Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Which grill, the decision tree

I have been engaged in a grill-quest for some two weeks now. The conclusion of the battle draws near. It could be over as soon as tonight. We will see. So how does the decision tree look? Here are the basics.

Coal or Gas?

The first decision you have to make is which fuel type you are going to run with. Do you want chunks of coal/charcoal or do you want to go with gas? For me the decision is fairly straightforward. I am not a fan of open an uncontrolled fire on the balcony. Neither am I a fan of smoke. Nor do I favor the loss of temperature gauges and controls. No, real cooking requires temperature controls and thermometers.

You need to have control. Therefore coal and charcoal can be discarded rather easily.

There is another factor: If you look at fuel prices, you discover that coal and charcoal are very expensive options vis-a-vis propane and methane. Cost estimates vary, but we are always talking about an order of magnitude difference in fuel costs.

Methane or Propane?

Once you have decided to go with gas, you need to decide which gas: methane (natural gas) or propane. Once upon a time this was not a part of the decision tree. All gas grills were powered by propane. That was the end of the story.

Now we have options, which is not to say they are good options. You can have the SoCalGas man come out to your apartment, and with your landlord's permission, he will run a methane line to your balcony. Be prepared for some regulatory difficulties if you try this. However, you don't have to run with a 20# or 40# tank containing 5 or 10 gallons of propane anymore. You can have a theoretically infinite supply of natural gas piped to your grill.

I have decided that there is simply no profit in running with methane. Propane is the fuel source. It is the source grill designers and engineers had in mind when they made all of their engineering choices. Methane is something that was retrofitted onto the system. You know what they say about retrofits?

Propane contains 2,448 BTUs per cubic foot. Methane contains just about 1,000 BTUs per cubic foot. Obviously, you get a lot more heat per cubic foot of propane. Propane provides 244.8% of the power of methane, unit for unit.

This is why several owners of the Weber Summit (650 and 670) told me (personally) that they regret the decision to run with methane. They say their grills take more than 30 minutes to hit searing temperatures, and they never seem as hot as when they run with propane. They attribute this problem to the inferior BTU power of methane. Believe me, I get that message loud and clear.

Advocates of methane will tell you methane is cheap and propane is expensive. This is false economy. Propane is more expensive per gallon, but remember, that gallon of propane is 2.448x more powerful than that gallon of methane. When this is factored into the equation, the price is just about even. On some days propane is cheaper. On some days propane is more expensive.

Frankly, I don't care about the price. I don't want to ask permission. I don't want the gas-man making modifications to my balcony. I don't want to encounter potential regulatory difficulties with the LAFD. I don't want my grill to take a long time to heat up. I want to use the best rocket fuel available. I am going with propane, not methane.

Flame or Infrared?

Gas grills divide naturally into two categories these days: Infrared and flame. It used to be that you simply had a gas flame and that was the end of it. What is this infrared jazz?

Contrary to myth, infrared grills are not powered by electricity. You do not have radiant or halogen cooking lamps in these grills. They may provide halogen lights, but that is so you can see what you are cooking a in dimly lit environment, such as twilight (not the chick flick). The halogen lights do not provide cooking heat. Infrared grills are best powered by propane combustion.

So how does this work? Infrared grills used large number of small gas flame jets to heat up a ceramic plate. This ceramic plate super-heats, hitting temperatures as high as 1,400f. I heard some claims of 2,000f at the "plate", but those claims are in doubt. Naturally, this ceramic plate begins to radiate heat upward... all the way to the grill... and your food.

Infrared grills are unquestionably the hottest grills in terms of absolute temperature. Cooking temperatures of +800f are easily possible with most of these grills. Some claim to reach 1,000f, although I doubt this claim.

Most tell me that that the conventional Webers haven't got a prayer of reaching 700f if you power them with Methane. You'll be lucky to hit 650f after 30 minutes. With propane, these conventional grills can hit around 700-720 degrees. Claims of 800f have not be validated. Youtube videos that claim to show Weber hitting 800f, do not. Look again. The hood thermometer shows 770f. The second the hood opens, the temperature plummets 50f.

Do you really want the Maillard Reaction or not?

This is the question you need to ask when you make the decision between conventional and infrared grills. Some ask the question "Do you want to do low temperature or high temperature grilling?" I consider that to be a bogus question. That question can be discarded rather easily.

If I wanted to do low temperature cooking, I would not need to purchase a grill. My stove, my oven, and my Crockpot can handle this work just fine. None of us need a grill for low temperature work. No, the reason for purchasing a grill is high-heat cooking. The function of the grill is to take over the job when other heat sources fail to provide the power required.

Folks, the real question is:
Do you want the Maillard Reaction? You might also phrase it this way: Do you really want premium steak house results? If the answer is yes, you want the hottest heat source you can get. You want your grill to be capable of extreme temperatures. This means you want a quality infrared grill.

To achieve the Maillard Reaction, and get a good searing crust on your steaks, you are going to need temperatures in excess of 600f. Most seasoned chefs will tell you that good searing only begins at 650f. It goes north of that figure in a hurry.

Good luck with that Weber powered by methane.

How the All-Pro team does it

In the past two weeks, I have re-discovered that Ruth's Criss Steak House uses a custom-made Salamander (a special class of conveyor belt grill-oven) that grills at temperatures of 850f for very short periods of time. I have been told that all of the great steak houses in America are very similar. They all grill at temperatures of +800f. Pacific Dining Car, my favorite abode here in Los Angeles, grills at +800f. Shula's Famous Steakhouse in Miami does the same. Morton's Steakhouse actually uses a TEC Infrared outdoor grill in preparing certain steaks.

The moral of the story is plain and clear: If you want to achieve professional Steakhouse results (i.e. perfect diamond shape sear-marks and a Maillard crust) you need temperatures in excess of 800f. You need high, high heat to achieve these results. The lack of high, high heat is why you fail to achieve results comparable to a good Steakhouse at home, regardless of how much you spend on steak.

Just to clinch the question, have a look at Youtube videos regarding Morton's Steakhouse, and TEC infrared grills. Sooner or later, you are going to come across several videos implicitly and explicitly showing a tall (6'10") chef prepping perfect diamond-grilled steaks on a TEC infrared grill outside the steakhouse.

Ergo Sum: You want a very powerful Infrared grill. Conventional grills can be discarded from this search.

Which Infrared Grill?

Knowledge regarding infrared grills is spotty at best. There are a variety of different brands. There are expensive models from Luxor, Solaire and TEC. There are non-so-expensive models from Char-Broil. Jenn-Air provides some infrared at a mid-range price.

Consumer Reports is little or no help in this question. The results of their last round-up seem dimly aware of the nature and character of infrared grills in general. Solaire was the only model they 'reviewed' and the claims they made were utterly preposterous. Specifically, they claimed Solaire was good only for low temperature grilling. All other reviews on the net fly in their face. The criticism of Solaire is that it is good only for high-temperature grilling, and cannot go low. Some owners of Solaire complain that they have two choices in terms of heat: (1) hotter than hell, (2) super-nova.

This is a humiliating error for a once-proud organization like Consumer Reports.

It get's worse, though. Consumer Reports seems to favor Char-Broil because of their low price. My buddies at Fry's are required to sell Char-Broil. They gave me inside word--totally off the record--that a lot of these units have been coming back in return form. It turns out that they don't work at all well with methane. Further, they break down quickly: Inside the 30 day return policy. The people have been complaining bitterly about them on web forums. I was advised to avoid this grill, despite it's low cost, by men with a vested interest in selling them. That speaks volumes.

This is another black-eye for Consumer Reports. They need to revisit their roundup of grills very soon. This time, they need a clear-cut category breakdown between Infrared, coal and gas. They also need to investigate long-term reliability, as they do with cars.

The Luxor Test Drive

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to test drive a 30 inch Luxor. It is similar or identical to the Solaire 30 inch in just about all respects, save two: (1) it's more expensive, (2) it provides 10,000 BTUs less power at full-blast.

The results of the Luxor test were pretty good. I do not like the hood "thermometer". The temperature guage only tells you you are at "smoking", "medium" and "high" temperatures. This does not tell me the temp in F or C. That's what I wanted.

In any case, the first item up for prep was Sullivan Street bakery "No Knead Bread". I placed my Lodge 5 quart Dutch oven on the grill, and fired the grill up to maximum levels. It took 16 minutes for the Luxor to pass the "High" marker on the hood gauge. Only God knows what temperature that was. I tossed my dough into the pot and covered it. You could hear the frying sizzle when the dough hit the pot. I closed the lid on the grill. I dialed the heat down to "low".

The grill temperature did not fall back much. Lesson learned: Once hot, the grill will say hot. Dialing down the propane doesn't lower temperature much.

Within moments we could smell a small degree of burning. I presumed that would be normal on such a hot grill, but I didn't want to stop the process. God only knows how hot that Dutch oven was. I wished I had a laser thermometer to measure it.

After about 16 minutes we could smell a bit of burning. We felt we better check the progress of the bread. I popped open the hood, and removed the lid of my Dutch oven. The bread had risen brilliantly, but it was char-burnt at the bottom. It had a lovely Maillard crust on top. I set aside the Dutch Oven lid, and closed the hood to let it finish.

About 5 minutes later, we smell some burning, so we decided to stop the process. I dumped the bread on the cutting board, and could see the bottom of the bread was charcoal black. The rest seemed fine. Only the bottom 1/8th of 1/16th of an inch was ashed. The rest was dandy. We committed a foul that Mr. Lahey would surely chastise us for: We cut into it immediately and sampled.

I could tell that the bread was a bit underdone internally. If we had cooked it a little lower and longer, or even let it sit and rest at room temperature for an hour, it would have been fine. Still, it was mighty damn tasty. My patrons at the grill shop loved it. For this reason alone, they were glad they allowed me a test drive.

Next came the steak. I dialed the grill back up to maximum and threw my T-Bone on the grill. It turned out well, but it could have been better. I definitely got the grill marks. I definitely charred on the diamonds. However, it would have been better if I had dialed the heat to medium and let it go for 8 minutes rather than 5. The inside was a bit too raw, while the outside was a bit too charred.

The moral of the story is clear. Like speed in football, heat on an infrared grill is a weapon that doesn't have to be used at full-blast at all times. You can dial it down just a bit. You are running a Mike Martz timing route; 3/4 speed is okay. Given a week or two of time to cook with this grill, I am certain I could master timing and technique to control this powerful beast.

Overall, I would say the results of my Luxor test drive were pleasing, although a bit haphazard.

I am currently leaning towards Solaire

At the moment, I am tracking a very hot deal on a 30 inch Solaire grill. I have not yet reached the comfort point where I am prepared to part with $1,500. So what is the hold up? Where is the objection?

I need thermometers. I need temperature gauges. By far, the greatest single design flaw of the Solaire is the lack of any grill temperature sensors, and/or a hood thermometer. Heat is a weapon that must be used at the correct intensity. I need to know when those metal grills reach 800f, so I can throw my steak down at that exact moment. I need to know what the temperature is inside the hood, so I can maintain a temperature of 550f when finishing

If I can find some 3rd party solutions for accurate measuring, I will hit my comfort point. Otherwise, I will have to let this deal go. I am still looking for an Infrared grill with high-accuracy temperature measurement.

I would buy TEC if I could find a dealer with a good price...

Several different shops advised me not to buy TEC. They say TEC actually went out of business for a period of time, and was subsequently revived. The vendors don't trust them for reasons that only vendors would care about. Vendors are looking for reliable long-term partners to grow with. I am not. I am looking for a one-off purchase.

Still, as you may surmise, this means I am having trouble finding a vendor.

TEC just won the best grill of the year award in 2009. This was largely due to their new "Red Glass" ceramic plate. The use of ceramics in cooking these days is a subject that is completely blowing my brains out. Some of the applications of glass are downright incredible. I must say, the current TEC glass plate technology is probably the most incredible application of glass for cooking yet.

The video of the Morton's Steakhouse cook grilling on the TEC really put the hook in my mouth. I know this grill is used to provide professional-grade results at reputable joints, like Morton's less than 1 mile from my apartment.