By: Jeff Daum, Ph.D., PPA – Techonogy & Product Analyst
Have you ever wondered how steak houses can get a great crust on your steak yet still serves it cooked rare or medium rare right up to the crust? Odds are they are using an infrared burner instead of an open flame grill.
Many of us are used to grilling over flames (gas, charcoal, or wood) where there is often the challenge of cooking to the proper degree of doneness without charring or burning the food from flare ups. Even when we succeed typically the food is cooked from the outside in meaning the food closer to the outside is overcooked compared to the center. A gas infrared grill is different because the flames are never near the food, rather they are in a burner box that heats a unit that converts it to infrared energy. The result is a much hotter, more uniform heat source that doesn’t tend to dry out the food as it cooks.
After years of mastering cooking on a regular gas grill, I decided to switch to a 100% infrared system. I was intrigued by promises of a much higher cooking temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit for a perfect crust on steaks, shorter cooking times and especially no flare-ups. After researching options available, I decided to purchase a TEC 44” Sterling Patio FR Built-in Grill.
TEC has an excellent reputation for very high build quality, using only the best materials and being made in USA. I ordered it with the optional ‘Gator Rack’ after talking with their helpful support staff. [The Gator Rack is two of their Infrared Smoker/Roaster plus Chip Corral units, since the TEC 44” is basically a double wide grill.] My initial concern was how to cook foods that I previously did on a rotisserie since the TEC Sterling Patio unit does not have any means to add a rotisserie. They assured me that the Gator Rack would result in the same outcome as if it was cooked on a rotisserie.
Note: infrared cooking requires a learning curve. While I was able to produce good results within a couple of successive attempts with a variety of foods including steaks, burgers, chicken, etc., it really took a couple of months to perfect the technique. The learning process included trusting the new technology and shorter cooking times, relying on an accurate thermometer for measuring internal temperature and keeping everything including tools, hands, and arms away from any part of the cooking surface that was extremely hot in spite of having no visible flames.
Basically, the key differences between open flame and infrared grills are:
- Infrared can be nearly twice as hot- on high the TEC easily hits 900 F degrees
- Food remains much moister because of no open flame
- Everything cooks faster
- You need to be extra careful when turning food since you don’t see any flames but it is super-hot. I use Mountain Grillers® grill gloves that fully protect my hands and forearms.
- It preheats much faster combined with shorter cooking times resulting in using less gas
The TEC looks different from a regular grill. When you open the top you will see grill grates that are sitting on top of special radiant glass panels that actually convert the flames from the flame box below into infrared energy. The other thing you will probably notice is how heavy all of the components are.
TEC 44” Sterling Patio FR Built-in Grill Specifications (from their website):
- The TEC Sterling Patio FR Grill has a handcrafted, contoured, double-walled Lid. Includes two high performance infrared grilling systems which carries a 10 year warranty.
- Choice of LP or natural Gas
- 2 fuel-efficient stainless steel burner that reaches higher temperatures (900° F) while using less fuel (60,000 BTUs/hr 30,000 per burner) than other grills
- 592 sq. inches of evenly heated grilling surface capable of cooking 32 hamburgers in 8-10 minutes
- Warming rack (sold separately) provides an additional 185 sq. inches of area for light cooking, baking, or warming food
- Rapid preheat—0°-900° F in 10 minutes (on high) with hood closed
- Flare-resistant design prevents charring of food
- Cooking surface can also be used as a conventional stove
- Electronic ignition
- 100% 304 stainless steel construction including cooking grates
- Handcrafted in America
List price $6,399.00 but often offered on sale or with some optional accessories, with free shipping.
Using the TEC is straight forward. You open the top and press the igniter button while turning the gas knob to high. You will hear the gas ignite in the flame box and you can look through the viewer hole in front by the knob, to see the flames. The model I purchased has two separate burners that can be used together or independently. Once you light the burner(s) you close the top to allow for the grill to preheat for ten minutes. When preheated on high the temperature reaches 900 degrees F. TEC provides a guide for representative foods and whether you preheat on high or medium, and to cook the food with the hood open or closed. A unique feature of the TEC is that you can cook foods at a temperature as low as 200 F with the hood open or 300 F with the hood closed.
Once preheated, you can also independently control each side of this grill to cook at different temperatures. TEC has additional recipes and tips for cooking a large variety of foods on its website along with instructional videos.
Here is what I have found after using my TEC for about a year and one half and cooking a cross section of foods including steaks, lamb and pork chops, hamburgers, sausages, fish, Cornish hens, whole chicken and chicken breasts, leg of lamb, pizza, baby back ribs and turkeys as well as vegetables: All foods end up being consistently moister/juicier cooking with infrared vs. open flame gas or charcoal grills. Meats get cooked to the perfect degree of doneness (using a thermometer to accurately measure the internal temperature) from edge to edge without the area closest to the outside being overcooked. Cooking times can be vastly different (shorter) than you are used to because of the way infrared heat penetrates. A good remote thermometer is critical, especially as you are learning how to cook using 100 percent infrared. Note: thermometers typically will not accurately read the temperature surrounding the food you are cooking, but all you are really concerned with is the internal temperature. I have been using a MEATER Plus® wireless thermometer with great success.
Fat that drips down onto the glass panels while cooking vaporizes and adds to the flavor. Adding wood chips can be done directly on the grates or in the wood chip holder (corral) that comes with the Gator Rack.
One of the biggest surprises with the TEC was how foods that I previously cooked on grill using a motorized rotisserie, turned out on the TEC. As mentioned earlier, TEC Sterling Patio FR grills do not have the ability to add a rotisserie. Instead, they use the Gator Rack option. This unit consists of a very heavy stainless steel drip tray that goes on top of the grates, and then has a sloped rack that hooks over the back lip of the grill and sits in the drip tray. It also has a wood chip holder tray that sits in front of the rack that you can use if you want to smoke what you are cooking. Turkeys, legs of lamb and whole chickens came out beautifully cooked on all sides as if they had been on a rotisserie without you having to turn them.
Pizza was surprisingly easy to cook on the TEC. I used their recipe and cooking guidelines with my Gator Rack to prepare beautiful pizzas from both scratch and store bought. The crust turned out to be crisp and the toppings cooked perfectly. They do sell a pizza rack option, but the Gator Rack works the same way.
Cleaning up is easy- you close the top and turn the controls to high and let it run for ten minutes. Any food dripping or sauce (that drop past the grates onto the special radiant glass) ends up being vaporized. Then once the grill has cooled, you just wipe up the dust and debris off the glass with a paper towel. Hint: I found after I finished cooking and before turning the burners to high, using a wire brush like the Kona 360® dipped in water and then scrubbing the grates, helped keep the cooking grates themselves very clean.
I am extremely pleased with my decision to switch from a classic gas grill to a 100 % infrared grill. The quality of the TEC USA built is outstanding. Once you get through the learning curve and you trust the technology, you will not want to go back to cooking on non-full infrared grills. Food is so juicy/moist and beautifully cooked. The total lack of flare ups is a big plus. Cleaning up is easy and quick except for the drip trays of the Gator Rack. Those require scrapping out and then scrubbing like a regular oven tray. I have purchased a large plastic box (IRIS USA 50 quart 28”x15”x6” storage bin) that I use to soak the drip tray in hot water and Dawn before cleaning and it makes it much easier.
You will end up modifying (shortening) your cooking times for most of your recipes if they were based on open flame grilling. In the beginning I simply recorded the time and heat setting and how the food turned out, so that I could adjust cooking times until the results were consistently what I wanted.
I found very little I would modify on the TEC design. You can see in some of my images, I did add a hood thermometer (GasSaf® 3″ BBQ Temperature Gauge Thermometer). I use this just for a general idea of the interior temperature.
We live in an area with frequent high winds and found that while this had no impact on cooking items like steaks, etc., it sometimes resulted in one side of the two burners blowing out when doing long low temperature cooking, such as baby back ribs. There is no flame sensor on the gas feed to the burners so if the flame goes out, the gas will continue to flow. I contacted TEC Customer Service about this to see if they had a sensor with auto-cutoff that could be retrofitted, but they did not. However, they do sell a Windbreak baffle that replaces the upper back plate on the grill top. They provided this to me. Affixing the Windbreak baffle was easy since it screws into the same holes the back plate uses. Here is what it looks like (upper left image is the original grill back without Windbreak baffle; remaining images show the Windbreak baffle attached):
Since attaching the Windbreak I have not experienced any flameouts caused by the wind in my low temperature cooking.
I enthusiastically rate this TEC 44” Sterling Patio FR Built-in Grill five hot flames out of five.
I hope you found this useful. Please let me know if you have any questions!
Cheers and happy grilling.
Check out more from Jeff here.