For a quarter-century, chefs at pricey steakhouses have been searing meat on burners that cook with infrared energy. Now the high-temperature technology may be coming to a backyard barbecue near you.
With the expiration of a key patent, major gas grill manufacturers, including market leader Char-Broil, have scrambled to bring infrared cooking to the masses with models in the $500 to $1,000 US range. Previously, such grills cost as much as $5,000 US.
"Infrared is really hot," said Leslie Wheeler, a spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, an industry group in Arlington, Va. "They're great for searing and then either you turn it down or move over to another burner for cooking."
The grills are still powered by propane and have traditional gas burners that heat mostly by convection — or hot air. But they also can cook foods with radiant heat generated by one or more infrared burners. Infrared falls between visible light and microwave energy on the electromagnetic spectrum.
Burners heat up to482 C
Char-Broil says its advanced burners operate at 450 to 900 F (232 to 482 C), hotter than the 450 to 750 degrees (232 to 398 degrees C) of standard gas burners. Most leading grill makers, including Solaire, Weber and Whirlpool Corp.'s Jenn-Air, also offer grills that use infrared.
Bill Best, founder of Thermal Electric Corp. of Columbia, S.C., developed the technology in the 1960s, primarily to give automakers a faster way to dry the paint on cars. That led to high-end grills for professional cooks and wealthy consumers.
When his patent expired in 2000, grill companies saw a future in America's backyards.
'It really brings a whole new technology to the market for most people.' —Matt Fisher, The Cook's Kitchen
But original infrared burners — and some offered currently to consumers — contained ceramic material that was hard to clean, prone to flare-ups and fragile, Schwing said.
Char-Broil formed a strategic alliance with Best's company to develop a new generation of burners known as the Char-Broil TEC series.
The fragile ceramics have been eliminated. There's a layer of glass to shield the burners from drippings and provide even heat distribution.
Seven years after Best's patent expired, those improvements are available at a price more affordable to weekend grillers.
"I think it's significant," said Matt Fisher, who tested one of Char-Broil's grills. "It really brings a whole new technology to the market for most people."
Fisher, who lives in the Ridgewood neighbourhood of Queens, N.Y., maintains a cooking website and a blog devoted to barbecue.