There are many instances when people are unable to use a charcoal or gas grill at their home. Typically this occurs in apartment complexes and condominiums that have balconies. Usually these spaces are somewhat small and many have restrictive codes that don’t allow cooking over an open flame for fear of fire or smoke. However, these homeowners like to entertain as much as first floor dwellers. The answer may be an electric grill.
Understanding how these grills work can help you make a decision on a manufacturer. To help understand the challenges, consider how conventional grills typically work (either gas or charcoal). Generally, when cooking directly over the heat source, they must heat the air between the heat source and the food (convection) which is why you have to prehet the grills with the cover down. To retain the heat during cooking, the cover is also closed periodically. (For a discussion of Infrared grilling where the top is left up, refer to an earlier blog post.) Consistent temperature is hard to hold when relying on convection heating, so many grill manufacturers use techniques to even out the heat. Some use a series of ceramic briquettes, angled “flavorizer” bars and the like. These help reduce flare-ups because they catch some of the dripping juices and fat which is then vaporized and returned to the food to add flavor. These techniques vary in success, but they don’t overcome the inherent weakness of relying on the air being heated to cook the food. If it is cold out or somewhat windy, the heating can be inconsistent causing hot and cold spots or the grill just may not get hot enough to cook the food without drying it out. (This is where infrared grilling shines. The heat is consistent and the cooking times repeatable.)
Looking at the electric grill, its heat source is a heating element like you might see in a toaster oven but heavier duty. One of the key issues with electric grills is whether to get a 220v or a 120v. Conventional wisdom says 220v is better because it can get the element hotter than 120v, but many balconies don’t already have that installed so it can be an expensive retrofit. If it is new construction it can be less expensive, but these types of add-ons are not typically part of the original fit-out in the condo. Many people are stuck with looking at 120v units. Regardless of the voltage, these grills suffer the same heat retention issues as conventional grills, with the added burden of not getting as hot as gas or charcoal. It can be similar to having an outdoor toaster oven with the element about 3 inches from the food. This makes it hard to sear the food which helps retain the food’s moisture, so it is drying out as it cooks. The open element also can cause flare ups and smoke when juices and fat drip on it.
A few manufacturers have approached the heating differently. They have moved the heating element up to and touching the bottom of the cooking surface. This serves 2 purposes: 1. The heat is transferred directly to the cooking surface (the complete surface doesn’t vary by more than 3 degrees) making it hotter than the other method of heating the air, and 2. The cooking surface shields the element from drips which cause flare ups and smoke. This type of electric grill is a better design and can get as hot as 600F. Since they are 120v though, the limitations are typically the size of the cooking area. Some manufacturers have recently come out with double-sized grills which each require a 120v outlet with the appropriate circuits (still easier and less expensive than installing a 220v circuit). In addition, some manufacturers have developed a Ceran (glass) top side burner as an accessory to their electric grills.
I hope this discussion helps you make your decision when researching and purchasing an electric grill.