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.
“We use a blend of hickory and other woods to add flavor,” says Sean Kennedy, president of the nine-unit chain. Unlike most open-grill cooking, which is quick, it takes at least two hours for birds to cook on the rotisserie. The chain uses a proprietary seasoning and lets fire do the rest.
“The flavor of the wood is important, but mostly that is in the smokiness,” Kennedy says. “It’s not a deep smoke flavor like a barbecue or smoker, but enough to make a difference.”
All kinds of foods can be cooked using flame grilling—even pizza. Ken Reinstrom, who runs the Byrne’s Grilled Pizza food truck in Indianapolis, cooks his gourmet pizzas over propane.
“You get a light, cracker-like crust and really nicely steamed toppings,” he says.
Cooking on an open grill is also part and parcel with many ethnic styles of cooking, including Mexican, where meat and vegetables are often roasted over flames. Baja Fresh Mexican Grill still cooks this way.
“There is a lot of grilling in the Mexican culture and using open flames,” says Roberto Lopez, director of product development for Baja Fresh. “I think it has an advantage of a clean but smoky flavor.” There is no oil put on the food, so “it is so much lighter and provides a unique taste,” he says.
Cooking over natural gas flames does provide a challenge to the cooks at the California-based chain’s 200 restaurants. They need to make sure the steak is just a bit pink, and that the chicken tenders, fish, shrimp, and vegetables are cooked but not dried out.
“There is really an expertise in this grilling that our cooks have to learn,” says Jerry de Lucia, director of marketing for Baja Fresh. “They have to be trained over time.”
Vegetables cooked for fajitas—peppers, chilies, and onions—are fire grilled, sliced, and later heated before going into the entrée. These and other veggies are used in salsas.
Many Mediterranean dishes are also cooked over fire, and the charred flavors that come from cooking have been part of the preparation at Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill.
“Some of the thinking is that the open flame is more authentic to the flavors of that region—slightly smoky, slightly charred,” says Marci Levine, corporate chef at the 28-unit, Denver-based chain.
However, this grilling process, using natural gas flames, is not included at the company’s newer restaurants because flattop grills offer more versatility.
“As we grow and our menu grows, we are looking to accommodate other core items without changing equipment,” Levine says. “We have a very small line, and we need to make the most of every piece of equipment and every inch of space.”
Another restaurant company that is eliminating char grilling at its newer restaurants is Fatburger, the Santa Monica, California–based burger chain with 115 locations. Historically, the stores offered burgers cooked on the flattop or char grill. Today, most of the burgers are made on the flattop, while charred burgers are a secret menu item.
“We call it The Char,” says James Newell, vice president of operations, of the flame-grilled version. “It’s a much different burger. It can be a little dryer, but if you cook it right, you get a good sear at the higher heat, and the fat drops off and out of the way.”
Still, the window for error is small and is a reason char grills aren’t in new units. Additionally, the grill is a “gas hog, and we have to be respectful of the environment and the cost for franchisees,” Newell says.
Still, many restaurants are willing to put up with that due to the taste grilling provides.
“Our specialty is charbroiled,” says Jesus Guzman, quality control manager at eight-unit California Fish Grill, referring to the company’s grilling process that has lava rocks between the natural gas flames and the metal grate. “Sixty percent of our meats are cooked that way.”
Grilled chicken is also available at California Fish Grill, along with fried fish, salads, tacos, and more. There is also grilled zucchini.
“The most popular item is the charred salmon, followed by white fish,” Guzman says. The grilled items are available plain or with Cajun seasoning that is brushed on and seared in by grilling. Garlic butter can be added after cooking.
“It does take a little more attention to cook this way, but it’s worth it,” he says.