Barbecue Grill Cooking Grates Have Evolved Into Highly Effective Tools For Augmenting The Flavor And Texture of Grilled Meats and Vegetables While Masquerading As Ordinary.
Cooking Grates all seem the same when you are a normal earthling and not completely circumscribed by grilling features — and while those same normal earthlings may not see the difference is completely different descriptive terms like barbeque, grilling and smoking it is grilling that most benefits from varied grill grates. The ubiquitous grate is the steel wire rod grate that looks like a bunch of metal rod dowels or porcelain coated rods laid out together with a cross beam front and back to keep everyone in line. Archaic. The role of the rod grate is to support the food in a specified position and this was the dominant feature of the grill grate hegemony for decades — for decades before gas broilers even existed.
However, we have a few grill grates that cost as much as a decent used car or an airplane ride to Hawaii and we sell a lot of them so there has got to be something important or useful or tasty about the grates above and beyond making a layer to support the food. We hope.
Many years ago DCS changed their barbecue design from the cast iron burner with lava rocks to the current stainless steel U shaped burner with porcelain rods design. This was a paradigm shift for broilers. The DCS had an infrared rotisserie (before infrared technology was even recognized at the residential level) and a smoker box with a dedicated smoke burner — with features like this it has to be a barbeque, right? However, the higher BTU stainless burner and the even distribution of the porcelain rods did something no other barbecue had ever done. It became a grill. Suddenly the DCS “D” model was able to achieve over 800 degrees at the grilling surface and offer all of us normal home owners the ability to sear a steak at restaurant quality appliance temperatures.
The first feature to change was the grates. The “finger” grates that were introduced by DCS were heavy cast iron concave grates that were reversible to convex. Cast iron conducts heat better than any material that can be used for manufacturing and the porcelain enamel kept them safe from oxidation.
The finger grates were not wide and a thirty-six inch DCS gas grill needed six grates. A forty-eight inch wide DCS gas grill needed eight grates. The original finger grates had a ledge in the back of the grid that allowed the grate to be set in the grill either flat or at a slight incline. This feature together with the grates’ ability to be used concave or convex made the DCS cooking grates more technologically planned and effective than most of the entire barbecues available today.
Convex. Turning the grills so the trough faced down is very similar to the design of the ubiquitous rod-style grates we brushed past earlier. However, the thicker, denser and heavier finger grates provided a much wider curved surface that thrilled all those bar-b-q-ers who are accustomed to lower cooking temperatures and love to build up sear marks (they’re burn marks!) criss-crossing their steaks.
Until the about 5 years ago the Ducane family made a good, reliable barbecue that had a cooking grate different from any other. The ducane grate was thin 20 gauge stainless steel stamped and cut convex so the entire grid resembled a flat plate of stainless with slits cut along the grate. However each section – strip -of stainless curved upwards to allow the heat rising from the burners below to slow down as it passed the grate. The result was a frying-pan like hot surface without the accumulation of fat and grease endemic of frying pans. Ducane made a brilliant designed cooking grate for a barbecue that never was hot enough to be a grill but benefitted from the lesson DCS was teaching.
Convex the DCS grates were like rod grids on steroids and the benefits fairly obvious.
Concave. The concave grate was (is) amazing! The “D” model DCS gas grill had another feature that was useful and new. There was a trough in the front of the grill surface similar to commercial griddles so and grease or debris could be wiped to the front of the grilling surface and would fall through the trough to the drip tray below. When the concave finger grids were installed at an incline tilting towards the from the the bbq grease and debris would be pulled by gravity towards the trough like light through a black hole. Of course the chef, armed with a spatula or tongs could facilitate the process.
The ability to push the grease along these thick, grooved grids meant less flare-ups, less grease fires and less clean up. Less to clean up meant less grease in side the fire box and extra years added to the life of the burners, rod trays and cooking grids. I don’t know if you have ever had 5 or 6 rib-eye steaks grilling and had so much grease dripping through burning and flaring up above the grids that it was frightening to continue cooking but I have (i actually threw a grill in a pool once when my laughable fear turned into a blind panic facilitated by my two-year old walking out the back door and causing away-too-many worst cast scenarios to flash through my head.) and it is not only a very smoky and messy experience but the added flames will ruin the texture and flavor of the rib-eye. As a result we cook ribeyes a lot lower and slower. The DCS concave grate allowed grease management in a way previously unimagined.
Grease management applies to cooking at any temperature though and the concave grid design really shone when combined with the extraordinarily heat generated by the DCS. Previously the DCS used lava rocks just below the grates to vaporize falling grease, diffuse rising heat from the burners and augment the radiant heat at the grid. As lava rocks absorbed and radiated heat just below the grid this radiant heat added to the hot air trapped in the closed barbecue hood so the heat at the grids was focused. When DCS started using hollow porcelain rods locked into an easy to clean stainless steel tray heat conduction became scientific. With porcelain rods locked in to the tray the heat radiating from the conductive porcelain was higher than any previous open-flame cooker. DCS exceeded any other commercial or home-use appliance with a controllable searing heat.
Restaurant quality searing is designed to lock the outer layer of grilling food. This can be done with an extremely hot piece of cast iron or a thick piece of stainless steel. When the outer layer is blasted by a short burst of heat at one-thousand degrees the outer layer locks all the moisture inside the food. I have cooked T-bone steaks to well-done and filled my plate with moisture when cutting the filet off the bone. DCS’s concave grids were designed to lay flat for searing. Laid flat the concave groove would not allow grease or moisture from within the food to drip down into the flames and become lost, become part of a mess or flare-up to damage the texture of the food. The grooved grids caused the moisture to sit in the grate and vaporize back into the surface of the food cooking. Just as a splash of sweet whiskey can caramelize marbleized sections of steak the moisture dripping from food not yet seared will sit in the concave groove and crystalize parts of the outer texture of a steak.
Today there are still a few barbecues that attempt to create a higher heat setting inside a closed barbeque hood. Broil-King is one that makes a mid-cost barbeque grill that will get hotter than the average mass-market barbecue. The Broil King has cast iron concave reversible convex cooking grates. The cast iron grates are coated with a porcelain enamel and they add both heat and flavor the BroilKing grilling. The stainless alternative grates by Broil King are traditional rod-style grids but 5/8″ thick for conducting maximum heat from criss-cross searing (burning). Today DCS finger grates are a standard and every DCS comes with finger grate manufactured with cast stainless steel. Cast 304 Stainless Steel. While this is a really useful and definitely flavorful feature of DCS gas grills the convection-conduction mixture of heat that defined high-end grilling has been over-shadowed by infrared technology.
This is not the place to define infrared technology other than to say infrared grill burners are the hottest burners for any cooking appliance and that infrared burner pressurize gas to create a direct heat that does not need to be conducted through air, lava rocks, cast iron or porcelain. Infrared heat radiates off the flames on the actual burner and exceeds one-thousnad degrees within 3 minutes of ignition. TEC – Thermal Engineering Corporation — invented the infrared burner and immediately reinvented the DCS finger grate design. TEC infrared grills came with “U” channel cooking grates from the invention of the intense infrared burner.
The U channel grates were a kind of hybrid between the construction of the old rod grid design and the newer added flavor of the DCS finger grill concave grid. U channels were laid out in a series of rows with a support strut spot welded in the front and the back of the grid channels. With 1100 degrees of heat it is impossible not to notice the contribution the “U” channel makes to grilling flavor. Working with barbecue grills and grill parts these last 15 years I have personally flipped over grates to provide prospective customers and current complaining clients with a taste-test. The taste-test has never failed but many customers still complain about the TEC channel grids.
The TEC channel grids differ in a few ways from the original DCS design and from the evolved designs of other barbecue manufacturers like Broil king and others. TEC fabricated the grates with thin stainless steel to minimize heat conduction and TEC capped the channel front and back with the cross-over support pieces. While the added flavor provided by the grates vaporizing the dripping moisture for a few seconds before the searing heat locks the moisture inside the food in undeniable the “U” channel has some serious drawbacks. At the very front and the very back of the TEC grate where the crossover support holds the channels in a pattern it is next to impossible to clean old drippings and grease from the cooking grates. A standard grill brush has a difficult time cleaning down inside the grooved grids and it is almost impossible — and a dirty job when possible — to get the grids clean. This is not only unappetizing because old food just keeps piling up and becomes attractive to the outdoor critters who smell it but it also dramatically shortens the life of the grate.
High-quality 304 stainless steel needs to react with oxygen atoms in the air to create a protective layer around the stainless steel. When the stainless is coated with grease it is impossible for the chromium added to the stainless during the smelting process to protect the grilling grates from oxidation. Lastly the structural integrity of the TEC grates is weak. Each TEC grate is fabricated from more than a dozen pieces of stainless steel spot-welded together. A single drop from two feet high can knock the grates out of square so they no longer fit the grill and have to be bend and tweaked to fit again.
Certainly, until just last year the TEC grill grids were the technological pinnacle of grilling grid design with added functionality and flavor but they did have some room for improvement.
Last year Solaire infrared gas grills met that challenge. Solaire was designed whne TEC was still evolving during what legally should have been their initial 20 years protected by copyright laws. The Solaire infrared grill had the added benefit of allowing the end user to easily remove an infrared burner and replace the burner with a traditional convectional or “blue-flame” burner. The blue-flame burner is the burner used by thousands of gas barbecues and the ability to swap burners back and forth meant the Solaire infrared grill had the ability to sear food at temperatures above one-thousand degrees but it also had the ability to barbecue and smoke at lower temperatures. TEC was never able to do
this. TEC was always hot so a TEC infrared grill could not be used to slow-cook a chicken or a low and slow rack of ribs for four hours. With the evolution of the engineering Solaire made the infrared grill much more attractive at a residential level because now the infrared burner could be used fro intense searing while also allowing the same appliance to be used for any other style of cooking desired.
The evolution of the cooking grate took the form of the Solaire manufacturing process. As the manufacturer took on more and more of their own fabrication the design of the cooking grate became more simplistic, as though designed by a bauhaus architect. The new channeled grates for the solaire infrared grills is a V channel. The V channel is already a marked improvement because the V allows the edge of a traditional scraped to fit inside the channel for easy cleaning. Solaire also makes a scraper that fits the V channels perfectly. The fabrication genius of the grid is that each grid is a single sheet of stainless steel that has had the grates laser cut and bent into the V that defines the channel.
The single sheet of steel bent into V channels provides all the benefits of the original concave cooking grid. The edges front and back have disappeared and the new edges are slightly inclined for grease management. Even more convenient the individual V channels are open in the front and rear so scraped or dripping grease and debris is encouraged to get off the grate and the structure is one solid engineering feat so the strength and integrity are redolent of the original cast stainless steel DCS grates without the weight, cost or density (which would be adversely
affected by the intense heat of the infrared burner) of the DCS design.
While the vast majority of barbecues today still use the round wire grate that has dominated the barbecue cooking surface since before barbecues were called barbeques the design has been replaced with heavier and better made designs. With a traditional broiler a heavier grate capable of transferring some heat is often referred although the old Ducane idea was probably the best one. With infrared grills and low heat smokers alike the thinner grid is preferred. With low heat smoke we do not want any heat conduction because we surround the food with flavored smoke. With infrared grilling we sear the food to lock moisture inside as flavor and must use thinner materials that will not either heat up and burn our food or absorb so much heat the material warps. The high-quality stainless steel concave grid that vaporizes grease is the culmination of thousands of years of grilling over an open flame — and it tastes good.