Infrared Grills: Cooking Outside The Box

By Brad Jensen
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As an editor for TopTenREVIEWS, I don’t often chime in on review sites we publish. If I made a habit of it, I’d get nothing else done. However, I’ve been in the market for an infrared grill for about a year now, and I wanted to add a little color to what our fine reviewer team has produced here.

I’m one of those guys who is convinced there are no bad days for grilling in the year, even though we definitely live in an area where we experience four distinct seasons. I will grill in two feet of snow, in the rain, whatever – nothing can keep me from a well-braised rib, juicy steak or a yummy beer-can chicken. So, you can imagine I was pleased when the Infrared Grill review site showed up on our editorial calendar, in time for both Father’s Day and Memorial Day. I was also pleased to see how the Char-Broil Red series fared in the review, as that was the unit I had my eye on.

With the confidence of our reviews bearing out what I was thinking, I ordered up the three-burner version of the Red and counted the few short days to its delivery. Here are my experiences and thoughts about this grill; I share them here to add a little more information to our site on the subject, and I hope you find it useful too.

I admit to having been skeptical about the term “infrared,” and whether I would be convinced that it was going to be better than a good old flame-broil. The term “infrared” can be simply understood as the difference between your home’s flame-fired furnace and radiant floor heating. That is, there is still flame to heat the elements (or fire the boiler), but those elements, in turn, heat a large heat-radiating surface rather than the food itself. The result is a quick and even heat, allowing food to be browned and grilled, but not dried out or too crusted in uneven ways.

As I unboxed the unit, I was pleased to note that the main housing was already assembled, and all that was needed was to construct the stand and side table/burner units. As it came out of the box, it was in good condition, with the exception of two small areas where a part was slightly bent in shipping. It was determined that it wouldn’t hinder the assembly process or the operation of the grill, so there was no concern.

The user manual states that assembly should take 30 minutes, but I had read online that it would be near impossible to recreate that feat, and the internet was right; it took me about 90 minutes to go from start to finish. I am admittedly not the handiest guy out there, but I’m no slouch either. However, the instructions were clear and easy to understand, and I didn’t have to retrace any steps because something happened out of order. Bonus item: there were no parts left over at the end of the job!

On to the grill itself. As mentioned, the elements are located below the large heat-radiating surface pan insert. The pan is a one-piece unit that heats quickly and evenly and serves the auxiliary purpose of being available to catch all your drippings or other messes, so no nasty mess inside the grill, no gross clean-up after the fact. The surface gets so hot that it acts like the self-clean cycle on your kitchen oven: waste is effectively burned away, leaving a few crusty crumbs to be swept out easily after the grill cools. To me, this is one of the biggest advances in this type of grill: it stays cleaner than a regular gas grill.

One of the biggest issues with every grill I’ve ever owned was that little battery-operated spark starter. They never seem to last, and after only a few weeks or months, I end up using the long flame-lighter I have on hand for just that purpose. Those sparkers never seem to be fixable after they go down. So while it’s easy to clean, the combustion points are well-hidden from view, and, consequently, from easy access too. I bring this up because when I used the grill for the first time, the sparkers lit the elements immediately. When I went back to grill something the next day, the elements would not light, no matter how long I pressed the sparker button. After some head-scratching, and removing the pan (an easy task), I determined that some of the components had expanded slightly with the heat of the initial lighting, and the elements were in fact TOUCHING the sparkers.

In order for them to work, there must be some space between the sparkers and the elements, so an actual spark between the two surfaces can be produced. This is the same concept as a car engine’s spark plugs: there must be a proper gap for the spark to be produced and combustion to be achieved. It took me less than a minute to move each of the three little sparkers away from the elements, and they lit with glorious ease, and a sigh of relief from me.

 

I’ve had the grill set up for about a week, and successful grilling has happened each time it’s been used. With the exception of the minor inconvenience of the sparker issue, I have no real complaints about how the grill works or how it cooks. It’s made three or four good meals so far. Another observation I will make here is that when the drippings fall into the pan, which is very hot during cooking, they generally are burned off without flare-ups – a great benefit. The potential downside (depending upon your view) is that there tends to be a little more smoke than you might be used to with a gas grill. I haven’t found it obtrusive yet though, either in the taste of the food or the enjoyment of others around the grill while cooking.

Usually the holy grail of grilling is heat: the more the better, and infrared grill proponents state that food cooks faster than with a gas grill. I note that the infrared grill does get hotter, faster and more evenly than a standard gas grill. I generally grill with the lid open so as not to bake or poach my food – unless it’s snowing. This grill gets hot, stays even and cooks well. The on-lid thermometer goes up to 600 degrees – and you don’t see that every day. No matter which side of the “searing” debate you fall on, this grill gets hot, cooks well and cleans up easily. The fact that food is separated from the open flame by an easily cleaned pan means it will also stay cleaner longer, and as a result, I expect it to last much longer than its gassy, greasy cousins.

All in all, I couldn’t be happier with the Char-Broil Red, and I look forward to several years of its hard labor in the service of my carnivorous urges.

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