow ridges—almost all of the nonstick aluminum pans and the single uncoated stainless steel pan—left partial, indistinct marks. Cast-iron pans, with ridges ranging from 4 millimeters to 5.5 millimeters high, made the best grill marks—all the food looked grilled, with char lines that went all the way across. By contrast, the ridges on the nonstick pans were just 1.88 millimeters to 3 millimeters and left little impression. The marks help create a flavorful crust—and also indicate something more important.
Grilling hamburgers gave us the key. Pans with low, gentle ridges made grill marks on the first side of patties but none at all on the second side. That’s because, at that point, the patties began frying in their own rendered fat, which left them greasy. Not so the burgers grilled on the tall ridges, which produced intact grill marks on both sides, as the food was perched well above rendered fat.
If higher ridges perform better, why wouldn’t nonstick pans have them? Nonstick aluminum pans are stamped from metal sheets, which limits the height of those ridges, explained Hugh Rushing of the Cookware Manufacturers Association. “If the ridges were made any taller, the material would tear and deform. Cast iron in any shape will have higher peaks and valleys.”
Cast-iron pans also did better at retaining heat, so their temperature dropped only slightly when we added food—unlike thin aluminum nonstick pans. “Aluminum does get hot in a hurry and conveys that to the meat,” Rushing said. “But when you put the meat on there, it soaks up the heat and the temperature drops. The cast iron takes longer to get hot but is more resistant to cooling, so that gives you more of a char than on the aluminum.”
But would other foods showcase the strengths of nonstick? Glazed salmon, marinated in soy-maple glaze before grilling (and brushed with more during grilling), was harder to disengage from cast iron and stainless steel than from nonsticks, which gave us effortless turning. As for cleaning, nothing was easier than nonstick—just a few swipes removed most of the caramelized soy-maple gunk. It took more scrubbing to remove cooked-on glaze from cast-iron and stainless steel pans. (Plain grilled salmon didn’t stick at all, even to cast iron, once pans were thoroughly pre-heated and generously brushed with oil, as we do when cooking outdoors.)
So we faced a dilemma: Easy-clean nonstick pans made lousy grill marks and greasy burgers. Cast iron cooked beautifully but was harder to clean. In the end, better grill performance outweighed any other factors. Otherwise, why not just use a frying pan? Also, cast-iron pans offered a bonus: matching panini presses, included or sold separately.
Our favorite grill pan turned in a stellar performance, with tall ridges that kept food positioned above fat; the largest cooking surface; great cast-iron heat retention; and an enamel coating that’s easy to clean and even survived 20 dishwasher cycles. But, at more than $150, it’s an investment, especially since we don’t expect to use it every day. That's why we also recommend our best buy: Its tall, cast-iron ridges made great grill marks and kept grease away. While it’s smaller and lacks enamel coating for easy cleaning, it's a real bargain.