Simple Tips For Choosing An Infrared Grill
Sinking your teeth into a perfectly grilled steak or chicken breast is one of life’s true joys. The seared flavors on the surface harken back to ancient times when our primitive ancestors cooked raw meat directly over a blazing hot campfire.
This begs the question, “What makes grilled meat taste so good?”
Beyond the fact that our bodies need protein and fat to survive, there is actually a great deal of flavor chemistry going on when meat meets fire.
There is a natural process, known as the Maillard reaction that occurs when meat, vegetables and certain other foods are introduced to direct heat. When this happens amino acids, water-soluble proteins, carbohydrates and other trace compounds start to combine and caramelize.
It’s this Maillard reaction that turns dried bread into hearty toast, it gives a steak a deeply flavorful crust, and makes your mouth water when you smell a flame-broiled burger on the wind. The polymerized flavor compound created visually looks brown and even a miniscule amount has a major impact on the human sense of taste and smell.
A little over a century ago the only ways to properly sear meat called for some form of wood or coal fire. In modern times the advent and rapid acceleration of modern technology chefs and home cooks alike have access to a diverse array of cooking appliances.
Infrared grills and assorted accessories represent some of the newest options for searing food and evoking the Maillard reaction. They are specifically designed to provide a high, intense heat which not only sears food effectively but also affects the food differently compared to traditional gas or charcoal grills.
What Is Infrared?
When you walk outside on a bright sunny day and the light feels warm on your face, much of what you are feeling is infrared radiation emitted by the sun. It travels 93 million miles to you and then interacts with the cells and nerves of your skin to create the feeling of warmth. Infrared light exists just beyond the red end of the visible light spectrum. It can’t be directly perceived by our eyes, but it can be detected by our sense of touch as well as special technology.
The farther a body is from our sun’s source of infrared radiation the less heat energy it receives. This is part of the reason why the Venus is warmer than the Earth as well as why Mars and the outer planets are colder than the Earth.
How Can We Use Infrared Light For Cooking?
In recent years grill manufacturers have tapped into infrared technology to create an innovate approach to high heat grilling. The process relies on a propane-fueled fire heating a special plate that absorbs the energy and transmits the infrared heat up to the grill surface.
In a relatively short amount of time the element heats up to emit intense, yet localized infrared energy. This allows the grill to come up to very high temperatures. Some units can even reach 650 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s also worth noting that traditional charcoal and gas grills use convection heat to cook the food on the cooking grate. This type of heat essentially interrupts the moisture barrier that naturally surrounds meat and vegetables to gradually heat them. In most direct heat cooking applications this process also creates a seared or crusted exterior. Convection heating in this way also increases your chances of overcooking the food causing it to dry out.
The heat generated and imparted to the food by an infrared grill doesn’t directly disturb the moisture barrier on the surface of the food. This allows the exterior to develop a nice sear while also minimizing the amount of natural juices that are lost from the interior. The net effect is designed to provide you with a more flavorful piece of juicy meat or vegetables while also maximizing their natural flavor.
What Is An Infrared Grill?
At first glance an infrared grill might seem like little more than a modified propane grill. The burning gas quickly heats up a special plate or element. As it starts to glow it emits infrared light capable of searing and cooking food at a high heat.
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Infrared Grill vs Gas Grills
Is Infrared Better Than Gas Grills?Gas grills fueled by natural gas or propane generally operate at a much lower temperature than infrared,which limits their ability to deeply sear food in a short amount of time. They also take longer to preheat.
Gas grills also use convection heating to cook the food on the grill grate. This type of heat directly affects the moisture barrier of the food, which affects the interior of the food leading to increased moisture loss. When it comes to meat convection heating often causes protein fibers to contract, which expels additional moisture into the spaces between the intramuscular fibers.
If the meat is not properly rested after achieving the appropriate internal temperature it can lead to even more moisture loss when you cut into the meat. You often see this when you remove a steak directly from the propane fire and immediately cut into it. The meat suddenly releases a significant amount of moisture and pink denatured proteins, leaving the rest of the steak dry.
Propane and infrared grills have different characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. Taking the time to think about what you want to cook and how you want to cook will strongly influence your preferred choice. It’s worth noting that some manufacturers offer hybrid grills with propane burners as well as infrared components.
Are Infrared Grills Safe?
You shouldn’t let a term like “Infrared Radiation” conjure up images of a uranium glow and steaks that turns you into a giant green beast when you burn your finger. It’s important to keep in mind that the types of radiation that cause long-term harm to the human body come from high energy forms of radiation like X-rays and gamma rays that penetrate the cells to potentially damage the cell’s DNA.
Infrared grills essentially use electromagnetic energy to cook the food in much the same way that your microwave heats water. Since it is actually lower in frequency than visible light, infrared heat lacks the ability to penetrate your cells and affect the DNA within.
To further ease concerns several physicists and official organizations have declared infrared light to be safe for cooking food. Just be sure to follow the recommended cooking temperatures put forth by the Food and Drug Administration
When it comes to fire and cooking safety an infrared grill comes with most of the commonsense precautions you would use with a traditional gas or charcoal grill. If you notice any part of the heating element, hinge, or seal is damaged in any way you should address it before using the infrared grill.
It’s important to keep in mind that most apartment rules and multifamily housing covenants still prohibit infrared grills just like they do charcoal and gas grills. If you are unsure of the rules where you live you should always check with your landlord or apartment manager before you invest any outdoor grilling equipment.
What Kind Of Foods Can I Cook On An Infrared Grill?
The design and layout of an infrared grill can vary from one manufacturer to another. Taking a moment to think about what kind of foods you are likely to cook most often might influence the features you prioritize when shopping.
A grill that contains two or more banks of infrared elements might be for you, if you like to quickly sear steaks, hamburger, or brats. This type of grill is also a good choice for specialty dishes like Japanese yakitori or if you like to entertain guests with large array of perfectly seared kebabs.
Some manufacturers offer hybrid infrared grills that have one side with an independent propane burner. The other side of the grill is then set up with an independent infrared element. This allows you to perform grilling, where you can slow cook a tough piece of meat like a chicken leg quarter over the propane. When it’s tender and cooked through from indirect heat, you quickly fire up the infrared element to sear, crisp, or mark the skin.
There are also manufacturers who provide you with a high-quality propane grill where infrared plates can be installed. This allows you to use it just like any other gas grill for Tuesday night’s family hot dog supper. Then if you want to impress your coworkers for a Saturday night dinner party, you can easily install the infrared plates to make delicious fajitas.
Some high-quality propane grills include an infrared broiler which can help with different dishes. For instance, certain cheeses have a higher melting point than classic mild cheddar. If you like to play with exotic twists on the classic cheeseburger a propane grill with an infrared broiler can help melt the top before the propane fire below burns the meat patty. Grills with this design can often be fitted with an accessory rotisserie which can allow you to grill something like lamb and chicken shawarma or prepare shaved pork for tacos al pastor.
There are also a few manufacturers who offer infrared smokers, which use clean infrared heat to warm a metal box containing wood chips or chunks. This mimics an indirect heating method to also help impart smoke to the meat on the nearby grate.
What Are The Advantages Of An Infrared Grill
Infrared grills offer superior preheating over traditional gas, propane, and current electric grills. This allows you to bring the grill up to temp to start cooking sooner. High-quality infrared grills are also capable of very high temperatures which makes them capable of cooking exotic dishes like yakitori or something like a large batch of fajitas in a relatively short amount of time.
The special heat source also helps the food to retain more of its natural moisture and flavor. Since there isn’t a reactive heat source, like you find in a charcoal coalbed, any grease or other materials that drip onto the heat are less likely to cause a serious flare-up.
Infrared grills also provide very consistent heat compared to charcoal or wood fire grills which can be fickle with flare-ups or the gradual heat loss that occurs as the coals burn out. They also tend to be able to cook food quickly, which can be very helpful if you happen to have a large number of diners.
When it comes to clean up Infrared grills also tend to be easier than traditional grills that use propane or natural gas. They certainly require less effort than the ash removal and potential corrosion concerns associated with charcoal or wood fire grills. Most of the time any rogue runoff is burned away by the intense heat created by the element leaving little ash behind.
What Are The Disadvantages Of An Infrared Grill?
The high and intense heat generated by an infrared grill can be a disadvantage depending on what you want to cook. Some meats with a significant amount of intramuscular fat and connective tissue need a slow and low approach to render away the fat and break down tough collagen into succulent gelatin.
When these meats are exposed to the high heat of an infrared grill for long enough to attain tender juicy perfection on the inside, they are often burned on the outside. There are also some vegetables, meats, and fish that don’t respond well to the intense heat produced by an infrared grill.
Of course, one way to get around this is to look for a hybrid unit that includes a basic propane element paired with a secondary infrared element.
Infrared grills also produce such high heat that it might take a little bit of time for you to get a feel for the abbreviated cooking time for something like a medium rare steak. For example on a traditional charcoal or gas grill preheated to 350 degrees a medium rare New York Strip steak generally takes four minutes a side. With a infrared grill at full heat the time per side might be as low as 2 minutes!
If you have a “Set it and forget it” mentality when it comes to grilling, you might find yourself with overdone steaks and hamburgers. So, it’s best to pay close attention to your infrared grill in the early days to develop an intuitive feel for just how quickly it can cook food.
An infrared grill isn’t ideal for someone who likes to prepare classic slow and low barbecue. However, there are some manufacturers who offer infrared smokers capable of duplicating indirect heat, while also producing clean and efficient smoke. There are also some infrared grill configurations that might allow you to mimic the classic barbecue process.
For most people’s the biggest disadvantage that factors into their decision to buy an infrared grill is the price. A high-quality unit typically costs more than a traditional charcoal or gas grill. This might tempt you to experiment with a lower quality unit at a seemingly friendlier price point.
Unfortunately, infrared grills that appear to be inexpensive at first, tend to develop cost-performance issues as time goes on. Cheap components might not be capable of the intense high heat you want. Cheap elements might also become chipped and cracked, or seals might fail. The replacement costs for these issues could be more than just a little frustrating, they can also be expensive.
If you are a passionate grill enthusiast looking to expand your outdoor cooking repertoire into the infrared spectrum, it’s probably best to invest in a high-quality unit.
What Should I Look For In An Infrared Grill?
With infrared grills design and quality both influence each other, which of course can also have an impact on the overall cost as well as the lifespan of the grill. While you should certainly take a close look at things like welds, handles, and grates for signs of quality workmanship, the largest factor to consider is the element type.
Understanding The Different Infrared Element Systems
For all intents and purposes there are three different types of infrared heating element that manufacturer’s use. Depending on their characteristics they might be integrated into different designs and layouts.
Ceramic infrared burner system
This is the original type of heating element used for infrared grills, which also makes it the most common. It typically features a stainless steel propane burner with a ceramic element fitted directly above it. The grill grate is then positioned a few inches above the element. Once it is brought up to full heat, the ceramic surface emits a plethora of tiny flames which generate a consistent and even heat.
With this type of burner system, the temperature range on the grilling grate can potentially reach between 600 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This helps apply some direct sear to the food being cooked while also acting to cook the interior of the food for maximum moisture retention.
Occasional drippings from the food on the grill grates might cause some short-lived flare-ups when they strike the burner element. However, this does also provide some of the classic smell of grilled food cooked over open flame that many people find appealing.
This ceramic infrared burner system is ideal for fast searing meats, yet it often isn’t capable of grilling at lower temperatures. This could be an issue if you need to grill chicken or delicate pieces of fish.
To address this need some manufacturers such as Lynxgrills have developed a patented Trident ceramic infrared burner. It allows the infrared grill to reach lower temperatures around 300 degrees when needed, while also being able to provide intense heat near 1,000 degrees when called for.
Radiant glass panels
These are a recent innovation created by a company known as TEC. They originally pioneered infrared grills in the marketplace. In recent years they have re-engineered their infrared burner system to incorporate a radiant glass panel system.
The glass panel sits atop a radiant heat element which is positioned over a durable stainless steel propane burner. The TEC system offers even heat distribution and the intense, high heat that infrared is prized for. The glass panel also reduces any contact between drippings and the fire which helps prevent flare-ups.
One of the major advantages of the TEC infrared system is its broad temperature range which can reportedly go as low as 200, yet it is also capable of reaching up to 900 degrees. On its lowest setting it can even be paired with a special smoker accessory to slow cook meats and apply pleasant smoky flavors.
The radiant glass panel design can allow you the versatility you might want from a traditional gas or charcoal grill, while also being able to provide you with the kind of high heat that you usually only see in a first-class steakhouse.
Heat emitter systems
These are the third type of infrared element to consider when shopping for a new grill. They feature a stainless steel burner tube that has been fitted with a metal heat emitter panel which sits above the burner and the cooking grate.
A heat emitter system generates consistent and even heat and virtually no flare-ups. They also provide a temperature range between 300 and 650 degrees. One potential downside to consider is that the pipe burners produce a less intense maximum heat compared to the other infrared systems. However, 650 degrees is still sufficient for doing something like searing a steak, melting cheese on a hamburger, or marking the skin on a chicken breast.
Size and Space Considerations
Like the propane grills that fire them, infrared grills can vary in size, portability, and configuration. Some infrared grills are relatively small and might even be suitable for trips to the beach, camping, or tailgating.
At the same time some infrared grills can be large enough to dominate your deck space, while allowing you to conveniently cook for a large group of people. Some hybrid grills that feature both infrared elements as well as a traditional stainless steel propane burner can be rather large.
If you are considering a larger grill, it’s well worth the time to pull out a measuring tape to give you a general idea of its potential footprint in your outdoor cooking area. Keep in mind things like where you will place your grilling tools. Will you also have enough space for a platter or other equipment you might want to use such as a griddle or a special grill sautéing pan?
You should also think about the kind of foods you plan to make, which can factor into the configuration and size as well as the type of burner you want to look for.
Basic Care And Cleaning Information
Infrared grills have a general reputation for being low maintenance compared to charcoal grills or propane grills that sometimes suffer from excess gunk and burned debris. Most of the time an infrared grill simply burns away any drippings or other material during the cooking process. However, from time to time they still need a little extra attention. Especially if you have a unit capable of lower temperature ranges, where drippings might not be burned away.
It’s important to let your grill cool down completely before you start cleaning it. Even after it has been turned off for a while some of the components might still retain some heat. Hold your hand over the grill before touching any components to make sure they are completely cool.
You should then carefully remove the grilling grates. Depending on what they are made of, most grates can be lightly scraped with a wire brush or soaked and washed in warm soapy water. If your grates have been coated with a non-stick material like a porcelain glaze, you should be careful not to chip or scratch them.
If there’s any dried debris on the infrared heating element you can gently brush it away with a soft-bristled nylon brush. You shouldn’t scour with steel wool or anything abrasive. If you have a hybrid grill with a secondary propane burner you can lightly scrub it with an abrasive sponge.
Excess gunk, such as a drop of caramelized marinade, on a burner or a radiant glass panel can be cleaned away by spraying it with an ammonia-based kitchen cleaning spray. It may need a few moments to loosen the debris before you can wipe it away with a soft sponge.
Your owner’s manual will also include any other special cleaning tips needed for any of your grill’s special features. If you have an accessory such as a rotisserie or a smoker box, you should also clean them per the manufacturer’s recommendation.
An infrared grill will also benefit from a basic inspection and thorough cleaning every six months or at the change of season. Carefully uninstall all removable components and check them over for any excess wear and tear. If something is chipped or cracked, you can usually find and order replacement parts online.
Assuming everything is in good working order, you can then carefully clean each component. Then install them back into their original place in reverse order of how they were removed.
Infrared grills represent the next big step in grilling innovation. With some careful consideration you’ll likely find that they inspire you to expand your grilling repertoire to embrace creative culinary challenges. Taking a moment to sit down and think about the grilling adventure you want to go on, might be just the thing you need to help you find the infrared grilling system that suits you best.
Maybe a heat emitter system is something you are interested in, to pair with a rotisserie. Perhaps you’ll fall in love with chicken wings cooked over a hybrid grill’s propane burner before finishing them with a sear over a ceramic infrared element. If you’re just aching for some classic smoky barbecue, but you want to also be able to sear a bone in ribeye to perfection, you might lean more toward a TEC radiant glass panel system.
With a little time and forethought, a new infrared grill could become your next outdoor cooking companion.
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