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Everything but the smoke

And if you're grilling indoors, that's a good thing. Go on -- sear without fear.

June 18, 2003|Susan LaTempa | Special to The Times

ON the face of it, indoor grilling is just a silly idea. Real grilling is about heat and smoke -- and nobody sets out to smoke up the kitchen, setting off alarms and creating a kind of domestic ecological disaster.

But as silly as it may seem, home cooks -- especially those with no backyard or deck to accommodate the real thing -- keep trying to approximate grilling in the kitchen. And appliance manufacturers are ready to serve them with gadgets that promise to accomplish wonders.

Now, there's yet another wave of indoor grills. With all of them comes a distinct compromise: They create little or none of the characteristic smokiness, but they do provide an attractive char and flavor closer to grilling than a home broiler could ever achieve.

We tested four electric countertop grills ranging in price from $40 to $100. They were all about the same size, 20 inches by 11 inches, just big enough to handle four sirloin steaks. All were attractive enough to leave out on the counter, and small enough to store in a cupboard.

They all had the same open design -- more like an outdoor grill than the hinged wafflemaker-style models that are also popular now. The open design doesn't trap moisture and steam, making it more likely you'll get a good charred crust.

The main difference among the grills we tested is the heat source. Three models -- by Hamilton Beach, Toastmaster and DeLonghi -- have heating elements embedded in the nonstick grill tops. This means the heat is applied directly through the metal grid to the food while the fat drains into a cool pan below. There's virtually no smoke.

The fourth -- made by Krups -- employs a slightly different technique. The heating element is attached to the grill top but isn't embedded inside the bars. This allows fat to hit the heating element -- which creates smoke and some smoke flavor, but a minimal amount of both compared to outdoor grills.

We tested the grills by cooking vegetables, salmon and steak on each. Each was preheated for 10 minutes on the highest setting.

The salmon was an inch thick, the bone-in sirloin steak 2 to 3 inches thick. These were hefty pieces of fish and meat and the grills had the necessary heat. We found that they heated to an average of about 400 to 450 degrees at the surface, with variations of up to 100 degrees from one part of the grill-top to another in some cases.

At first, though, it seemed as if the grills were wimping out because there was no noise or spattering. But in fact they were browning beautifully -- without the usual flame and sizzle and almost none of the smoke. (Still, it is a good idea to use them near an exhaust fan.)

Each grill cooked quickly, produced impressive grill marks and created a pleasing crunch on the surface of the food. (A tip: We had planned to cook the vegetables on skewers but quickly realized we'd get better charring by cooking the thick slices of zucchini and peppers flat.)

The Hamilton Beach emerged as the favorite during the vegetable and fish portion of the trial because the results were as good (or better) than the more expensive models. It was quiet, with no spatter, and although the heat was uneven across the grill top, that allowed us to move thinner slices to a cooler section, which was intuitive for outdoor grillers. It is the smallest, simplest model, with no unnecessary parts.

But as we moved to the meat, our tasters found that only the steak cooked on the Krups grill had a true smoky flavor (and a mild one compared to outdoor grills). For the beef lovers, the Krups was the winner.

Grilling, not roasting

Everyone agreed that there's a benefit with all these grills that many cooks will enjoy: Broiling in the typical kitchen's oven, even with the door wide open, is always going to impart something of a roasted texture.

These new gadgets are clearly a step away from that broiler and a step toward the outdoor grill. All the food we grilled was charred on the outside and still juicy on the inside, something most broilers could never accomplish.

Cleaning the three models with embedded heating elements was easy. The grills and the pans were small enough to fit into the sink and in some cases were dishwasher safe. The grill coatings washed up grease-free. The Krups grill, on the other hand, was difficult to clean, even though it has a pull-out pan. We never did succeed in removing residue from the grill crevices.

In the end, the portable electric grills didn't win over barbecued-meat lovers looking for an intense smoke flavor and a four-alarm char, but it was hard not to be impressed that such convenient little grills could produce such good results.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

First at the finishing lines

What's the difference: Attention to details counts when an appliance is so simple. The Hamilton Beach "Portfolio" not only performed well in our cooking tests but also has an informative instruction booklet, a dishwasher-safe top and bottom, a grill top that lifts with handles and a grounded plug.

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