For grill lovers, a brand new flame
Is infrared the next big step for backyard chefs?
Vicky and Mark Provost dragged their propane grill to the curb this spring at their home north of Boston. After six years, the old workhorse – a Sunbeam with a small extra burner on the side – had rusted into retirement.
To choose its replacement they will check Consumer Reports, Ms. Provost says. They'll weigh the latest options and try to spend no more than $300.
"I'd love to go back to charcoal," she says. "I like the old stuff."
There's always plenty of action at the retro end of the grill market – charcoal-grill and smoker ownership are on the rise – and many professional chefs still put their faith in open flames. But, as in every corner of consumerdom, high-tech colors one definition of the leading edge.
The manufacturer buzz this summer: infrared, an ultra-high radiant heat – sometimes well above 1,000 degrees F. – typically generated by forcing gas flames through many tiny burner holes to heat a ceramic plate.
Time for consumers – steak fans, in particular – to work out a new calculus for outdoor cookery.
For several years, small "searing strips" – often placed upright behind a rotisserie, for browning big cuts of meat – have appeared in some high-end home grills. Firms including Jenn-Air and Modern Home Products now offer grills with at least one lie-flat infrared burner as well. And this year, grillmaker Char-Broil joins with Thermal Engineering Corporation, an infrared pioneer, on a (barely) sub-$1,000 line that uses high-temperature glass to distribute heat – up to 900 degrees F. – from a flat-surface steel burner. (It also has traditional gas burners.) "This is technology that's been in the commercial restaurant industry for many years," says Thom Ward, a spokesman for Georgia-based Char-Broil. "The taste results that you get cooking with infrared heat is incredible."
The flow of hot air, or convection, that occurs inside conventional grills can have a drying effect, he explains. As most cooks know, fast searing – achieved with inverted broilers at steakhouses – seals in juices.
"When you are up in the 900-to-1,000-degree range you get a surface charring that is very akin to a steakhouse-steak kind of experience," says Steven Raichlen, author of "The Barbeque Bible" and "How to Grill."
"[There is a] crusting, charring, and caramelization of the meat proteins in an infrared situation," he says. "Nothing [else] gives you that kind of flavor."
Still, Mr. Raichlen says, the list of things a user can't easily do with infrared – cook more delicate meats and vegetables for example – might be longer than the list of its superlatives.
"On a desert island, if I could have one grill and one fuel it would be lump charcoal," he says. "Actually, my favorite fuel is wood, but that's a little bit complicated for people to use."
Dave Cox, executive chef at Boston's Capital Grille, uses propane when he cooks at home, but he backs the careful use of infrared by backyard amateurs. "Infrared's more consistent," he says, "It's [not only] high heat, but even cooking as well." And fast.
"People get scared when they see '1,000 degrees,'" he says. "But then you see [charcoal grills] with flames shooting up, and the meat is in the fire, charring. That's not a good thing."
Still, the technology might not be poised to scorch the market, based on interviews with a dozen or so grill shoppers in two big-box home-supply stores and the impassioned exchanges on discussion boards at grilling websites.
Most grillers are keep-it-simple cooks like the Provosts. The industry serves them with everything from basic kettle grills like the 1950s-looking Weber to the cult-favorite Big Green Egg, which burns lump hardwood coals and doubles as a smoker. Nearly 30 percent of US grillers own more than one grill, according to a new report from Greenfield Online (commissioned by Weber).
"For average civilians who've got a few bucks to spend," says Raichlen, "a good gas grill for weeknight grilling and a simple charcoal grill – like a kettle grill – for smoking, [is] a good combination."
Part of infrared's appeal: its relative novelty. Stainless steel has long since made it to outdoor-kitchen islands. "Dual fuel" is almost old school, though today it's as likely to mean propane/natural gas as propane/charcoal.
Infrared proponents proclaim real advantages: Rapid grill readiness, heat control, thorough self-cleaning. Wood chips can be placed on the grates for flavor, says Char-Broil. Marinades vaporize on the plate and infuse the food, rather than running into the flame.
But grilling communities online, responding to a Monitor request for input, were somewhat dismissive. "Might as well use a microwave," sniffed a poster at Sharky's Grilling Forums, where another admitted that he was fascinated by the technology, but maintained that the 700 degrees he can attain inside his Big Green Egg is sufficient.
Predictably, slow cookers dominated the Texas BBQ Rub Forum. One poster there said he used the time it took his grill to heat up to prepare his food. But Glenn Jarrett, a self-proclaimed "BBQ artist" from Tomball, Texas, wrote that one of his several grills is an infrared: a Texas Pit Crafters PM1000 that can hit 1,100 degrees. Since mastering it, he has used it to cook just about everything, including pizza, though it's mainly for making steak – and an impression.
"When we entertain I love to use [it]," he writes in a follow up e-mail. "It really impresses people, because not too many have ever seen such a grill."