Astove-top grill pan can come to the rescue if you don't have an outdoor grill or if the weather isn't cooperating. These sturdy pans have ridged interiors that approximate outdoor grilling for the indoor cook. There are dozens of pans out there, many crafted from different materials. This test focused on three: preseasoned cast iron, enamel-coated cast iron and stainless steel.
We heated the pans on medium-high heat for 10 minutes before placing two lightly oiled chicken breasts on each. All three pans got the job done, grilling the meat in no more than 15 minutes. But there were differences.
The stainless-steel pan heated so fast we had to lower the heat to medium a few minutes into cooking. (Which may explain why the chicken took the longest -- 15 minutes --to cook on that pan.) The chicken finished first on the nonstick enamel (12 minutes), followed by the cast-iron pan (13 minutes).
Here are the pans we tested, with a few pros and cons. We found these particular models on amazon.com, and the prices listed are from the site. Kitchenware and department stores also stock a wide array of these and similar grill pans.
Cuisinart Chef's Classic square enamel-coated cast-iron grill pan; $40. Very pretty and comes in a cheerful red or green exterior. (One tester said she'd buy it on looks alone.) The 12-inch grilling surface has shallow ridges that limit searing. Relatively easy to scrub by hand and it's dishwasher-safe; it emerged from the dishwasher looking great. Cooking results: The shallower ridges of the enamel-coated cast-iron produced the palest sear, but the flavor was fine.
Lodge Logic square preseasoned cast-iron grill pan; $18. Least expensive. 10 1/2-inch-square cooking surface. It's heavy (about 8 pounds), and that's a bonus or detriment, depending on the cook's strength. (A helper-handle eases lifting.) It's hand-wash only but grilling meat will almost always require some preliminary scrubbing to remove the charred bits -- and this was the easiest pan to clean. Cooking results: In terms of flavor and visual appeal, we cast our vote for the preseasoned cast-iron -- and not just because it was the least expensive. It produced chicken with a deep sear and crispy exterior.
KitchenAid round five-ply stainless-steel-clad 12-inch grill pan; $80. Its light weight (2 pounds) didn't diminish its sturdiness, so this may appeal to smaller cooks. It had a large cooking surface (20.7 inches in diameter). Dishwasher-safe, but it was the hardest to scrub by hand. It came out clean in the dishwasher, but it may need polishing to look as great as it looked out of the box. Cooking results: The chicken seared too much on the stainless steel, resulting in a charred flavor on the exterior. Inside, though, the meat was tender and juicy.