Home & Textiles Today Staff -- Casual Living, October 25, 2011
IN 1961, THE WORLD OF BARBECUE GRILLS expanded, but no one knew it yet.
That was when Bill Best, founder and CEO of Thermal Engineering Corporation, patented the first gas-powered ceramic infrared burner in the United States. The burners were initially applied in the manufacturing of industrial heaters before they were used in the development of various industrial processes, including the manufacturing of radial tires.
TEC then developed its Turbulator Oven, Radiant Wall Oven and Air Radiant Oven, which were applied in paint and drying systems throughout the world to improve the quality of finish. During the '70s, '80s and '90s, the company estimated that 70% of automobiles manufactured in the world passed through a TEC paint oven.
It wasn't until the early '80s that the grill industry benefited from the fruits of Best's labor. In what is now the story of infrared grilling's genesis, Best took one of his burners and put it in a grill that he built for his own personal use. To Best, the apparatus was merely "a burner that was more or less sitting in a stainless-steel box," but what he had really done was assembled the first infrared grill.
Best's gas-powered ceramic infrared burner remained under patent until 2000, but when the patent expired, the door opened for manufacturers to penetrate the barbecue marketplace with their infrared offerings. The entrance was a timid one, however.
"Say six or seven years ago, infrared grilling was there but not very well-known," said Leslie Wheeler, director of communications for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. "And many were sort of - I'm not going to say ‘afraid' of it - but there was that unknown quality, so they sort of stayed away from it."
Infrared grills first made tracks in the specialty channel, but they also blazed a parallel path into the commercial restaurant industry. Then about three years ago, Char-Broil, in conjunction with TEC, brought infrared grills to the mass channel, increasing their exposure and popularity.
But even still, the infrared segment is young. Since the original patent's expiration, infrared grill manufacturers have had such little time to market the advantages of infrared against convection grills.
"I still think it's a market that has a lot of growth ahead of it," said Rett Rasmussen, vice president of Rasmussen Gas Logs & Grills, which manufactures Solaire Infrared Grills. "It's a departure from what their usual experience is with grilling. I would say many retailers are aware of it but aren't intimate with it."
Infrared still has that unknown quality Wheeler mentioned, but is finding its way into more and more backyards as consumers learn about the technology and what it can do.
The SABER line of grills, a stand-alone company fully owned by Char-Broil and specifi cally targeted to the specialty dealer, features 304 commercial-grade stainless steel construction, true zonal cooking and low turn-down capability.
Bill Best's invention of the infrared grill was a technological breakthrough in the history of barbecue. Because the original gas-powered ceramic infrared burners cook food using roughly 35% infrared energy and 65% hot air, foods retain more moisture and flavor than foods prepared on convection grills, which use 100% hot air. But as is usually the case with the first model of anything, there are shortcomings.
For one, the original ceramic burners exhibit a proclivity for flare-ups.
"Ceramic is, by its very nature, relatively unstable and susceptible to thermal shock, which means if you live anywhere north of Tennessee, it's going to freeze," said Rob Schwing, general manager of SABER Grills, a new line that Char-Broil is launching this winter to exclusively target the specialty casual retailer. "Those ceramic burners - because they're open at the top and tend to collect grease and juice - freeze and crack. They are also very expensive to replace."
The original ceramic burners also have a very limited turn-down, so the burners cook at roughly a minimum of 650 degrees. This places limitations on what can be grilled, because no matter what, the burner is going to be exceptionally hot. A learning curve is the result; grillers must learn to harness a technology that cooks food much more quickly than traditional convection stations.
Additionally, the old TEC grills, like convection grills, have hot and cold spots. And because the original ceramic burners are not 100% infrared, the food is still being exposed to the drying elements of hot air, resulting in loss of moisture.
So when the patent expired, Best responded to these shortcomings by replacing his own technology.
"When those patents expired, Bill started working on a new technology, and he developed the grilling system that we're using today," said Rachael Best, president of TEC.
Instead of ceramic, the new TEC grills use a stainless-steel burner which heats high-temperature glass above the burner. The glass effectively serves as an emitter panel, radiating infrared energy that heats the food directly.
Moreover, the glass panel acts as an oxygen barrier. Whatever hot air that is generated by the stainless-steel burner is blocked by the glass, ensuring that the food is cooked using 100% infrared energy. That means no oxygen, which means no more flare-ups.
"The new grilling system that is patented is 100% infrared," said Rachael Best. "We've totally eliminated the hot air associated with grilling, and the result is 30-35% more moisture retention in foods."
And by substituting stainless steel for ceramic, Bill Best also solved the low turn-down dilemma. The new stainless-steel burners can turn down to 200 degrees, a marked improvement from the 650 degrees that the original ceramic burners turned down to. Additionally, the new grilling system distributes heat uniformly, meaning food cooks at the same rate on every square inch of the grilling surface.
The new TEC grills also play nicely with the environment. According to Rachael Best, the company's newest infrared line burns 50% less fuel than convection grills do.
SABER, which collaborated with Bill Best in the research and development of its infrared grills, recognizes the impact of the advancements TEC has made since the original patent's expiration.
"One of the significant advantages TEC has is they no longer use a ceramic burner," said Schwing. "The other significant advantage TEC has is that they make units that are completely infrared across the cooking surface. Those are things that will make a difference and correct some of the performance and service issues that have occurred with the old style."
Approaching 80 years old, Bill Best is still working in his lab, operating on the personal motto that “if you don’t obsolete yourself, then someone else will.”
Featuring nearly 20,000 gas ports in a specially engineered ceramic radiant, a Solaire infrared burner cooks twice as fast as a traditional burner.
Now that Bill Best has answered the criticisms that shrouded his old technology, infrared grilling has seemingly hit its ceiling. After all, he has eliminated the use of hot air in the grilling process entirely; it would be difficult for him to conceive of something that uses more than the 100% infrared energy his new technology already does.
But as great inventors will do, Best - who has been working in infrared for about 60 years and will turn 80 next year - is still inventing.
Best's current projects include the creation of a 100% infrared pizza oven as well as the development of a grill that will generate both infrared energy and steam. Down the road, he envisions an infrared broiler being developed for indoor use - something that would be powered by electricity so that even people in a high-rise apartment in New York could have a 100% infrared grill in their home, so long as they had a hood. A prototype of such has already been built and produced satisfactory results, he said.
Whatever the next application is for infrared technology in the barbecue industry, it won't be the last. Some 30 years from the birth of infrared grilling, the technology has come a long way, and it still has a ways to come.