A sizzling development in barbecue technology

12 May

May 12, 2008

By Geoff Meeker

Regular readers know that I like to observe the transformation of old technology into things new and exciting.

Take the humble barbecue, which probably dates back to Australopithecus, the earliest known man, and would have involved an open fire and some tasty wild game (alas, no brewskis).

In my childhood, the only barbecue method I knew was charcoal. Dad cooked up some wonderful steaks and burgers over those coals, but they were a bit of work to prepare and thus not something we had often. Barbecue technology took a big leap forward with the introduction of propane grills, which were convenient and easier to use (though for my money, charcoal grilling still tastes better).

Now, barbecues are making their first major advance in 25 years, with the advent of infrared technology.

Infrared uses propane or natural gas as a fuel source, but that’s where the similarities end. The flame is directed toward a ceramic burner that is perforated with thousands of tiny holes, so heat is quickly absorbed and radiated at temperatures of up to 1600 degrees F.

Yeah, that’s hot – three times hotter than conventional barbies. Infrared can grill a steak in half the time, but the big advantage is its ability to quickly sear meat. This is most relevant for those who occasionally eat thin steaks, but still like them rare. With infrared, you can nicely sear the outside of a one-inch-thick steak before the inside even breaks a sweat. That’s pretty much impossible on a regular barbecue.

Infrared technology had more industrial applications – such as curing paint on cars –  when it was invented in 1961, by Thermal Energy Corporation (TEC). The company introduced gas grills in the 1980s, but they were high-end, expensive units that never caught on with Joe Average. In 2000, when the company’s patent expired, several companies rushed in to adopt the technology and make it more accessible to the masses.

It’s becoming more common to see infrared rear rotisserie burners, which are definitely superior to open flame because the heat radiates outward, rather than upward – perfect for browning that whole chicken or turkey. (What’s that? You’ve never barbecued a turkey? You should try it.)

Some manufacturers are introducing hybrids, which have a combination of infrared and regular grilling methods. You sear the meat on the infrared surface, then move it over to finish on the standard grill. I suspect infrared would also be great for those foods that cook quickly, such as skewers of scallop and shrimp. I’ve seen reports that slower-cooking meats, such as chicken, can burn on infrared, but I’ve also read articles that refute this.

I don’t own an infrared barbecue – I bought a Fiesta grill last year, after a lot of shopping around – but I did have a look at one of the few models in town, a Centro grill ($750) at Canadian Tire. It has an infrared side burner, called the Sear Zone, which I examined closely.

With all those pin-sized little holes, it looked to me like the burner might quickly become clogged with drippings, which would decrease heat efficiency. However, manufacturers claim that drippings are vaporized instantly by the intense heat, which may be the case – but what happens when solid bits of meat fall into it? I’m a little skeptical about this.

The only other infrared barbecue that I could find around town is the Napoleon ($1200), also at Canadian Tire. The infrared burner is better positioned within the main body, rather than on the side, but it’s a pricey machine.

Bottom line: If I was planning to go high-end, I’d buy a barbecue with infrared as well as regular grills.

As a word to the wise, if you pay $1200 or even $5000 for a barbecue, be aware that it will last exactly as long as a $200 barbecue if you leave it outdoors on the deck all winter, as I do (I barbecue all year round). A cover helps, but our winters are brutal.

Finally, if you are a budget conscious Australopithecus, I do recommend Fiesta grills, which are made in Canada. They are solid, reliable and can cook a mean mammoth burger. (Update: Since 2008, I have changed my mind about Fiesta. Many components wore out within the warranty period, and their replacement parts continued to wear out after the warranty had expired. I’ll have more on barbecues in the summer of 2012. -GM)

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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