What's hot in backyard grills?
Ah, spring. Time to tie on an apron, step out onto the deck, and fire up the infrared searing station. The grill, that is - with just one of many modern enhancements.
Resistant to change? Don't worry, you can still catch a whiff of smoldering charcoal or savory wood chips from a neighbor's backyard hibachi. And lava rocks - which form the internal terrain of some gas grills - won't soon become moon-rock rare. But like laptops and minivans, grills keep showing the flashy effects of technology's climb.
Whether or not these high-tech cookers eat into the "authenticity" of the grilling experience - or turn weekend barbecuers into Paul Prudhommes - is a matter of some debate. Where they represent a clear improvement: efficiency and ease.
Take those old-school ceramic or lava briquettes.
"An awful lot of people don't take very good care of them," says Donna Myers, spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) in Arlington, Va. "Those should be replaced or refurbished - removed and boiled, to remove any fat - every 18 months or so, depending on how often you cook out."
The grillmakers' answer: "sear plates" that thwart the stalagmites of grease that can form on briquettes and cause food-scorching flare-ups. Drippings hit the metal plates and run off to a catch basin. Three- quarters of new grills use them, estimates Ms. Myers. That includes many in the $300 range - a category that includes 83 percent of grills sold (despite all the attention paid to those lavish, stainless-steel behemoths).
Three-quarters of US households own at least one grill, according to an HPBA survey released April 22. Nearly 60 percent of grillers cook year-round. And many have long since encountered side burners, rotisseries, and smoker boxes.
Next, they can expect some of the best features of commercial ovens. Some of the industry advances that were shown off last month at HPBA's expo in Anaheim, Calif.:
• Dual-fuel models such as the Weber Performer, which uses gas burners to ignite a tray of charcoal (you can also cook with gas).
• Quilted-metal Thermsolate liners that borrow heat-management techniques from the auto industry to improve on electric-powered grills (one result: Char-Broil's Electric Patio Caddie).
• Built-in kamado cookers, like the Big Green Egg, that get the most out of a handful of solid fuel (the slow-cooking, ceramic-lined kettles date back 3,000 years, but Myers says their "cultlike" following is growing).
• Auto ignitors - there's no spark- ignitor button; you just turn the knob, as you would on your kitchen range, on models including some Kenmore and Fiesta grills.
• And yes, infrared-heat emitting devices, like the one in the Twin Eagles Salamangrill. Sometimes paired with gas-flame heat, and usually positioned to cook from above, these models can eliminate drips altogether. Because they run to 1,650 degrees F., about three times as hot as a normal gas grill, they do raise other issues.
"People sort of have to learn to cook all over again [on these grills]," says Myers, "or they'll end up incinerating their meat." Once mastered, she adds, the devices let cooks sear meat before moving it over and allowing it to finish over indirect heat.
"Every year there are more accessories," says Myers, who has tracked the industry since 1970. So, will outdoor cooking become, at some point, about as back-to-nature as putting the microwave on a heavy-duty extension cord and muscling it out to the patio?
"There are those who would argue that high-tech barbecue is an oxymoron," says Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City (Mo.) Barbecue Society. Like all aficionados of outdoor cooking, she makes a distinction between grilling - something one might do after work - and barbecuing.
"Low and slow, and big ol' hunks of meat," she says of the latter. "You can barbecue on a gas grill, but it takes a little doing."
Many chefs go both ways. "Charcoal and wood really are the core and essence of the experience," says Steven Raichlen, author of "The Barbecue! Bible." If he were limited to one grill, he says he would choose charcoal for its versatility. But Mr. Raichlen also maintains that anything that gets people out and grilling wins his approval, and that he often cooks on advanced gas grills - testing all of his recipes on them - and that they "behave very well."
Ms. Wells, who calls both grilling and barbecuing "honorable methods," often takes the easy route. "I have the same 24 hours as everybody else," she says with a laugh.
"Part of the reason that people give for buying 'consumer convenience' products of any kind - whether it's an excuse or whether it's true - is that [it allows] more time with the family, less time in preparation," says Stacey Menzel Baker, an assistant professor of marketing and consumer behavior at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
Gathering around a fire to cook with family and friends might itself be a social ritual. "[But] what's authentic to one person is not necessarily authentic to another," says Ms. Menzel Baker. "[Premixed batter] cookies might be homemade to a friend of mine, semihomemade to me, and inauthentic to somebody who's used to making their cookies from scratch."
Scores of grillmakers recognize that range of perceptions. You can still find a Weber kettle that works like the 1951 original.
And because plenty of backyard grillers might also think a sear plate comes up short in the flavor-giving department, there are brand-new options that burn natural-lump charcoal - essentially hunks of wood. The number of people cooking with some form of wood has, in fact, at least quadrupled in the past decade, says Myers.
You can't get more low-tech than that.