When Bill Best began experimenting with radiant heat energy back in the 1950s, he had no idea he would one day change how you and I grill our steaks. The founder of Thermal Engineering Corp. (TEC) of Columbia, S.C., was thinking more of helping auto makers find a faster way to cure the paint on their cars. So in 1961, when he invented a neat technology for generating infrared heat, TEC largely ignored the home market. It was only when the company’s patent expired in 2000 that others jumped at the opportunity to apply Best’s invention to backyard barbecuing.
Infrared grilling is now the fastest growing form of barbecue technology, although it’s still confined to the luxury end of the market. One-third of the high-end grills sold today have at least one infrared burner, industry experts say, and they predict that in 10 years 60% of all barbecues will be exclusively infrared. Why the excitement? Because according to the hype, infrared lets you grill a steak in half the time of an ordinary barbecue. Afficionados say you can prepare an entire barbecue? from the moment you turn the switch to the moment you slide the finished meat onto a platter ? in 15 minutes or less.
Curious to see if the claims could be true, I paid a mid-winter visit to Sobie’s Barbecues, a Toronto retailer, with a steak and a couple of chicken breasts in hand. As I shivered in sub-zero temperatures, Mark Herberman, the store manager, set up a TEC Patio II infrared grill in the wind-whipped parking lot. The barbecue looked sleek and stylish, but not otherwise remarkable. It was only when we turned the unit on that its true talents became apparent.
In only three minutes, the grill hit 1600° F, nearly three times hotter than a standard gas grill. The weather suddenly didn’t feel so cold. When I tossed the steak over the soft, orange glow of the infrared burners, the meat instantly sizzled and popped. Five minutes later, it was done to medium-rare perfection.
Considering that I count on at least 15 minutes to achieve those same results on a standard gas or charcoal grill, I was impressed. I decided to see if I could achieve similar results with my chicken breasts. Short answer: yes. After 10 minutes ? half the time it normally takes ? I had two succulent breasts and more lunch than I could handle.
Count me as a convert to the infrared gospel. And I’m not the only one. “Infrared offers you great flavor because you can sear quickly,” says Ted Reader, author of cookbooks including Hot, Sticky and on Fire and the host of the cooking show King of the Q on CTV. He notes that infrared is especially good in winter when propane doesn’t flow well, natural gas doesn’t heat up enough, and charcoal is too much work. “It’s a definite trend that is catching on,” he says. “I have a friend who has an infrared grill. He swears by it and says that it’s the best grill that he’s ever owned.”
So what is infrared cooking anyway? Despite what many people think, it’s not radioactivity. It’s not even particularly unusual. Infrared is merely one form of electromagnetic energy, much like visible light or radio waves. The infrared energy of the sun warms your skin every day. The infrared energy from glowing charcoal is what cooks food on a traditional barbecue.
Infrared barbecues create the same form of energy by using burning gas to heat ceramic burners through thousands of microscopic flame ports. The ceramic burners absorb the heat, then glow and emit infrared energy, which cooks food with the same intense, dry heat that charcoal does. But unlike charcoal barbies, an infrared model heats up in five minutes or less, doesn’t add ash to your food and distributes its heat with absolute regularity.
Despite the advantages, cooking with infrared does take getting used to. “I’m not high on the method of infrared grilling,” says Rick Browne (AKA Dr. Que), author of Grilling America and host of the TV series Barbecue America. “It can be easily overused and people end up burning their food.”
True enough. Heberman, the barbecue store manager, suggests you spend a few days getting acquainted with the supernova-like heat of your new grill before attempting anything ambitious. “The infrared grills get much hotter than regular gas barbecues,” he says. “So I don’t recommend beginners start with a really prime piece of meat. Begin with a burger and see what happens.”
I can personally vouch for the merits of the TEC Stainless Steel Patio II barbecue that I used. This futuristic-looking grill is a handsome piece of backyard sculpture; on a practical level, it boasts a 374-sq-in cooking area, enough to grill at least nine burgers simultaneously. Available from Sobie’s Barbecues in Toronto, it costs about $3,300 and comes in both gas and propane models.
Another recommended ‘cue is Fire Magic’s Monarch, voted best grill of 2005 by Grillsearch.com, an online barbecue directory. If you’re into cooking for crowds, the Monarch’s your baby. The infrared version, which goes for around $4,980 at Outdoor Luxury in Aurora, Ont., comes with a 792-sq-in cooking surface, big enough to cook a meal for your extended family, plus the neighbors as well. It even has a rotisserie for roasting whole chickens. Take a bite and think of Bill Best. I have a hunch he would be proud of what his technology has become.