A couple of months ago, I bought a new grill.
I LOVE it. But I also HATE it.
To me, grills are like running shoes. New shoes look pristine, don’t have worn-down treads or frayed laces and sometimes have enhancements over your old shoes like “moisture wicking technology.” But those old shoes are, well, like an extension of your foot. They’re broken in, comfortable beyond belief, and you know how they perform, for better or for worse.
My new grill is a thing of beauty. I didn’t opt for the super expensive model or any of the high-end features like a rotisserie or the searing burner. I’m a “middle of the line” kind of guy. But when I found myself in a triple discount situation (weekend sale + coupon + Internet price match), I opted for a few extra bells and whistles like the stainless grates and the natural gas conversion kit. But, like a new pair of shoes, my new grill just isn’t the same as my old grill. As quirky as it was, I knew exactly where on the grates of my old grill to put my steak to get a perfect sear every time. My old grill had really hot spots and really not-so-warm spots. My new grill has hot spots and hotter spots. But I haven’t figured out where they are—until today!
This morning, I went out and purchased a handy calibration device that tells me exactly where the hot spots are in my new grill. It’s amazing. In fact, it has a retina-quality display that gives me a visual heat map of the cooking surface. And I paid less than $2 for it! So what’s the name of this wonderful device and where can you get one? Drum roll please… it’s a loaf of bread from Target.
Thanks to a scientific principle known as the Maillard Reaction, when bread gets hot, it starts to brown and turns into toast. As it continues to cook, it continues to darken. And then it eventually burns.
With this in mind, I was able to plop sixteen slices of bread across my hot grill, leave them there, each for equal amounts of time, pull them off and reassemble them on my countertop into a mosaic-like heat map of the cooking surface.
My grill has four burners, spaced evenly left to right. As you can see from the above picture the very front and very back of the grill tend to be cool spots. The very center of the grill is definitely the hottest, which makes scientific sense since it’s the closest point to all four burners. Most interesting to me, though, is the fact that the left quadrant of this photo (which is actually the right side of my grill because the map ends up being a flipped image of your grill surface-see bullet 3 below) is darker than the right. This seems to indicate one side of my grill is hotter than the other. I suppose it could also mean that I left the bread on that side longer (see bullet 2 below), but I’ve always had a hunch that the right side of my grill (which is the left side of this image) burns hotter. This may very well be because of the way the natural gas is fed into the grill (from the right hand side), though it’s more likely that the right-most burner is calibrated to burn a little hotter. (I happen to know from looking at the schematic of the burners, that inside each control dial there are tiny screws that Sears uses to calibrate how hot the burners are supposed to burn.)
If you want to try this test on your own grill, here are a few things you should know:
- I decided to conduct my test using a preheated grill and burners set to high because that’s how I usually cook my food. However, you might get more color variation (and have more time to put the slices on the grates and pull them off) if you keep your burners on a lower setting and don’t preheat the grill.
- The key to getting accurate results is to ensure that each piece of bread stays on the grill for the same amount of time. This is quite difficult to do because the bread toasts in fewer than 90 seconds and it takes at least 30 to get all 16 slices of bread on the grill. I was able to load and unload the bread at an even clip by; (a) removing my bread from the bag beforehand and stacking it beside my grill; (b) using a steady and even pace to put the slices on my grill and a similar pace to remove the slices and; (c) use a stopwatch to understand the elapsed time between putting the first slice on and taking the first slice off (which should be the same elapsed time between putting the last slice on and taking it off).
- When you remove the bread, you actually want to reassemble it as an image flipped horizontally. The picture you see above actually shows you a heat map of the grill as if you were lying on top of the burners looking up at the bread as it toasts. When I removed the bread, I took the top right-most piece and put it down on the top left of the counter and the bottom left-most piece and put it on the bottom right-most corner of the counter. It’s basically like turning a page in a book.
And the bonus of all this work is that at the end of the measurement process, my high-tech tool goes quite well with a few slices of tomato, a few strips of bacon, some lettuce and a schmear of mayo!