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A Flash in the Pan

A Flash in the Pan

Cooking equipment that's visible to customers lets you "sell the sizzle."

If it's true sizzle sells then there is no better way to sell than with a broiler or griddle positioned where your customer can see and smell the action. The allure of delicious aromas, the sizzle, and dancing flames are enough to whet anyone's appetite. If you're in the market for a new broiler or griddle, there are many types to choose from. What follows are some factors to consider when buying the equipment.

Broilers. Chefs often say the pure, true flavor of food is achieved best when a steak, chicken or fish is broiled. Good broiling is an art requiring the close attention of a skilled, experienced chef. Broilers are available in two basic types and they come in a wide variety of sizes. In addition, each can have various heating styles that can be purchased for different applications.

The two types of broilers are over-fired or upright broilers and under-fired or charbroilers. There are advantages to each. Charbroilers use one of three different heat sources—wood, gas or electricity. If you want the drama of flame broiling for an open-kitchen setting, wood or gas is the best selection. Many electric broilers do a great job, but without the open flame. The finished food product is much like it would be from a wood or gas unit.

Wood broiling takes a bit more skill than gas or electric to maintain consistent temperatures. You will need to experiment to keep the fire from getting too hot or too cool. Some chefs like mesquite wood and some like oak while still others may like an apple or cherry wood. Various woods will also burn differently and impart different but unique flavors to enhance foods.

A good dense hardwood is desirable for a hot fire and a slow even burn. Some of the more exotic woods can get expensive in some areas. Wood broilers also take some extra consideration when it comes to installation. National codes require wood-burning cooking equipment to be on separate exhaust systems from other equipment and have spark arrestors in the hood or duct to help prevent fire. The additional ductwork and fire protection can be costly in many instances. Some places have additional requirements, including cleaning the air of smoke before it is exhausted. Filter systems or electronic precipitators used to eliminate smoke and odor can also be costly and require regular maintenance.

Gas charbroilers come in two varieties, those with radiant burn-ers and those with ceramic briquettes. The briquette type is made to imitate charcoal and does a good job delivering a charbroiled taste, only without the woody flavor.

The briquettes, however, must be replaced periodically as debris tends to build up. Radiant broilers use metal fins to distribute heat and are easier to clean than the ceramic type broiler. Some argue the ceramic briquettes are a more authentic broiling method, while others argue there is no difference in finished products.

A variety of charbroiler sizes are available to fit the needs of any operation. A 12-inch-wide unit may meet the needs of a small operation while a 72-inch model may be appropriate for a large one.

Compare the BTU rating of the burners to estimate the relative power and cooking speed of particular units. If you plan to do fish on the broiler you may want to consider a broiling grate made especially for delicate, flaky seafood. Some broilers have various options for the cooking grate, while others have a fine mesh cover that can be put over the broiler for fish.

Upright Broilers. The other type of broiler is the over-fired or upright broiler. This equipment is most commonly gas-fired, but can be found in electric-heated versions in some instances. The upright broiler is generally five-to six-feet-high and has an over-fired pull-out grate shelf for broiling.

Upright broilers have two types of burners: ceramic/radiant or infrared. Infrared broilers are the type preferred by many steakhouses because of the ultra-high temperature they produce that gives steaks a crust that can't be duplicated at home.

Infrared units have a fast heat-up time and are also comparatively energy efficient. They are available with one or two broiler decks, and some models can have ovens under and a finishing oven above. Most units are about 34-36-inches square and will need a good high-volume exhaust hood above to take care of smoke and heat.

Keeping your broiler clean is important. The grate itself must be scraped clean after each use or else carbon and grease build-up may give food a bitter taste. Grease buildup can also be a problem if drip pans are not drained regularly. A lot of the grease is burned, creating the charbroiled effect. But some grease drains into the grease trough included on most units. If the trough is not cleaned, it can become a fire hazard.

Good ventilation is essential with whatever type of broiler you use. Be sure there is enough exhaust capacity in your hood because broiling produces a lot of smoke and grease. Display broiling in or near the dining room is of special concern because you'll want to keep smoke and excess odors from the dining area.

Griddles. Griddles are basically thick, heated steel plates for cooking. They are used for cooking product directly on the plate surface without pans or skillets. The thickness of the steel top and the burner configuration determines a unit's production capacity and how evenly a product will cook. Typical griddle tops are 3 /4-inch or 1-inch thick. A thicker top is advised if you are cooking a lot of frozen product. The thicker top will recover temperature quicker and retain more heat than the thinner top, but will take longer to heat up initially.

Most griddles have a separate temperature control for at least every two feet of length. You may want to ensure there are several temperature zones along the length of the griddle if there is a need to grill different products at different temperatures at the same time. Some manufacturers can provide grooved griddles to give product a broiled look. Be sure your unit comes with adequate splatter guards around the perimeter of the griddle surface, and check for ease of cleaning the grease trough.

In an open kitchen, a strategically placed broiler can be just the added drama and action needed to differentiate your food concept and menu from the competition. The equipment also gives your cooks an opportunity to show off their abilities and interact with the guest. Whether you use the equipment as a showpiece to the dining room or in the back-of-house, broiler or griddle cooked products can definitely enhance your menu.

Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. He can be reached at 301-926-8181.

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