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Testing Smokeless Grills

By Miye Bromberg Published

Are smokeless grills truly smokeless, or do they just smoke less?

Update, March 2020

Our top-rated smokeless grill from Krups has been discontinued. Because we can only recommend the next-best option with reservations, we recommend our favorite grill pan, the Lodge Square Grill Pan, for grilling indoors.

Don’t have a yard? Weather not cooperating? Smokeless grills promise to let you bring the cookout indoors, allowing you to grill in the comfort of your own kitchen—without setting off the smoke alarm. These electric grills claim to eliminate or reduce the smoke generated when searing food, supposedly by using infrared heating elements, specially angled fans, and/or water pans. Some also come with griddle plates that can be substituted for the grill grates, so you can also use these gadgets to make pancakes or panini. More and more of these grills have been introduced to the market in the last few years, and we wanted to know whether any were worth buying. So we bought five models, priced from about $50 to about $220, and used them to grill asparagus spears, steaks, and burgers, comparing the results to the same foods cooked in our favorite cast-iron grill pan.

While the smokeless grills did generate slightly less smoke than our favorite grill pan (right), most were far from smoke-free, as the model on the left shows.

Smoke Reduction Comes at the Expense of Flavor

As we soon found out, none of these smokeless grills eliminated smoke entirely. In fact, we’re not sure that any of the smoke-reducing features that the grills boast actually did much at all. Foods grilled on two of the models we tested did produce significantly less smoke than the same foods when cooked in the grill pan, but that was only because the grates of these smokeless grills didn’t get or stay hot enough to sear the foods. When we tried to heat these grills to a high temperature of 450 degrees, one model topped out at about 390 degrees while another only reached 430 degrees in a few isolated spots. Foods barely even sizzled on these two grills, and the results were insipid: steaks and asparagus spears that were only lightly browned and burgers that looked more steamed than grilled. 

The other three grills we tested performed better. With grates that heated to at least 450 degrees, and often much higher, these models did a decent job of searing foods. And in general, foods cooked on these grills generated less smoke than the same foods cooked in the grill pan, which we also heated to 450 degrees during high-heat cooking applications for comparison’s sake. But the hotter the grill surfaces got, the more smoke they produced.

Foods made in our favorite grill pan (left) had distinct "grill" marks and tasted grilled. Food made on the smokeless grills (right) generally lacked deep charring and proper grill flavor.

That said, foods cooked in the grill pan looked and tasted much better than those cooked on the smokeless grills. Most of the smokeless grill grates are made from thin cast aluminum, while the grill pans are made from thick cast iron which retained far more heat than the smokeless grill grates. Because of its superior heat retention, the grill pan’s surface temperature rebounded quickly when we added food. As a result, food seared better, creating good char and intense grill flavor, and in much less time: Asparagus, for example, took about 7 minutes to cook on the grill pan and charred better than the asparagus cooked on any of the smokeless grills, which took almost twice as long on average.

The More Surface Area, the Better

Performance concerns aside, a few factors made some of the smokeless grills easier to use than others. First, we preferred grills that provided an ample amount of cooking space, big enough to accommodate a large flank steak. Our favorite model had the biggest surface area—a generous 180 square inches (about the size of a large placemat), which is more than twice as big as our favorite grill pan. As a result, it can grill twice as much food at a time—an advantage if you’re cooking for a crowd.

Where Does Good Grill Flavor Come From?

After tasting a lot of sad, lackluster food that seemed more steamed or roasted than grilled during our smokeless grill testing, we wanted to know: What exactly makes grilled food taste grilled? To find out, we turned to Greg Blonder, food scientist and professor of product design at Boston University. 

 

According to Blonder, there are three pathways to creating flavor when you’re cooking food on a charcoal grill. The first is charring, from when the food either makes direct contact with a hot grill grate or encounters intense infrared radiation from the charcoal. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why charring tastes so good, though Blonder says that some research suggests charring creates bitter compounds that may enhance or bring out sweet and aromatic characteristics in the food. The second is through the Maillard reaction, sometimes called the “browning reaction,” in which proteins and sugars in the food coalesce and break down as a result of their exposure to heat, forming complex new flavor compounds. The third pathway is called pyrolysis, in which organic molecule bonds in the food fragment and recombine in the presence of heat and absence of oxygen—as when fat from the food hits the hot coals or a piece of meat sits on a hot flat-top grill. As Blonder explained, pyrolysis produces a very different “suite” of chemical compounds than those you’d get simply by exposure to oxygen. Where oxygen can break down molecules into smaller, less flavorful compounds, pyrolysis creates more complex, nuanced aromas and flavors—everything from “vanilla and caramel flavors all the way down to tarry and acrid” ones. 

 

With food made on the smokeless grills, two of the three pathways to flavor were obstructed or constrained: In the case of the two grills that couldn’t get very hot, there was little or no charring or pyrolysis taking place. The three grills that managed to heat up to higher temperatures did muster a bit of char and pyrolysis, but because they didn’t retain that heat quite as well as a grill pan, this flavor development was significantly less pronounced than in foods cooked on our favorite grill pan. Instead, the food got its flavor almost exclusively from Maillard browning, which can take place at comparatively lower temperatures—hence the “roasty” flavor many tasters picked up on when sampling asparagus and steak made on those grills. Although this flavor was certainly acceptable, it lacked the full complement of flavor compounds that we’ve come to expect from grilled food.

Good Controls Are Important

An electric grill isn’t very useful if you can’t easily set its temperature. We vastly preferred models that had specific temperature settings. One model had just two settings—“keep warm” and “on,” limiting our ability to moderate the heat depending on what we were cooking. The symbols for these two settings were also surprisingly cryptic, requiring us to consult the manual in an attempt to interpret them. Only with a temperature probe did we learn what these settings actually indicated. Another model had settings that ranged from 1 to 5, and we were again forced to guess the temperatures that these numbers indicated. Worse still, when we used a temperature probe to find out, we found that there was no functional difference between settings 3, 4, and 5, with all of them heating to a high of 530 degrees—an alarming figure, considering that the grill grates are coated with a nonstick material that can degrade and release toxic fumes above 500 degrees.

Our winning smokeless grill has two temperature zones, so you can cook foods at different heat levels.

The best smokeless grills provided a wide range of temperatures and featured dials or digital displays that were easy to use and clearly and accurately indicated the correct temperatures. Our favorite model was equipped with a digital display that made it especially easy to choose a specific temperature. Testers liked that this feature allowed us to set and forget the heat level without guessing or fiddling with the controls, as we would when cooking on a stovetop. Better still, we could set the two sides of the grill to different temperatures, in case we wanted to simultaneously cook, say, a piece of fish over high heat and some vegetables over a slightly lower heat.

Cleanup Matters, Too

Finally, we considered how easy it was to clean the smokeless grills. Because the grates on some of these smokeless grills are coated with a nonstick material and can be thrown in the dishwasher, they do require a little less elbow grease to clean than our favorite stovetop grill pan, which must be washed by hand. But the grill pan has simplicity on its side—there’s only one thing to clean. We preferred grills with embedded heating elements and as few parts that needed to be cleaned as possible—just a grill grate or grates and a drip tray. These models were easier and less messy to dismantle than grills that had extra parts to clean, such as a removable heating element and/or water pan.

The Best Smokeless Grill: The Krups Digital Indoor Smokeless Grill

If the flavor of your food is your primary concern, and you don’t mind putting up with a bit more smoke, we think that our favorite grill pan, the Lodge Square Grill Pan (about $19), is your best bet for grilling indoors as it makes flavorful, nicely charred food. But if your priority is to reduce the smoke you generate while grilling indoors and you’re willing to sacrifice a little flavor to do so, the Krups Digital Indoor Smokeless Grill is a fine choice. Its large cooking surface is divided into two heating zones, and testers appreciated its clear, accurate digital controls, which made it especially easy to use. And because it’s capable of heating to relatively high temperatures, it does a decent job of searing food.

Equipment Review Indoor Smokeless Grills

Are smokeless grills truly smokeless, or do they just smoke less?

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.