Most of the time when you're learning to grill or thinking about buying an outdoor grill, the big question is whether to go with charcoal or gas.
Each has its pros and cons, so the choice often comes down to personal preference and what style of outdoor grilling you plan to do the most of.
But there's a third choice: infrared grills. Infrared grills work differently than the other two types — most notably, infrared grills are capable of generating significantly higher heat than either a charcoal or a conventional gas grill.
How Do Infrared Grills Work?
Infrared radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is invisible to the human eye. At very short wavelengths — like with your infrared remote – this energy can't be seen or felt. But at longer wavelengths, infrared can be felt in the form of heat. When you walk barefoot on hot sand at the beach, the heat you're feeling is the infrared radiation emitted by the sand (which itself has been heated by the sun).
When it comes to grilling, that's all infrared radiation is: heat waves that are emitted by a hot object which has itself been heated by a propane or natural gas-powered heat element.
The hot object in an infrared grill is usually a piece of steel, ceramic or glass, with a gas element underneath it.
So the difference between infrared and conventional grilling is that conventional grilling is accomplished by heating air that then cooks the food; whereas infrared grills don't produce hot air, they simply produce heat (actual heat waves as opposed to heated air). As a result, infrared grills are capable of emitting much higher amounts of heat directly onto the food, rather than using air (which is notoriously nonconductive) as a medium.
This is how infrared grills can produce temperatures of up to 1,200 F. Compare this to the 550 F or so you probably get from your conventional grill or maybe 700 to 750 F when you max out one of those Kamado-style charcoal grills. Moreover, it only takes two to three minutes for infrared grills to start producing these temperatures, which saves a lot of time with preheating.
In short, infrared grills are much hotter and much more efficient, which means they cook much more quickly than conventional grills. The thing is, this might be what you want sometimes, but not all the time.
Pros: Infrared Grills Cook Food Quickly
Because of their mega-high temperatures, infrared grills cook very, very fast. And for some types of grilling, that happens to be exactly what you want. The most notable example of this is steak.
The key to cooking a steak is cooking as quickly as possible over as high a heat as possible. The hotter and quicker, the better. The reason being that steaks get tougher the longer they spend over the heat. Your goal with cooking one, then, is to sear the outside and produce a flavorful brown crust while ensuring that the interior remains tender and juicy.
And an infrared grill — with its cooking temperature approaching 1,000 F — happens to be perfect for that. It might only take a minute on each side and even less for thin cuts like skirt steak.
Another advantage to infrared grills is that they aren't prone to flare-ups since anything that drips from the food is instantly vaporized when it hits the glass or ceramic.
Cons: Infrared Grills Are Expensive!
A portable infrared grill can be purchased for under $500, but a full-sized infrared grill — one that's comparable in size to a standard four burner gas grill — can run upwards of $1,000 (and in some cases two or three times that!).
That's a lot of money to spend on a tool that basically does one thing well, which is cook steaks. Anything else — anything — whether it's chicken, vegetables, fish, seafood, hamburgers is going to need to be cooked at a lower temperature.
And yes, there are infrared grills with variable temperature systems that allow you to cook at temperatures as low as 200 F, which is what you'd need to barbecue a brisket or pork shoulder, for instance. There are also hybrid models with infrared burners on one side and conventional ones on the other. These grills allow your infrared grill to cook at the normal temperatures of a conventional gas or charcoal grill. But all that means is that you're spending infrared grill money to do something you can do with a conventional gas or charcoal grill, which, depending on how you feel about your money, might not be the very best use of it.
Even when it comes to cooking steaks, which is the one thing an infrared grill indisputably excels at, it's not exactly foolproof. Because the temperatures are so high — higher than most people are accustomed to dealing with — it's easy to accidentally overcook or even burn your steaks by leaving them on there too long.
So, are infrared grills a gimmick? Not exactly. They will — with some amount of trial and error on your part — cook a superb steak. But that's almost all it will do. So unless you're the type of person who enjoys owning the newest and fanciest toys —or you know that you will only ever cook steaks and lots of them — an infrared grill might not be for you.