You can start a lively debate in almost any backyard by questioning the merits of one grill versus another. Charcoal enthusiasts typically disparage gas, gas-lovers deride the inconvenience of coals, and those who favor a simple setup almost invariably end up in heated debate with fans of the latest bells and whistles. If you're contemplating a new grill, this can complicate the business of deciding what you want. For example, grills with infrared burners promise superior performance, but not all enthusiasts agree.
Introduction to Infrared
Infrared cooking is awkward to describe. It's high-energy light from the very end of the visible spectrum, and -- like the ultraviolet light that gives you a sunburn -- it has the effect of rapidly searing the surface of your food. Your oven's broiler browns steaks quickly because it radiates infrared -- and so do the hot coals of a charcoal kettle, one reason why grilling purists favor cooking over charcoal. Infrared gas grills use the gas to heat a grid or an arrangement of bars, much like the broiler in a gas oven, until it radiates infrared energy. Some models include both an infrared and a regular burner, which makes for a potent combination.
Manufacturers of gas grills with infrared burners are understandably quick to sing their praises. The specially designed grids or plates of an infrared grilling surface provide more even heat, and minimize the potential for flare-ups because drippings from your steak don't drop directly to the flame. Also, because they don't rely primarily on a direct blast of gas flame to cook the food, they can use substantially less gas to prepare a given quantity of food. Most importantly, infrared's searing prowess makes it easy to achieve a deeply browned surface on your foods, which gives them a rich savory flavor.
All things being otherwise equal, a grill incorporating infrared technology has a clear advantage over one without it. In the real world, of course, all things are seldom equal. Grills vary widely in their cooking ability, with or without infrared technology. Subtle differences in design, impossible to guess from comparing specifications, can result in grills that look almost identical but cook very differently. There are websites that offer real-world comparisons of grills from different manufacturers to help you weed out under-performing models. Infrared technology is certainly good to have, but it doesn't necessarily guarantee the best grill for your money.