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May 2002 Issue
By Candy Townsend
SPECIAL REPORT: Sizing Up The Sizzle

Checking into gas charbroilers? Burner sizes, spacing and grate materials all will make a difference in your own applications.

Everybody likes broiling, and the underfired version, charbroiling, is especially popular just about everywhere. Charbroilers are the “bread and butter” for steakhouses, obviously, and they’ve long been the center of attention in fine dining establishments doing daring things with fish and chicken. Casual dining, too, is big on charbroiling, as are several quick-service concepts. That variety of uses means you have lots of charbroilers to choose from. Which means you have plenty to think about.

Too much, almost. First, choose your energy: true charcoal, wood, natural gas (or propane) or electricity, to start. Then there are the hybrid combinations—most notably charcoal or wood with gas assist. And then there are, oh, call them the intermedia—the things that get between the energy source and the cooked items: char-rock (lava rock), ceramic briquettes or radiants made of cast iron or stainless steel. And don’t forget to check off floor model, countertopper or low-profile.

A story doing justice to the finer points of all those variations would run the size of a small-town telephone directory, and we know how often you read those for fun. So we’ll skip the magnum opus. We won’t talk too much about the charcoal/ wood and char-rock/briquette versions. Instead, we’ll focus on the kinds of charbroilers most common among multiunit and high-volume setups. Clearly that group tends to go with gas, and the radiant versions are by far the most popular for flexibility, good performance, durability and cleanability. (For this coverage we’re not including conveyorized charbroilers, which really require their own story.)

Can You Say Competitive?
Start shopping around, and you’ll find that almost any charbroiler maker produces almost any of the permutations mentioned above. Only a few specialize in one or two types. So there’s no shortage of suppliers competing for your attention in the gas radiant category.

Build a list, and you’ll come up with something like 30 U.S. suppliers, give or take a few depending on your hairsplitting. (Can a fancy stone-hearth underfired oven be a charbroiler? Well, actually yes, but we didn’t put Wood Stone on the list. On the other hand, we did include the EmberGlo, which side-fires across ceramic briquettes only instead of underfiring radiants, but otherwise competes directly with the others.)

Anyway, that full list appears at the end of this story in the Info Box. But for spec comparisons and space limitations, we still needed to narrow the focus. To do that, we did what we could with some scattered industry data and then hashed it out with several sources, including some of the highest-profile charbroiler makers and ex-charbroiler gladiators, to see who’s most active nationally.

We arrived at a consensus of 14 makers in the thick of it on a national level, and they’re the focus here: Anetsberger, APW Wyott, Bakers Pride, EmberGlo, Garland/Enodis, Imperial, MagiKitch’n/Middleby, Montague, Rankin-Delux, Southbend/Middleby, Star Mfg., U.S. Range/ Enodis, Vulcan-Hart and Wolf Range.

Let The Festivities Begin!
If you’re purchasing replacement charbroilers, you’ve already got a good idea of what size units you need for your stores. If not, keep in mind that griddles typically come in widths of 24”, 30”, 36”, 48”, 60” and 72”. We’ll get into sizing a bit later, but the point here is that size plays a large part in determining price. You can expect to pay around $2,000—that’s actual street price—for a freestanding 24” basic underfired gas floor model. Countertoppers will cost about $500 less.

Meanwhile, upgrades, such as additional burners or radiants, conversion kits and larger work decks as well as accessories—salamander racks, wood smoke drawers and any customization—will run you extra. Thus a fully loaded 60” model might run in the $7,300 range (street price).
First, do you want a countertopper, a low-profile version or a floor model? Square footage is always at a premium, so maybe ’topping would be an advantage. They’re great for use on counters (or stands, but then they’re floor units) and are becoming more popular in the kitchen lineup. Countertopping can be a good option, especially if charbroiling isn’t the lion’s share of your menu.

Even if space isn’t an issue, maybe extra steps are. You’ve got some expensive product on your charbroilers—steaks, chops, fish. With all that money on the fire, you don’t want your broiler staff wandering off in search of resupply. Ideally, you want refrigeration easily within reach—maybe right below.

To meet that need, many of the factories now offer a “low-profile” as well as a countertop model. At a height of 18” (instead of the countertop unit’s 22”), they’re sized to hit the optimal 34” work height while perched atop a typical refrigerated base unit. Mechanicals and power typically are the same as their countertop counterparts. Prices are a little lower for the low-profilers, about $100 less.

If you’re looking for more staying power, or your menu calls for lots of charbroiling (as in, you’re a steakhouse), you’ll want to foot the bill for a floor model, possibly one with a cabinet base that gives you more storage without the need for a stand.

When sizing your charbroiler, take a look at your menu and how much is going to be broiled. If you’re talking burgers, real-life loading should be about one to two patties per square foot of grate surface. In real life, of course, you’ll be cooking other items of other sizes, so rules of thumb are hard to come by.

The main thing to remember, however, is that you cannot size the charbroiler the way you size a griddle. You can load a griddle pretty densely, but you won’t get away with that on a charbroiler. A charbroiler is throwing off a tremendous amount of heat that has to make its way into the hood. If you overload the grates continuously, or put pans on top, trapped heat will burn out the burner and the liners.

Looking Radiant
Whether you go with radiants or rocks/briquettes, underfired broilers give you the smoke and fumes created by fat and meat juices dripping back onto the radiants or the rocks. So you’re getting heat transfer in three ways:
• Conduction from the heat sink of the broiling grate
• Convection, as heat transfers from the gases and vapors produced by burner combustion
• Radiation, as heat energy reflects upward from the broiler radiants.

In the case of radiants, you get tent-shaped heat reflectors over the burners. The stainless or cast-iron pieces absorb the heat and then project it toward the grate, giving wider and more even coverage than an open flame would. Some manufacturers have additional radiants located between each burner to provide more consistent temperatures across the grill plate.

Radiants are popular especially among high-volume operations for a couple reasons. First, they do even out heat nicely. They also require minimal handling—no turning stones, no making sure they’re even across the flame, etc.—a handy advantage in a labor-intensive high-volume situation. Char-rocks and ceramics have their followers, too, however. They look great in display situations, and some char-chefs like the idea of moving the rocks around. Whether they impart a different flavor is still the subject of much debate, with strong believers on both sides. In any case, if you have a radiant setup and decide to make a change, you can. Most radiant designs can be easily converted for use with char-rock. The kit will run you about $300 for a 24” model.

If you do go with radiants, your next decision is material—stainless or cast iron? Stainless steel radiants offer a quicker preheat, a quicker response to control inputs, and easy cleaning. Manufacturers say they’ll hold up well, and you can expect one or two years of solid use out of them before they need to be replaced. They’re also less expensive than the other choice, cast iron.

Cast iron, on the other hand, is less heat-conductive, which is a good news/ bad news story. It’s slower to heat up, but also slower to lose temp, so recovery is good. Cast iron radiants take longer to preheat, sometimes up to 45 minutes, but when they get hot, they’re great heat sinks. That’s why they’re perfect for high-volume use, by steakhouses or rib joints, say, where you just keep pushing out product. But here’s the tradeoff: No matter how heavy they are, cast iron radiants eventually may warp, so you’ll have to replace them, in some cases as often as twice a year, some makers say.

Yes, ‘Burning’ Questions
Beneath those radiants, of course, are the burners—and another choice. Steel alloy or cast iron? The metals have the same inherent qualities already covered—steel is more conductive, and cast iron isn’t. We’d think the differences are less important in the burners than in the radiants. More buyers opt for steel, which also happens to be less expensive.

Burner “spacing” is tough to summarize clearly, which is why it’s not addressed in the spec boxes. Some models use straight tube burners, while others use U-, H- or S-shaped burners, all of which would actually be spaced differently to create similar coverages. And even with that said, different sized models in the same series can involve slightly different spacing of burners and even different Btu-rated burners.

Generally, though, whatever burner configuration is chosen will get you a row of flames for every six inches or so of width, with some models stretching it to about nine inches. The closer the burners (or rows of flame) are together, the more even the bed of heat will be. If they’re spread farther apart, they’ll create more hot and cool spots on the grill surface.

Btu input options vary by manufacturer as well. Don’t get confused by what look like wildly different ratings. One model might have two straight tube burners of 15,000 Btu or 20,000 Btu per burner, while another model has a single 30,000- or 40,000-Btu U- or H-shaped burner covering the same area. Total Btu ratings divided by square footage (not lineal footage, because some models are noticeably deeper than others) might indicate energy coverage.

And before we leave the topic of Btu ratings, be prepared for surprises. Some models will produce in the neighborhood of 15,000 Btu/sq. ft. of cooking area, while others will more than double that. Having more power and not needing it is better than needing it and not having it, certainly. But more is not necessarily better, and twice as many Btu won’t mean your cook time drops in half. Foods will only absorb energy at given rates; beyond those rates, the extra energy is just going straight up the hood or turning the food surface to carbon chunks before the inside’s done. So there’s still no substitute for real-life demo tests with your own product.

Talking Temps
Generally, unless you have a really diverse menu coming off the charbroiler, you want even temperature over as much of the surface as you can get. How much heat? Some makers tout edge-to-edge temps from 400ºF to 500ºF, others as high as 600ºF to 700ºF. But if you get above that, that’s too hot, and you’re going to torch your product.

How evenly or unevenly the broiler grates heat up is a key selling factor. If you know where the hot and cool spots are, you can use them to your advantage—to cook a well-done and a medium-rare steak in exactly the same time frame, for instance. But if the variations are too extreme, or if you don’t know the temperature map (here’s where training and time on the unit come in) you can have big trouble.

With charbroilers you have so many grid types to choose from, it can quickly “grate” on your nerves (pun intended). Here’s what we found to be out there; the larger manufacturers offer most of these styles, and you can mix and match.
• Floating Rod: Usually chrome plate, these are easy to clean and prevent sticking. Most models come with these as standard. They’re sometimes called “free-floating” because they allow for expansion and contraction without warping.
• Cast Iron Flat: Like cast iron radiants, these grates retain heat. They don’t allow for expansion and contraction as well as the floating rods, however, so they’re more prone to warp. If you’re cooking products that will stick, don’t go with this one. Each grate line has grease channels to help with the drainoff.
• Cast Iron Wavy: These also retain heat, but offer unique score markings, good for that charbroiled look.
• Meat: These grates deliver the maximum heat for cooking thick cuts. They also provide fine score marks.

Spacing of the rods is important: If you’re charbroiling products with light or flaky surfaces, you don’t want your rods spaced too widely because you’ll lose product to the flame. Most models run 5/16” to 1/2” spacing.

All grates are adjustable for altering proximity to the heat source, usually by a lever at the front of the unit that you just push down on to lock in the tilted position. Check each model’s action for ease. Most adjust to three tilt angles (one maker’s unit does four), and can be moved with product on. The smaller models (24”, 30”, 36”) have three to five adjustable grates; larger models have up to eight or 10.

Time out for some cooking tips: In case your concept is just now getting into charbroiling, well-done items go to the top tilted position, farthest away from the heat so they cook more slowly and thoroughly. Rare items should be in the lower position so they cook rapidly on the outside and leave the inside rare. There can be a difference of 100
ºF or more from the back of the grate to the front because of the height difference.

Accessorize!
Boy, have you got accessories to look at. Not all manufacturers offer all of these options, but here’s an idea of what you can add to your unit: splash guards, work decks (in stainless steel and extra deep sizes), sauce pan cutouts, heat shields, plate storage racks, salamander racks, even natural wood smoke essence drawers to upgrade your flavors.

Standard on most models is a double-walled insulated outer cabinet with stainless steel sides, front, back and bottom. Standard grids are round rods, and the basic package usually includes cleaning brush, water tubs, and a front shelf.

So there’s the thumbnail outline on charbroiling. If you’re interested in more details on energy profiles and so on, be sure to ask your suppliers for ASTM Standardized Test Method results. A lot of the makers have submitted their models to these stringent third-party tests, and they’ll be glad to show you their data.

Or, you might check with our friends at the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif., at www.pge.com/fstc. In some cases, you can purchase test reports on specific pieces of equipment, or for an overview you can scroll down to Test Method Development Reports and click on the test for Underfired Broilers. (If you’re a Pacific Gas & Electric customer, the reports are free.)

 

 

 

 

 

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