Spec Check: Grills

Meats tend to be the priciest food items used in foodservice, which makes the equipment that prepares them an integral part of any operation.

Spec-Check-GrillsA number of restaurant operators center signature dishes around grills, which produce results that are unique from any other piece of equipment.

Also known as char broilers, these units provide consistent cooking for a variety of items, but operators most commonly use them with meat and fish. Foods with a heavy marinade or sauce do well on grills, as the smoke imparts a distinct flavor profile. This convection cooking process utilizes a dry, hot air stream that pulls moisture away from the food.

Although available in electric models, too, gas represents the most common grill type used. Countertop units account for the majority of electric grills in use. Foodservice operators can choose among light-, medium- and heavy-duty units.

Size is an important factor to consider when specifying grills, which come in 1-foot increments, ranging from 12 inches up to 72 inches in size. The majority of operators utilize 24-inch grills.

One common mistake operators make is not looking at the equipment size in relation to the user's reach. Because unit heights can hinder accessibility for some users, especially when placing the equipment on a base or counter, size represents an important consideration.

Operators should review menu, portion sizes and approximate volume to help ensure specification of the proper grill sizes.

Doing so also ensures the grill will properly support the operation's production process. The number of seats and percentage of grilled menu items will help determine the grill size.

When choosing a grill, operators should specify a unit that provides only the necessary amount of heat, not more, to help manage operation costs. While heavy-duty grills can burn between 18,000 and 20,000 Btus every 6 inches, entry-level units provide 15,000 Btus in the same amount of space.

When specifying grills, operators should verify the gas pressure the unit requires and what is available in the kitchen. Improper gas pressure represents one of the most frequent causes of equipment failure and can significantly shorten a unit's service life. In addition, unit performance depends on correct gas pressure and burner adjustment. When sharing a common gas line, do not starve the grills of gas.

Another common mistake to avoid when specifying a grill is opting for a high output burner with the hopes of speeding production. Greater power does not always equal increased speed.

Burner configurations vary, ranging from as few as two and as many as 14. Generally speaking, grills tend to have one burner for every 6- to 12-inch width of cooking grate area. Cooking temperatures typically range between 450 degrees F and 850 degrees F. The amount of gas used has no correlation to the efficiency and effectiveness of the unit.

After determining the core menu, it is time to examine grill capacity in relation to Btus – a key step for operations that include a large number of broiled food items. Another consideration is the type of cooking loads that the grill will need to accommodate. Grills used for batch cooking, or shorter periods of high-volume use, will need a larger cooking space with more burners than those used for a la carte service, which provides a steadier stream of cooked-to-order items.

Although they typically feature cast iron construction, grates can take on a variety of shapes, such as round and rolling, round and fixed or diamond-shaped. Versatile meats like hamburger and steak do well on all types of grates. Rod grates provide a fine contact area with narrow ribs for delicate items, like fish, that need more stability. For a more limited contact area, consider specifying a diamond grate.

Some cast iron grates are reversible and may have a light rib on one side with a grease trough. Consider this type of grate for use with heavy, grease-laden items, like frozen hamburgers, to help control the drippings. Grills with tighter cooking profiles across the grate will offer more consistent cooking times.

Foodservice operators can choose from a variety of heating element options and need to determine which one best serves their menu. The main types of heating elements are cast iron or stainless steel radiants and lava rock or ceramic stone. Operators tend to use the latter in exhibition cooking. A small number of infrared heated grills include a glass surface protecting the burners, located below the cooking surface.

Because grills can be maintenance intensive, and some models require more attention than others, operators should take into account the cleaning requirements of the unit. Grills that provide a spatula-wide grease trough and tandem grease drawers are easier to clean.

Heating elements have different maintenance requirements that can impact the time and labor needed for cleaning. Lava rock and briquette grills can be more difficult to clean than radiant models, and stainless steel radiants are easier to clean than cast iron.

Grills require proper ventilation, a factor operators can't overlook when making a purchasing decision. In terms of exhaust requirements, drop in models range from 900 to 1,200 cubic feet per minute. Plan kitchen layouts in conjunction with HVAC professionals to ensure installation of the proper system.

Before choosing a grill, foodservice operators should determine where and how staff will use the equipment. Is a floor or tabletop unit appropriate? Will a refrigerated base be necessary for additional storage? While some units require legs to deflect heat, others have built-in heat deflectors. Sectional units accommodate shelves, flue risers, spreader cabinets, support frames and other accessories.

Because these units operate at very high temperatures, the metal on the outside can get extremely hot. Grills that have insulated cabinets hold in more heat and keep the unit's exterior from projecting high temperatures that can damage nearby equipment. This type of unit should be considered for operations with smaller footprints or when refrigerated bases will be below.

These bases can help reduce staff steps in the kitchen by locating meats for grilling directly under the cooking units. Foodservice operators can choose from a variety of base and stand heights for both countertop and floor grills. This equipment should be compatible and designed for pairing, since the heat from grills can burn through refrigerator compressors.

Grill Safety Considerations

Proper cleaning plays an integral role in grill safety. Certain situations can cause significant damage to equipment and endanger staff members. For example, empty water pans can cause dangerous fire flare ups. Excessive food debris and grease on these units also represent fire hazards that operators should strive to avoid.

Due to these dangers, cleaning and maintenance should be a priority. Staff should scrape grates with a coarse steel brush throughout the day. To prevent food from sticking on the grates, staff should brush the cooking surface with oil.

Routinely turn lava rocks to ensure debris burns off during cooking and replace them every six to 12 months. Change the radiants once or twice annually.

Comparing Grill Heating Elements

Grills offer either radiant or lava rock heating elements for a variety of applications. There are advantages and disadvantages for each type. This breakdown provides the details needed to properly specify the appropriate unit.


Radiant grills provide consistent cooking with a predictable surface. Sometimes described as a campfire in a box, these elements pull heat to the middle of the unit, creating hot spots that taper to the outer edges. Depending on the unit, there can be as much as a 400-degree F difference from the grill's center hot spot to the actual cooking area.

Radiants are available in either cast iron, which is the most commonly specified, or heavy gauge stainless steel. With grills, air flowing through can impact the heated area, but this is not a factor with stainless steel radiants.

Cast iron holds more heat than stainless steel, but takes longer to heat up. Stainless steel is more affordable than cast iron, but warps easier and needs to be replaced more often.

Radiant grills don't require as much maintenance as lava rock units, since food debris tends to burn off during use. This can substantially reduce the time and effort needed for cleaning, a labor-intensive task with grills.

Not only are radiant grills easy to use, but these heating elements are simple to replace when they crack or wear out. For busy operators that can't afford the downtime, this is a big benefit.

Heavy-duty cast iron radiants retain heat more than stainless, and can get up to between 800 degrees F and 1000 degrees F.

Lava Rock

Geared for exhibition cooking, lava rock, also called briquettes, and ceramic stone heating elements are not as widely used as radiants due to the extensive maintenance these grills require.

Lava rocks are loose volcanic stone used often in exhibition cooking, while ceramic stones are shaped like charcoal briquettes and have a uniform density.

These materials vary in size. While more even and symmetrical across the grate, ceramic stones do not absorb as much heat. The temperature consistency depends on the layout of the stones.

Because it imparts more flavor, some operators prefer lava rock over ceramic stones. The rocks absorb the food debris that falls onto them, delivering a unique flavor into the item being cooked.

While lava rock grills cost less than radiant models, the cooking process can vary in consistency, depending on the unit's surface type.

Unlike radiant units, lava rock grills require ongoing maintenance. These heating elements need attention and replacement regularly for optimal grill performance.

Related Articles