It's your kitchen's secret weapon for incredible flavor.

The broiler: You know it's there, that funky metal thing on the roof of your oven, or the not-a-storage drawer beneath it. You know it's good for melting cheese or browning breadcrumbs to finish off a sandwich or a casserole. But beyond that, you may not know much.

Turns out, the broiler can be used to turn many foods into crispy, melty, or caramelized goodness. It's especially handy if you don't have a grill, or when you don't want to bother with starting one up. But it can be your secret weapon if you learn how to use it properly. Here's what you need to know about a broiler and how to make it work for you.

What Is a Broiler?

To put it simply, the broiler is an upside-down grill. It cooks food using hot, direct heat, as opposed to indirect heat like the oven, but it's coming from above the food instead of from below it.

In gas-powered ovens, broilers produce a visible flame, while electric ovens have a curvy rod that produces white-hot heat. Just like when you're using a grill, you'll get the best results from a broiler if you let it heat up first — the general recommendation is at least five minutes.

Most broilers only have one setting, "On," but if your broiler has a Low and a High you can test out both. However, many experts say not to bother with Low — you're using direct heat, so it's best to make it hot.

Finishing With the Broiler

One of the most common uses for the broiler is to use it to finish a recipe that you've cooked the majority of the way already. Many recipes that are topped with cheese or breadcrumbs can be finished under the broiler to make them extra melty or crispy. You can get a restaurant-quality cup of French Onion Soup by topping oven-safe crocks with thick slices of French bread and shredded cheese and placing them under a broiler for a few minutes. If you're roasting a protein that's been marinated with a mixture that contains sugar, like Baked Barbecue Chicken Wings, finishing them under the broiler will give the outside a crisp, caramelized finish.

Cooking With the Broiler

Cooking with a broiler's direct heat means that any food will be cooked from the outside in. For that reason, meats with a uniform thickness of no more than two inches, such as steak, will turn out best. If your food is too thick, the outside will be burnt by the time the center is cooked.

Another reason this might happen is if the food is too cold; in that case, it will take it longer to cook through as well. But as long as meats are uniform, thin, and at room temperature, you can successfully (and deliciously) broil chicken breasts and thighs, steaks, pork chops, or salmon, halibut, or tilapia fillets.

You can also cook vegetables and fruits using the broiler. As a general rule, stick to produce you would grill, such as zucchini, squash, peppers, asparagus, eggplant, peaches, and pineapple. Everything you broil is going to cook fast, so make sure you keep a close eye on it to avoid burning.

Broiler Best Practices

Most recipes that utilize the broiler will tell you to position your oven rack four or five inches beneath the broiler. In most ovens, this will be the top rack position of the oven. If your oven has a drawer broiler the rack won't be adjustable, though it has likely been designed to be at that four- to five-inch distance already. The exception to this rule is if you're broiling a whole chicken, in which case the rack will be closer to eight inches away.

Avoid using glass pans or baking dishes when using the broiler, as the heat could cause them to crack or break. Instead, stick to metal sheet pans, broiling trays (which sometimes come with the oven), or cast iron pans.

Avoid nonstick pans; most are only oven-safe up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and broilers often get much higher. And no matter what you use, be careful handling it, as it's going to be extremely hot when your food is done.

Ready to start experimenting with your broiler? Try one of these simple and delicious broiler recipes.