Food

How to Have a “BBQ” Cookout Indoors

Start with this exquisitely smoky sauce.

Illustration of sauce and grilled veggies.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Read the rest of Slate’s guide to your quarantine summer.

For those of us without access to a private backyard or patio situation this summer, enjoying the tastes and smells of a cookout will be even more challenging than normal. And gatherings with those who do likely still won’t be very safe. But that doesn’t mean we have to totally skip our beloved burgers, hot dogs, and BBQ chicken this year—we just have to figure out how to move the cookout indoors.

While charcoal grills cannot come inside—seriously, don’t, you’ll die—the good news is that the char and smoky flavors of grilling can kinda sorta be obtained in the kitchen. But you will need to adjust your expectations. There are two main methods of approximating an open-air grill in your kitchen: the broiler in your oven and the stove-top grill pan. At their highest setting, broilers can deliver something like the intense, dry, radiant heat of a grill, so they’re a good way to get some char on your food. They work especially well on vegetables. Just be careful that your sheet pan isn’t too close to the heating element, lest you invite a grease fire to the party. Up top, a well-heated grill pan’s ridges will give you solid grill marks and a decent amount of char—along with, I’m sorry to report from personal experience, a considerable amount of smoke wafting through your apartment.

In the end, neither of these techniques really capture the true flavor magic of grilling, which largely comes from fat dripping down onto the coals and vaporizing back up onto your food infusing it with meaty, smoky tastiness. As food science expert J. Kenji López-Alt concludes a thorough examination of the problem: “No indoor method that I know of is a replacement for the combination of super high radiation and conduction levels you can get from an outdoor grill.”

So, like I said: expectations. Indoor “grilling” will never be the same thing as open coals in the great outdoors, but it can scratch the BBQ itch sufficiently well to be worth a try. If you do, consider also that there are elements in your meal where you can sneak in grilling vibes apart from the meat itself. Definitely toast your buns—I like to crisp mine up in the fat left over in the pan after the burgers are resting—and if you’re having cheese, opt for a smoked variety, like gouda or cheddar. My favorite trick, however, is in the land of condiments. Instead of your typical ketchup and mustard, consider whipping up a sauce that incorporates smoke and meaty umami as well. My go-to for this is a take on the Spanish romesco sauce, a blend of roasted vegetables, toasted nuts and breadcrumbs, and other lovely things that tastes like summer in a spoon. Try my recipe below with your next indoor cookout, and see if, when you close your eyes, you don’t feel a little closer to the real thing.

Smoky Romesco Sauce

(Makes about 4 cups)

2 medium tomatoes (about 12 oz), halved
1 large red bell pepper (or handful of small sweet peppers, about 7 oz), cored and halved
¾ cup fresh breadcrumbs
¾ cup unsalted nuts (walnut, almond, hazel, pine, or mix)
1–2 garlic cloves, depending on size, roughly chopped
1–2 scallions, depending on size, roughly chopped
3–4 whole parsley sprigs
1 tbsp pimentón dulce (smoked Spanish paprika)
½ tsp cayenne
Salt and black pepper
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
½­–¾ cups olive oil (the fruitier the better!)

1. Preheat your broiler to high. On a foil-lined baking sheet, place the tomatoes and peppers cut side down. Place under the broiler and cook until intensely blistered and collapsing, 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

2. Meanwhile, place the nuts and breadcrumbs in a skillet over medium heat. Toast until nicely browned, tossing occasionally, 3 to 4 minutes. (A little charring is OK but watch carefully that nothing truly burns!) Set aside to cool slightly.

3. Add the tomatoes, peppers, breadcrumbs, and nuts to a food processor or blender, along with the garlic, scallions, parsley, pimentón, cayenne, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Pulse until just combined.

4. Add the vinegar. Then, while pulsing, stream in the olive oil through the top until the mixture achieves a fairly uniform, spreadable consistency but retains some chunky texture. You may not need all of the oil.

5. Transfer to a bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, and vinegar.