Indoor Grilling Is a Waste of Time. Here’s Why


We’ve all been there. It’s a Tuesday night, just before dinner and you don’t feel like dealing with the grill outside. Maybe you don’t have 20 minutes to wait for charcoal to ignite or the grates from the last time you grilled are gunky. So, you plug in an electric grill inside on the countertop or toss a cast-iron grill pan onto the range and crank it to high. After all, grill marks are grill marks, right? Not really.

“I see grill marks as lost potential,” says Meathead Goldwyn, cookbook author and founder of “Go to any great steak house, or look at the photos on their website, and you won’t see grill marks and you won’t see that diamond pattern. What you will see is a brown crust, edge to edge. The space between those grill marks that is not that deep, dark brown color will not be as flavorful.”

Though grill marks looks good on marketing materials, a truly well-cooked steak will have a brown crust edge to edge.


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Grilling Science: 101

While both an outdoor grill and an indoor one will tattoo steaks with those iconic lines, that’s about where the similarities end. In almost every aspect grilling inside falls short of mimicking the brown crust and flavor of a steak cooked over charcoal or propane. To understand why, you need to reconcile the science behind how food cooks—how energy is transferred from a source to the steak. 

There are three primary ways to cook food on a grill. Cooking over charcoal and gas can employ all of them whereas an electric grill, or metal grill pan, relies mostly on only one method. The methods may vary from one grill to the next, but the end game is the same: Turn protein that mahogany color and you’ve got a great piece of grilled meat. What that dark and delicious color means is that you’ve activated the Maillard reaction, the name for the chemical reaction happening when protein’s amino acids and sugars get above 140 degrees and start providing flavor and aroma to the outside of meat.


When you put the lid on a kettle, or the cover down on a gas grill, you’re amplifying the opportunity for convection cooking. Here, water, oil, or air transfers energy to the food. When you boil an egg, deep fry chicken, or air fry jalapeno poppers, that’s convection cooking. Most electric grills, and grill pans, don’t have a lid to increase convection by trapping hot air around the food. But even if they did, it wouldn’t do much to help brown your steak since air isn’t very efficient at transferring energy. It can, given enough time—like a big prime rib roast or turkey in the oven for hours—put a crust on protein, but steaks cook much too fast to see any real benefits from convection.

When you put a lid onto a hot grill, you are creating a small convection oven, which is helpful for slow roasting some food.



Conduction is the process that leaves grill marks on a steak and is responsible for what you hear when a smash burger gets mushed into a ripping hot griddle. Energy from the heat source—glowing charcoals or burning gas—transfers to the grill grate, which then moves to the food resting on the metal. An electric grill, where the heating element is touching the underside of the metal grate, cooks using conduction too, as do the ridges on a grill pan. This is the primary way cooking inside resembles real grilling. But conduction, even on an outdoor grill, is limited to adding flavor to the narrow bands where metal touches the food.

Conduction helps crust up your meat and bring the flavor, but it only happens where the meat touches metal.


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Infrared Radiation

The last form of energy that cooks food is infrared radiation (IR), which happens in the presence of a light source like glowing coals or the flame on a grill. The energy transfers from the source to the food through short wavelengths. You feel infrared energy when you stand in the sun on a winter day and you’ve cooked with it if you’ve broiled anything inside your oven. Infrared is most abundant in a charcoal grill where the glowing coals pump out a lot of energy.

This energy transfer into food, which isn’t really present in an electric grill or a grill pan, is the game changer when it comes to gorgeous brown, flavorful steaks. To get beef crusty and brown it’s less about temperature and more about the amount of energy delivered to the surface of the meat. That’s how high-end steak houses can get such beautiful steaks indoors—they often employ expensive broilers that pump out large amounts of IR to cook meat quickly and almost perfectly.

Goldwyn likes to use the example to prove a point: Put a pot of water in a 200-degree oven for an hour. Open the door, stick your hand in the warm air of the oven, and count how long you can hold your hand in there. Maybe a minute? Then plunge one hand into the water, or touch the metal wall of the oven. While you’re waiting in the ER, you’ll have time to reflect on the demonstration that shows that not everything that is 200 degrees transfers energy at the same rate. 200-degree air feels different than 200-degree water or metal, both of which are better conductors of energy.

Infrared radiation, like that given off by a rip-roaring charcoal fire in a grill, is what will help cook your steak to perfection.


A basic propane grill delivers radiant heat when the burners, usually covered with a triangular metal tent like Weber’s Flavorizer Bars, get hot and then transfer some of that energy to the food. In recent years some gas grill makers have added dedicated infrared sear burners that crank up the cooker’s ability to deliver these short wavelengths. These sear burners turn gas into dozens of tiny flames that heat a ceramic brick until it glows red. The ceramic gets hotter than metal, holding all that energy and then sending it to food sitting right above the element. An electric grill or grill plan on a burner is pathetic at providing infrared radiation.

The goal of cooking a steak is a brown crust and as much as you can get of it. Conduction and radiation are most responsible for that reaction. On any grill the amount of conduction is limited, but electricity’s lack of meaningful infrared means those spaces between the grill marks won’t get as brown and crusty. The valleys in a grill pan can offer some radiation from the heat source below but it’s a scant amount compared to an outdoor grill.

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Another reason a steak grilled over charcoal and gas tastes better, and smokier, than one grilled over an electric heating element or in a pan has to do with drippings. When fat drips out of a steak—and sometimes, protein, spices, and sugars come along for the ride—it falls between the grates, down to the glowing hot coals, and vaporizes, wafting up and basting the underside of the steak with flavorful compounds (it smells pretty great too). 

On a gas grill, the fat hits a slab of metal covering the burners to prevent the fat from igniting. If too much fat drips out, that leads to flareups so this concept can be a slippery slope. Because the fat never really hits the electric element on an indoor grill, there’s little chance of this vaporizing. And on a grill pan, the valleys are often too shallow to allow for this exchange to happen.

But there are going to be times when grilling isn’t an option. And in those cases, skip the electric grill or grill pan, and use a heavy bottom cast iron, carbon steel, or stainless steel pan—or turn to a griddle—to be able to sear both faces (and maybe the edges, for extra credit) of the steak. 

That way you be able to better activate the Maillard reaction because most of the meat will be touching the hot surface and more likely to crust up for a delicious slab of meat—you just will be missing the aroma and browned edges that really bring the flavor. You can make up for not treating the steak properly the next time you have a little more time to dedicate to your favorite cut of beef, and give it its proper due on an outdoor grill that’s full of fire and flavor.

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