Like grills, foodservice operators most often use broilers to cook the most expensive menu items — meats. For this reason, broilers can become a vital piece of equipment for many foodservice operators, which makes specifying a unit that can accommodate the menu and volume of the restaurant critical.
While grills use direct contact to cook food at temperatures ranging between 350 degrees F and 400 degrees F, broilers use radiant heat to prepare food at higher temperatures, generally between 550 degrees F and 700 degrees F.
Broilers typically produce three types of heat. The conduction heat is generated directly from the grate itself and transfers to the food. The broiler grate absorbs the radiant heat that comes from the burner. Convection heat comes from the hot air wash or byproducts of combustion, which are a result of the hot gases produced from burning the fuel.
When specifying these units, it helps to look at what the broiler's application will be and work backwards. First, when choosing a broiler, foodservice operators need to understand which menu items the culinary staff will prepare using the equipment. The cut of protein also will help determine what unit will work best. In addition, operators need to consider the desired end result. Due to the many variables involved, consistency is critical, especially when food production volume is high.
Although gas broilers are the most common in commercial foodservice, electric and conveyor units also are available. And whether an over-fired or under-fired broiler represents the best option depends on the menu composition.
Over-fired units, like the description suggests, cook with burners located above the food. This equipment consists of a big drawer, tray or grate that slides beneath the heat source. Foodservice operators can use over-fired broilers to cook meats that don't require grate markings. Common applications for over-fired units include high-end steakhouses for preparing steaks, chicken and more upscale meat dishes. Because over-fired broilers create more of an enclosed environment than under-fired units, the units retain the heat to produce hotter temperatures. This allows the broiler to sear the meat from the top down, which creates a layer around the outside of the meat that seals in the juices. Consequently, a different flavor is produced when compared with meat that is cooked from below. Over-fired broilers can handle high volume, but the chef needs to be well-versed in utilizing these units, since timing is an important factor.
Foodservice operators more commonly use under-fired broilers for greasier foods, such as burgers, that may be more of a problem in an over-fired environment. Units with a high Btu rating offer the same searing effect as over-fired units, but at a higher energy consumption level. Under-fired units can accommodate a variety of products, so choosing the proper size can be a challenge. Built-in salamanders on some models can be used for browning, warming or melting cheese, offering additional flexibility.
One common mistake in specifying broilers is not having a good sense of the menu mix before choosing a model. If operators underestimate the amount of meat that culinary staff will prepare on the unit, kitchen backups will result and negatively impact speed of service. By properly predicting how much product will potentially be on the broiler at one time, operators can get a better sense of what size and type of unit will work best.
Other factors that impact the broiler type and size include whether the meat will be frozen or fresh, the size of the food being cooked, the cut of meat and the fat content.
In addition to extreme temperatures that can reach up to 700 degrees F, broilers also are exposed to marinades, seasonings and sauces with sodium and other ingredients that can be highly corrosive over time. Operators broiling heavily sauced or seasoned food at high temperatures should consider a broiler with heavier gauge metal and welds as opposed to fasteners, which can help extend the unit's service life.
The cost of running the broiler also is a consideration. Although there is now a wide variety of energy-efficient cooking equipment available, broilers have a heavy Btu rating and do not fall into this category. Most units have standing pilots with flames burning constantly at 20 Btus per hour. The more burners, the more costly the broiler will be to operate.
When specifying broilers, hood space also represents a consideration operators should not overlook, since this equipment requires additional ventilation. Operators need to keep this in mind when looking at the kitchen layout and equipment placement.
It's also necessary to consider capacity versus available floor space. Broilers typically work off of a 12-inch platform, with 24-, 36-, 48- and 60-inch models most common. Restaurants with a heavily broiled menu will need at least a 60-inch size, while an average operation generally can use a 36-inch unit. Under-fired models run as small as 18 inches for more limited menus or low-volume restaurants.
Due to fire risks with grease flares, managing heat and temperature are important considerations when broiling. For operations with less experienced kitchen staff, units with water supply systems or refillable water reservoirs are recommended to help control grease and flare ups in addition to reducing smoke and enhancing broiling control.
Operators can choose from a variety of formats, depending on whether the broiler is free-standing or a countertop type. Floor models offer insulated bases, while counter types can work with refrigerated or freezer bases to help minimize steps in the kitchen. Broilers used on top of this equipment should have proper insulation so as not to project heat downward, which can damage the other equipment. Lower profile under-fired broilers also are available to match the height of other equipment.
In terms of heating elements, operators can choose from either radiants, ceramic briquettes or lava rock. Radiants are made of either cast iron or a stainless tubular steel burner and are designed to burn cleanly at a lower temperature than briquettes. The heavier the radiant, the more thermal inertia the broiler will have. This means that cast iron radiants, which have a higher metal mass, will hold in more meat and have a longer service life than its stainless steel counterpart.
Ceramic briquettes and lava rock create even heat and provide a different taste profile than radiants. These heating elements burn hotter, but because briquettes and rocks soak up meat drippings, more maintenance is typically required. In addition, briquettes need to be installed correctly and replaced at least annually.
Operators commonly purchase ceramic briquettes without understanding the maintenance requirements and consumable aspect of these heating elements. Foodservice operators must take the necessary steps to keep these units in reasonable shape so the broilers work effectively and minimize fire flare ups.
The environment also is a consideration when specifying a broiler. Units exposed to sea air or other corrosive environmental factors may require stainless steel burners. Those looking for display cooking attributes that provide more theater would be better served by lava rocks.
Operators should take into account the mass of the broiler top casting, which absorbs the unit's heat. It can take up to 40 minutes to reach equilibrium. Temperatures should be consistently more than 550 degrees F, but not more than 700 degrees F.
Surface temperatures typically vary by location with these units. For example, the broiler's edges can be 100 degrees F cooler than the center. This may be suitable for operators cooking multiple products with different temperature or cooking time requirements, but can slow down production for items with the same needs. Units are available with reduced temperature variances, which can help provide greater cooking consistency.
Some units come with high output options. A common misnomer is that more broiler power is better. This depends on the menu item. Broilers that provide more Btus don't necessarily work faster, because the inside of a product still needs to be cooked before the outside.
High-volume operations will require durable units that include corrosion-resistant grease drawers, valves located far from the box and designs with fewer moving parts.
Restaurants looking to impart a smoked flavor to meats can add a smoker box that slides on top of the water tub as an option. This enables operators to cook with gas, but also utilize wood chips, chunks or logs that give off a smoked profile as a flavor enhancement.
Some broiler models now include elevated grates that change the distance of food items from the heat source. Keyhole adjustment systems are available with some units that provide easy grate repositioning that doesn't require unscrewing. These grates can be more easily lifted up and pulled out.
Foodservice operators can choose from hundreds of broiler grate options. And deciding which design is best depends on the food being prepared as well as the operator's marking preference.
The style of grates can help manage grease. For example, grates that are square on the top and rounded at the bottom create an edge that can better control grease flare ups. Creating an angle and utilizing gravity forces grease to roll to the bottom of the grate. The rounded edge helps move grease to the front of the unit and into the grease trough.
The spacing between the rods impacts the amount of surface area of the product being cooked. If an operation has a menu heavy on chicken breasts, wider spacing would be indicated to produce less sticking.
If more sear marks are the goal, grate rod spacing would be closer together. Operators also can choose from other grate designs for unique markings, such as those with a waffle or diamond shape. This will produce squares as opposed to lines.
Free-floating round rods allow for greater expansion and contraction of the metal when high temperatures are used consistently.