If you have bought or considered buying an barbeque in the past ten years, chances are you have heard of the technological advances in grilling called infrared technology. Infrared grills, depending on who you ask are either the perfect solution to modern grilling or completely unusable for anything other than burning food. The truth is different for each cook and deciding whether infrared grilling technology is right for you and your family’s barbeque depends on what your predominantly cook and how you use your barbecue grill.
Infrared technology was invented at Thermal Engineering Corporation, TEC over twenty years ago. It was used for rubber and plastics manufacturing and quick-drying car paint before someone had the brilliant idea that the restaurant industry would benefit from the instant intense heat generated by an infrared gas burner. Initially restaurants were the proving ground for infrared grills. Before infrared grills, a chef would leave a thick slab of cast iron in the oven for several hours while the kitchen was prepping specials and getting ready to open for dinner. After several hours the cast iron griddle would be searing hot. When a customer ordered a perfectly seared steak or tuna, the meat could be quickly laid on the cast iron griddle to sear the outside layer within minutes. Infrared grills were able to duplicate the intensity of direct heat without hours of preparation.
After infrared grills had proven their worth commercially, grill manufacturers began making the grills more versatile for the residential market. Today infra-vection grills have an infrared burner and a convectional, or blue-flame burner hybrid. This design allows a section of the grill to be used for intense heat and another section for slower cooking.
The way a typical BBQ cooks your food is through convection, or hot air. Think about your process: you light the burner, turn all the burners to high then you close the hood and wait. What happens as you wait is the air trapped in the barbeque hood gets hot enough to cook your food. Put the food on the cooking grates and close the hood so the heat surrounds the food and cooks it – very similar to a broiler or a convection oven but outside.
Heat can cook three different ways. Convection cooking uses the air trapped inside the grill to conduct heat. Heated molecules in air or water conduct heat by bumping into one another. The hot air (or hot water, or oil) cooks the food by surrounding it with heat. Conduction style barbeque grills use a conductive medium like lava rocks, briquettes, rods and heavy cooking grates to distribute heat in addition to the heat trapped in the hood. Before infrared grilling was invented, conduction grilling was the only way to cook at temperatures hotter than eight hundred degrees, which is considered the minimum for searing.
Radiant heat is different. Radiant heat is the direct heat from the flame. It is called infrared because the heat energy is comprised of the frequency just below the red end of the physical color spectrum – light we cannot see. Infrared heat is perfect for cooking because the heat is the direct heat generated by the flame, not heat limited by the tolerance of the medium. For instance water will allow less heat than oil, aluminum less heat than iron but the flame will always create the same heat. Instead of finding a way to transfer the heat to air, oil, iron, etc, radiant grills allow the heat from the fire to cook the food.
An infrared burner pressurizes the gas inside the casing of the burner. The pressurized gas turns the flame red instead of the blue flame you are used to seeing and the flame is tiny. However, turn on an infrared burner and the heat at the grilling surface will be over one thousand degrees in about sixty seconds without closing the hood. Most infrared gas grills will reach fourteen hundred degrees within three minutes.
The benefit to cooking with infrared is flavor. When hot air surrounds your food, the food sweats, it drips and loses moisture just like you do on a hot day. Also because a convection barbeque will reach its maximum temperature at approximately five hundred degrees, your food will take longer to cook and it will be losing moisture the whole time. When a barbeque grill uses lava rocks, briquettes or some conductive material to transfer heat the flavor dripping out of your food will actually flare up and cause serious inconsistencies in the distribution of heat. It also makes the grill filthy dirty and difficult to clean. The conduction that creates heat at the grilling surface will be hotter than the convectional heat surrounding the food making it easy to miscalculate time and burn the outside of your food.
When your food is placed on an infrared grill the heat will sear the outside layer of the food within a minute. Flip the steak (burger, filet, etc) and sear the other side and within two minutes, your food is “seared”. The outer layer has been sealed and will not lose moisture. The flavor will not sweat or drip out of the food once it is seared. The heat can then be adjusted to a lower setting while the inside of the food is brought up to temperature without worrying about drying out the food. Convection and conductive heat transfer dries the food in the process of cooking. Infrared cooking has the opposite effect locking the moisture in the food where it adds to the flavor. Notice infrared grills all have cooking grates with a concave shape. The concave groove in the cooking grids is meant to hold any moisture that drips out of the food in the first few minutes while searing is sealing the surface of your steak. The moisture is stuck on the grate and is vaporized by the heat to re-enter the food as smoke.
Criticisms of infrared technology are usually made by people who have not used an infrared grill. In theory a lot more heat should make it easy to burn the food. My first steak cooked on an infrared grill looked perfect until I cut it open and discovered the inside was completely raw. The second experiment left the outside burnt but the inside was cooked perfect. By the third attempt at cooking on an infrared grill, I was a pro. I perfectly seared the outside layer of my steak. Then I lowered the heat and closed the hood to force the heat to surround the steak and cook the inside. Within ten minutes the steaks were medium and tasted perfect – juicy like they were raw. An additional point to remember is that when the intense heat sears the outside of the food so no moisture can drip out, the seal also prevents your food from absorbing any fumes or gas residue.
An added benefit of infrared grilling is clean-up. There are no barbeque heat shields or flavorizer plates hanging between the cooking grates and the gas burner. Infrared grills have no need for a plate to distribute heat nor a tray that deflects dripping grease off the burner. An infrared grill has no need for lava rocks or briquettes that get grease and dirt caked up and are impossible to clean. Below my cooking grates is my burner. Anything falls through the grates to the burner, it is incinerated. An infrared grill is the easiest grill you will even need to clean. Although the cooking grates are concave and designed to hold grease let the burner heat the grates to fourteen hundred degrees and it is like having a self cleaning oven. A clean grill will last decades longer than a dirty grill. The clean design of the infrared system guarantees it will keep cooking great flavor for many years.
The other hidden benefit is related to igniting the grill. Ignitor electrodes on most conduction and convectional barbeques go bad within the first year. This is because the electrode is exactly like a small spark plug. When the plug gets covered with dirt and grease, it has difficulty finding clean steel to spark against. Infrared grill electrodes are positioned above the burner so the ignition electrode is cleaned as you are cooking.
Infrared grill technology is the pinnacle of cooking. The best restaurants in town use infrared to keep moisture and flavor inside the food where it belongs. As with anything, the technology will be more expensive than simpler designs of traditional barbeques. Most people realize that they are sacrificing flavor for convenience when they move from using charcoal to using gas barbecues. With infrared technology we are able to gain the convenience of a gas grill with the superb flavor usually associated with charcoal BBQs.