If there’s one sure sign of summer, it’s the sight of smoke rising and smell of food cooking from backyard grills. Grilling, in its most basic form, is as old as humans’ taming of fire. The concept of having structures hold food above the flames came along later.
Today, flame grilling is a method used by a number of restaurant operators to provide a particular taste that differentiates them from their competitors.
“The taste of food that is grilled is unique,” says David Bruno, a chef and associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “It has a charred, somewhat smoky flavor that is difficult to match.”
Although some backyard-cooking aficionados may refer to grilling as “barbecuing,” there are huge differences between the two. Grilling refers to using direct heat, usually from charcoal or gas under metal grates, to cook quickly. The smoky flavor can come from charcoal, wood chips, or the juices dripping from the food to the heating source below, causing flames to flare up. Barbecuing, on the other hand, typically refers to slow cooking through indirect heat, traditionally from burning wood, although charcoal or gas is used at times.
Some chefs and operators apply the term grilling to other high-heat cooking methods, including the use of griddle-type equipment such as flattops and grill plates, which are pans with raised ridges to mimic grilling’s hash marks. However, the resulting taste and aroma are quite different than open-flame grilling.
“When you cook food on the flattop, it’s never quite the same finish as when you cook on your backyard grill,” says Dan Morgenstern, vice president of marketing at Firewürst, a three-unit sausage, burger, and hot dog chain founded by his father and brother in Cary, North Carolina. “The flames caramelize the meat, you have those sear lines, and it’s just a great feature. It’s the way sausages, hot dogs, and burgers should be cooked.”
Broiling, which in America is cooking with high heat from above, also may provide a char. But devices such as char broilers, despite the second part of their name, are actually grills because the heat comes from under the grates.
“When we say ‘grilled,’ we’re really talking about the characteristic results and the method,” Bruno says. “One of the characteristics is the marks, with the seizing of food on hot grates. Then there is that smokiness, both the flavor and aroma.”
In some ways, grilling is perceived to be healthier, in part because the fats drip away from the proteins, resulting in a leaner, cleaner product. At the same time, there are some health concerns about cooking over high heat and with smoke.
Bruno says grilling is best for tender proteins—various types of burgers, hot dogs, sausages, chicken breasts, fish, and shellfish—as well as high-moisture vegetables, such as onions, bell peppers, and corn.
Hamburgers are the most popular grilling items, and that shows up on the restaurant grilling side as well, with burger restaurant operations carrying names such as Back Yard Burgers, Cook-Out Restaurants, and Char-Grill.
Some big companies, including Burger King, Carl’s Jr., and Hardee’s, use flame-grilling machines that send meat along a conveyor-belt device with top and bottom burners. Hardee’s original style of cooking, however, featured burgers that were “charco-broiled,” a process that employed heated “char rocks.” The fat from the beef would drip down to create smoke and help create the burger’s taste profile.
Char rocks, similar to lava rocks and ceramic briquettes, serve as a barrier to provide more even heat and help keep the grease away from the heating elements or burners. Hardee’s originally was based in eastern North Carolina, and some other restaurants in that region do a similar style of cooking. Char-Grill, based in Raleigh, has been around since 1960, and the 10-unit chain still cooks its burgers and chicken on grills, using natural gas heat with char rocks.
“We thought it was a unique thing,” says Mahlon Aycock, who has been a co-owner since 1975. “You get that charcoal-grilled-like flavor that can’t be matched.”
About 80 percent of the company’s business is grilled fresh beef burgers and chicken. Hot dogs are typically cooked on a flattop, but “if someone wants a grilled one, we’ll fix it that way,” he says.
On the West Coast, Habit Burger is using gas-induced fire grilling to cook its custom Charburgers, as well as marinated chicken breast, tri tip steak, and fresh, sushi-grade albacore tuna steaks with a teriyaki glaze.
“We have the grill at 550–600 degrees to cook the protein,” says Adam Baird, food and beverage vice president at the 90-unit, Irvine, California–based fast-casual chain. “The idea we have is high heat caramelizes the product and marks it very well, so it gets this smoky, fresh-grilled meat effect.” The char broilers employ lava rocks or ceramic briquettes, depending on the store, to intensify the heat.
Baird says the proteins being cooked on the grill are generally quite lean, and they are also fresh so they don’t carry any excess water from freezing. That means there’s not a lot of moisture to create an excess amount of smoke during cooking. “We call it ‘lightly smoky, well seasoned,’” he says. The cook time for 3.2-ounce burgers is generally no more than five minutes, and orders usually are completed within seven minutes. Vegetables and a veggie burger are cooked on a flattop, in part to prevent cross-contamination with the meat.
Burgers are the newest items at Firewürst, which has been offering fire-grilled sausages and hot dogs since opening in late 2012. Sausages are in the family’s blood, dating to the Morgensterns’ ancestors emigrating from Romania several generations ago. The chain offers seven kinds of links, including bratwurst, sweet and spicy chicken, kielbasa, and sweet and hot Italian.
There are also 10 all-beef hot dogs, including a Reuben sandwich–like version and regional favorites like Chicago and Coney Island dogs. The Angus burgers were added early this year to eliminate the veto vote, Morgenstern says.
Operating a fire grill is “no more difficult than a flattop grill,” he adds. “Everything presents its own challenges.”
Cooking with fire is nothing unusual in North Carolina, which has a history with barbecue, particularly using wood coals. The same is true in Texas, where one part of that state’s flame-cooking history is the image of cowboys around wood fires on the range. That is the spirit behind Dallas-based Cowboy Chicken, which specializes in wood-fired rotisserie chicken.