Hotter than Hell

David Arnold - June 2005

Upright broilers are very American. They are oversized, superhot, and were developed with American steakhouses in mind.

Providing high product throughput, fast turnaround time, and single-operator handling, upright broilers may look like salamanders on steroids, but the differences between the two pieces of equipment are dramatic. Upright broilers have full 24- to 27-inch-deep cooking grids. The burners are extremely powerful and provide an intense and even heat over their entire cooking area—unlike salamanders, which have a definite sweet spot running down the middle. Laurent Tourondel, who just opened BLT Prime, his second meat-centric restaurant in Manhattan, swears by his upright broiler. "They don't have this type of equipment in France," he says, "and the results of searing a steak in the pan are not the same." Michael Kantor, chef de cuisine of Tourondel's BLT Steak, says the upright broiler allows him to get food out of the kitchen faster and with less manpower—and it "makes a better crust" than any other method.

Broiler terminology is inconsistent and confusing. The same broiler may be called an overhead, an overfired, an upright, a deck, a steakhouse, a banquet (if it has two decks), or just a broiler. Different burner types are referred to as radiant, radiant ceramic, or infrared, even though all the burners use ceramics and both infrared and radiant heat. Companies cite wildly divergent temperatures for their equipment, from 700°F to 2,500°F, depending on whether they're measuring flame, brick, or maximum grate temperature.

It gets more confounding. BTUs, used by some chefs and marketers as the primary indicator of cooking power, are only a measure of how much gas an appliance consumes per hour, not how much heat will actually hit the food. And, when comparing BTUs, the size of the area being heated has to be considered. Lost yet? Here's your road map:

Broilers can be ordered with or without overhead finishing ovens heated by the broilers' hot flue gases. These are runaway ovens—they have no thermostats. Undermounted standard or convection ovens are also available, as are double broilers with two decks. Montague lets you swap the overhead finishing oven for a "steakhouse" searing plate that reaches 600°F, making it an interesting dual-use appliance. Every company except Montague offers a radiant and an infrared burner option; Montague only has radiants.

Radiants typically have cast-iron burners with blue flames that heat ceramic bricks to a red heat. The engineers call this an impingement burner. Jade uses a different type of radiant burner; their ceramic radiants look similar to their infrared ceramics but don't burn as intensely, providing a more even heat pattern. Across the board, radiant broilers offer less intense heat than infrareds—roughly 25 to 30 percent less heat-on-meat per BTU. Lower heat actually makes radiant broilers more versatile because food can be cooked longer without damage to the internal texture. Radiant impingement burners are not as finicky to operate as infrareds, can be throttled better, are generally more robust, and are cheaper to fix (you can replace a ceramic brick instead of a whole burner) than infrareds.

Infrared broilers have glowing red ceramic bricks filled with tiny holes where gas combustion takes place. These glowing ceramics are very efficient at transforming the heat of combustion into radiant heat, which is how broiling works. When these burners crack or get damaged, usually the whole burner assembly needs to be replaced. Southbend solves this problem by using replaceable ceramic bricks. Some manufacturers add a steel mesh protector under their burners; the mesh heats to a bright red, giving the side benefit of marginally increased infrared efficiency. Most damage to the bricks happens when the burners get splashed with detergent during cleaning, hastening the breakdown of the ceramic, or during cooking, when the hot burners get splashed with cold grease—the temperature differential cracks the ceramic.

Infrareds are not only the hottest burners, but are the quickest as well, going from cold to working temperature in under two minutes. This two minute specification, used by all manufacturers, is slightly misleading and refers only to the burner preheat time. It takes slightly longer for the cooking grid and broiling chamber to reach maximum temperature.

Infrared broilers require a constant supply of fresh air. All models have powered, filtered air intakes providing the steady supply, but if the filter stops operating properly or becomes clogged, the burners will burn blue. Blue haze in an infrared burner indicates inefficiency—the burner has lost a good deal of its wallop. The more BTUs being used per square inch of burner space, the more severe this problem becomes. Garland keeps the input of their infrared broilers at 70,000 BTUs per deck, Vulcan-Hart uses 80,000 BTUs per deck, and both Southbend and Jade use 104,000 BTUs per deck. Garland's maximum grid temperature is lower, but their burners will keep burning red while the competition will start to go blue after a couple of years. A competitor's engineer admitted this was a problem, the result of marketing's desire for ever higher BTUs. Vulcan-Hart avoids the blue haze problem with an adjustable blower speed—if the burners start to go blue, the speed can be increased to maximize air intake. If your burners go blue, get your broiler serviced.

If you're retrofitting your kitchen, make sure your hood is deep enough to handle the smoke that billows from the front of an upright broiler. If you don't have the space for a big upright but you want more than a standard salamander, try Southbend's new Mini Broiler (P36-NFR). They redesigned their 40,000 BTU salamander to have four separate infrared burners running front to back instead of side to side, providing a much more even and intense heat than their previous model without taking up more space. The counterbalanced roll-out removable broiler rack measures a slim 14-by-30 inches and easily adjusts to any one of five height positions.

If you need a bigger upright broiler but don't want to spring for two units, Montague offers a 45-inch wide radiant broiler, much larger than the standard 32- to 36-inch models, with three burners instead of two. If you're a heavy-duty equipment junkie, you may want to look at the Jade units—superthick steel, all-welded construction, and weighing in at hundreds of pounds more than the competition's.

Typical steakhouse technique calls for quick-searing a steak under the upright broiler and then using a finishing oven to achieve the desired doneness. Tourondel does the inverse, starting the steaks on a wood-assisted char-broiler to give wood flavor and then finishing them in a Southbend infrared upright broiler. This technique works well because the infrareds are hot enough to form a crust without damaging the meat's internal structure. The typical cooking sequence, Tourondel says, can soften the crust. The infrareds, however, are too hot to use for the entire cooking process.

At the multiunit Ruth's Chris Steakhouse restaurant, chefs cook their steaks entirely on Montague C45S radiant broilers, using a finishing oven only if preparing a steak well-done. Chef Peter Menard of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in New York City cautions that the extreme high heat requires an especially skilled broiler operator but says his upright radiant broilers are the heart and soul of his kitchen.