Through a Glass Brightly
By Lisa Readie Mayer
If you’re looking, you’re not cooking.
That’s one of the essential tenets of outdoor cooking. But, as anyone who has ever charred their chicken dinner knows, resisting the temptation to lift the grill lid is easier said than done. It’s downright difficult to monitor the grill and check the progress of the food without allowing heat to escape and messing up cooking times by sneaking a peek under the hood.
Incorporating a window in the grill hood would, ostensibly, be a practical way to solve that problem.
“A window makes sense and seems like it would be worthwhile,” says Max Good, vice president and director of Equipment Reviews for the barbecue website AmazingRibs.com, and owner of Black Swan Gourmet BBQ Sauces. “You’d think it would be more popular than it is.”
It once was. In the 1980s and 1990s, windows in barbecue grills were quite common, according to Karen Elder, Marketing and Global Product manager for the NEXTREMA BBQ line of glass made by SCHOTT North America. Unfortunately, while the windows were innovative and practical, they were plagued with issues. Their heyday was short-lived and the practice was shelved.
|NEXTREMA BBQ line of glass made by SCHOTT North America.|
According to Elder, the glass used in those first-generation windows would lose tempering in the high and uneven heat environment of a grill, and frequently shatter due to thermal shock. Another problem, says Elder, was that susceptibility to thermal shock increased with the size of the glass panel, which severely limited the size of the windows.
“The early windows were very small and became obscured quickly from grease and smoke,” says Jerry Scott, senior vice president at R H Peterson Co., manufacturers of Fire Magic and AOG grills. “At that time, the only illumination in the grill interior was from the burner flames, so there was not enough light to see inside. The windows weren’t of much use.”
Now, many of those former issues have been resolved thanks to the advent of glass-ceramic materials and interior grill-lighting. Glass-ceramic combines the transparency and nonporous attributes of glass, with ceramics’ ability to withstand high temperatures and resist thermal expansion and contraction.
“Glass-ceramic is much more durable, has great stability in extreme temperatures, and allows a very large window,” says Elder. “It’s the same kind of material that has been used in fireplaces and stoves for years.”
Despite the dramatic improvements, SCHOTT has faced “a big learning curve” since reintroducing the concept of window panels in grills. “We first have to educate manufacturers’ R&D people and dispel the memories of the poor-performing windows from years ago,” Elder says. “Once we convince them, we then have to educate manufacturers’ management about the benefits of incorporating a window.”
To help with that effort, SCHOTT commissioned a consumer research study and focus groups to get a read on attitudes and opinions regarding grill windows. The survey of 400 experienced outdoor cooks, who had each spent an average of $1,000 on their grills, showed 70% considered the window an appealing feature, 64% preferred a grill with a window over one without, and 31% believed a window would improve the overall barbecue experience.
Consumers’ number-one perceived benefit was that a window would allow them to monitor food, catch flare-ups, and “avoid overcooking food before it’s ruined.” According to Elder, the study’s participants indicated they would be willing to pay about $140 more for a window feature.
“The window is a very desirable and functional feature for consumers,” says Elder. “People have anxiety over flare-ups. When they’ve just spent $30 or more on meat, they don’t want to ruin it.”
Grills with Vision
For several years, R H Peterson Co. has offered consumers the option of adding a window on Fire Magic grills (windows are not available on the AOG line). “With the improved glass and the advent of interior grill lighting, it made much more sense,” Scott says. However, initially it wasn’t easy for the manufacturer to convince its distributors and dealers, let alone consumers, of the viability of the concept.
“We had to send grills to our distributors to try, but once they did, they were as enthusiastic as we were,” says Scott.
Today, he estimates nearly 30% of grills are ordered with windows on models where they are available, and the trend is growing every year. The window adds a $550 premium to the grill price.
“It’s quite a jump,” he says, “but consumers seem to want it. About 80% of our grills are built into outdoor kitchens, so when people are making that kind of big investment, it’s a relatively minor upcharge in the grand scheme of things.”
The Australian-based manufacturer of Fervor Grills incorporates a full-width window as a standard feature in all its grills, without added cost. The glass is backed with a 25-year warranty against breaking, leaking or discoloring, according to Rick Baker, brand manager for Alfresco Home, the U.S. distributor of Fervor Grills. “The window just makes sense,” he says. “In Australia, many consumers will not even consider a barbecue grill without a window.”
Are there any downsides to a grill window?
According to the experts, the most common question from consumers is, “what about maintenance?”
Fervor Grills positions the window high up in the grill hood, away from the most intense heat and cooking splatters, minimizing grease and smoke build-up from the get-go. It also incorporates a proprietary, patent-pending “Self Cleaning System” (SCS), similar to the self-cleaning feature on an indoor oven. Baker says a sponge with dishwashing detergent and warm water is enough to wipe away most splatters, but the SCS cleaning feature can be used for tough stains.
According to Elder, a periodic cleaning of the window with barbecue cleaner, or a grease-cutting detergent such as Simple Green or Dawn, is the best way to keep residue at bay. Jerry Scott says that the rounded hood design of Fire Magic grills helps to circulate air past the window, creating an “airbrush effect” to prevent clouding from grease and smoke.
|L to R: Gourmet 257 and Continental 83 from Hasty-Bake.|
Hasty-Bake positions its window at the topmost section of the extra-tall hoods on its Continental, Gourmet and Fiesta models, and recommends using a degreaser and a razor, if necessary, for cleaning.
Max Good points out that using a digital, remote thermometer to continually monitor the interior temperature of meat during cooking and signal when done, might lessen or even negate the need for a grill window. But Elder contends that the two have different functions. “A thermometer can help prevent over- or undercooking of meat, but it doesn’t tell you if there is a flare-up or if the meat is getting too charred,” she says. “They are most effective when used in tandem.”
Elder says SCHOTT is currently working on projects with several manufacturers and expects to see a lot more grills with window panels on the market in the next one to three years. In addition, she said the company is also introducing other ways to incorporate glass-ceramic in grills. One involves positioning curved, glass-ceramic panels over each individual burner as an alternative to metal heat diffusers and deflectors.
“The glass-ceramic panels can withstand greater temperatures than metal, and they are non-porous and self-cleaning,” Elder says. “Another benefit is that you can see the burner flames through the glass, so it relieves the anxiety consumers have over whether the grill is lit. You can also visually see the flames respond when you turn the knob to adjust the temperature from high to low.”
Retailers are starting to warm up to the concept of grill windows, according to Elder. “Dealers say grills with windows draw attention on the sales floor and differentiate them from other grills in the marketplace.”
Baker adds that the success of the window feature comes down to proper training of the sales staff. According to Baker, if the salespeople are educated about the window and point out the benefits to consumers along with a grill’s other smart features and unique design, consumers will buy. “Wouldn’t you want the newest model?” he says.
“I’ve had a grill with a window for years, and I love it, particularly when I’m using the rotisserie,” says Scott. “Now I wouldn’t have a grill without one. I think the trend will grow industry-wide as consumers become more aware of the benefits of a window.”
“At the very least,” says Good, “it might be worth taking another look at the subject and asking customers, ‘what do you think?’”