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Infrared burners offer more options for backyard cooks

By Elliott Minor
Associated Press Writer

ALBANY, Ga. — A technology that professional chefs have used for years to grill juicy sirloins at pricey steakhouses is now available to backyard grillers.

Leading grill makers have added super hot infrared burners that sear the meat to lock in moisture and flavor at prices affordable to amateur cooks. The technology has been available to professional chefs and well-heeled consumers for about 25 years, but the cost — up to $5,000 for some units — was too much for many weekend grillers.

With the expiration of a key patent on the technology, 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 range.

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 is light that falls between the visible and microwave portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.)

Char-Broil says its advanced burners operate at 450 to 900 degrees, hotter than the 450 to 750 degrees of standard gas burners. And unlike charcoal, which can require 20 to 30 minutes to reach its 700-degree cooking temperature, heat from the infrared burners can be changed quickly, the company says. Most leading grill makers, including Solaire, Weber and Jenn-Air, also offer grills that use infrared.

“It’s terrific,” said Leslie Wheeler, a spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, an industry group in Arlington, Va. “Grills nowadays give you many options.”

She owns one of the infrared grills and said it’s impressive.

“Infrared is really hot,” she said. “They’re great for searing and then either you turn it down or move over to another burner for cooking.”

Cooks can sear steaks or hamburgers, steam vegetables and give their meats a smoky taste by tossing a few wood chips onto the burner, said Rob Schwing, a Char-Broil vice president.

New way of cooking

“Infrared has done to the grill business what the microwave did to the indoor kitchen,” he said. “It’s presenting consumers with a whole new way of cooking.”

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.

The 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. They have a layer of high-temperature glass to shield the burners from drippings and to provide even heat distribution and each burner has a heavy stainless cooking grate.

Those improvements to the original technology, and finding a way to market the new-style burners at an affordable price, took up much of the seven years since Best’s patent expired.

“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 neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., maintains the “The Cook’s Kitchen” Web site and a blog devoted to barbecue.

Fisher said gas grills are convenient, but he still prefers wood and charcoal.

Faster, more predictable

Pamona, Calif.-based Cal Spas has been selling high-end grills with infrared burners since 2003. Nicole Lasorda, a spokeswoman for the company, said the faster and more predictable way the burners cook allows people looking to escape their busy schedules in the backyard to spend more time relaxing and less time cooking.

“More and more people are barbecuing now and they don’t necessarily want to stand in front of the barbecue all the time,” she said.

Barbecue and barbecue accessories are a $4 billion industry in the U.S., with 17 million grills shipped to retailers last year, a 15 percent increase over the previous year, said the industry association’s Wheeler.

Manufacturers produce everything from $10 hibachis sold in drug stores to “stainless-steel, all the bells and whistles” units costing up to $8,000, she said, noting that there was also an increase in charcoal shipments last year.

“People like to be outside,” she said. “They entertain outside, they cook outside,” she said. “It’s a more casual lifestyle. You can wear your shorts and flip-flops and not dress up. People like that lifestyle.”

2 inexpensive gas grill picks

You don’t have to hand over a lot of bills to get a good grill.

That’s the finding from Consumer Reports, which tested and rated 30 liquid propane grills, commonly known as gas grills, for its June issue.

The magazine picked the $450 Blue Ember by Fiesta (FG50069-U401) and $300 Char-Broil Commercial Series grill (463268007) as its best buys, offering best performance for price.

The Weber Genesis (E-320) and Vermont Castings Signature Series’ (VCS3507P), both priced at $700, were rated the best overall among mid-size grills. (The Genesis E-320 was recently recalled because of a fire hazard with a gas hose. Weber will replace and install the hoses.)

Testers grilled more than 160 pounds of beef, chicken and fish on large, mid-size, small and portable grills as part of the ratings process.

The Associated Press

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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