Infrared barbecue grills cook with radiant heat rather than convection or conduction energy. They have been called the microwave of outdoor cooking, and have been credited with breathing new life into today’s barbecue market. Their popularity has grown quickly since 2000, when the Infrared Burner’s patent expired, allowing any manufacturer interested in adding an infrared burner to a gas grill to do so. Increasingly, entire grills utilize the infrared technology.
In an infrared grill, propane or natural gas is used to heat an emitter such as stainless steel or ceramic to super-high temperatures very quickly. Temperatures range from 700 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the quality of the grill, these temperatures can be reached in as little as 30 seconds, though five to seven minutes is the norm. Whereas a standard grill uses a combination of direct heat and hot air to cook your food, an infrared grill works almost solely via direct heat. The type of heat emitter plays a large role in this; grills with ceramic emitters are approximately 50 percent infrared, but stainless steel emitters are nearly 100 percent infrared. This is due to several layers of stainless stell surrounding the heat source, blocking all airflow. There are many brands and types of infrared grills on the market, but each is essentially a large metal box heated to extremely high temperatures.
The infrared grill’s main claim to fame is intense heat and quick preheating and cook times. Additionally, you’ll find a more uniform heating surface and greater energy efficiency due to shorter preheat and cook times. Manufacturers promise that these grills will sear meats quickly, locking in the meat’s juices and natural flavors while cooking it faster than with a standard convection type of grill. How well does an infrared barbecue grill work, and is the application of intense heat a benefit for the outdoor cook?
Claims of powerful heat and faster cook times with radiant heat versus convection heat are valid. What is questionable is whether those super-high temperatures are needed to sear your meat and lock in flavor – or even whether searing meat locks in its flavor. Searing happens at temperatures between 300 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures above 500 degrees will sear your meat more quickly, but be sure to watch your meat closely to ensure a sear doesn’t become a char. Burnt meat not only tastes bad, it poses a health risk as carcinogens are created when meat burns. Additionally, searing doesn’t lock in juices. It does, however, brown and caramelize your meat which gives your steak a lot of flavor. Searing your steak on a 700 degree heating element will only take one-to-two minutes per side. If you like to eat your steak rare, it should be ready to eat. If you don’t like rare steak, you’ll need to either lower the temperature of your infrared barbecue or move your meat to another part of the grill or an oven to finish cooking it.
What about grilling items besides steak? That can pose a problem with an infrared grill. Because of the extreme temperatures an infrared grill obtains, only solid, dense meats do well, which limits you to cooking beef and some poultry. Fish and vegetables do not do well at all on an infrared grill because of the intense heat; your food will either be burned on the outside and raw in the middle, or just burned. Also, barbecue will not work at all on an infrared grill, as barbecue requires low heat and slow cooking, two things you will not find with an infrared grill which often has only two settings: on and off. Many gas grills offer a dedicated infrared burner, which gives you the best of both worlds: convection heating to slow cook items, and the fast heating and cooking power of the infrared’s radiant heat.