Although most modern barbecues are manufactured in Asia, America is usually the source of design and innovation, whether it’s for models that use charcoal, gas or pellets. However, there’s another form of energy that appears to be making serious inroads in the arena of barbecues and it could well be the defining fuel source of the future: electricity.
In some neighbourhoods of America, it’s already illegal to use charcoal or gas as a barbecue fuel. This is not only because of safety – both charcoal and gas produce naked flames – but also because both fuels are considered bad for the environment. In fact, many countries like Kenya, Cameroon and Zambia have already banned the commercial export of charcoal because of its damaging effects on climate and the environment.
After all, making charcoal requires cutting down trees and then slowly burning them, which produces excessive levels of both carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, plus soot and possibly a host of other weird pollutants. We then continue to burn that same wood on our barbecues, producing more pollutants in the process. While considered more environment friendly, natural gas is still a fossil fuel that emits tons of carbon dioxide while adding further impact through drilling, extraction and transportation.
Pellet grills, on the other hand, aren’t currently considered a major threat to the environment as long as the wood used is sustainably sourced. This is because pellets are made from natural wood which isn’t a fossil fuel and therefore carbon neutral. Pellet grills also use electricity but only to run the fan that feeds the flame, the auger that delivers the pellets to the mini fire pot and the obligatory computer that controls the amount of pellets fed into the fire pot. With pellet grills, the source of the heat is created entirely by burning those little compressed wood pellets.
But now, it looks like the future of barbecues and grills will be electric, whether we like it or not! Let's look into it...
- Love cooking electric? Check out the best electric grills you can buy today
Electric vs charcoal & gas
Portable electric barbecues have been around for many years – there’s the Weber Pulse, the Napoleon Pro 285E and the Cadac E-Braai 40 to name but three – but most of them have been largely ignored by the masses who, perhaps understandably, think that al fresco grilling cannot possibly be performed over an electric oven-style element. They have a good argument, especially when it comes to charcoal which, most of us agree, is the best heat source to cook meats over. But is it?
To be perfectly blunt, in a blind test I don’t think I could tell whether you grilled sausages over charcoal, gas or an electric element, though I’d like to think I’d spot a sausage grilled over flaming pellets. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think there’s much difference in flavour between the three current methods mentioned above. Take charcoal, for instance. All the flavour of grilled meat comes from the fats dripping onto the charcoal bed below where it creates smoke which drifts up to envelope the ingredients in that smoky outdoor flavour we all love and crave come summertime.
My question is: does it really matter what the heat source is if it’s the dripping fats that cause all the smoke and flare-ups? Why should hot fats dripping onto a bed of odourless grey charcoal be any different to fats dripping onto a searingly hot metal shield – as per any gas barbecue – or a red-hot oven ring below a grill grate. Answers on a postcard please!
One thing’s for certain. Electric grills are a lot safer than charcoal, pellets or gas and that makes them ideal for balcony use, camping where there is an electricity supply and on boats with a suitable inverter that can handle up to 2.5kW of power consumption. Some portable electric BBQs could also feasibly be used indoors as long as there's an extractor fan above.
But I digress, because the reason I’m broaching this ‘electric BBQ’ subject is because this year I’ve received three brand new barbecue models that are all electric – the portable Weber Lumin, the equally portable Ninja Woodfire and the Char-Broil Smart-E which, if I’m not mistaken, is the world’s first full-size all-electric barbecue. Incidentally, T3 will be reviewing all three in due course.
For me, this is a telltale sign that major barbecue manufacturers like Weber and Char-Broil are taking the electricity angle very seriously. And what’s to say that other top manufacturers aren’t following suit and already designing their own electric versions behind closed doors? We’ll likely know more as the year progresses but in the meantime, let’s take a brief look at this year’s three main contenders so we can ponder a future where perhaps every barbecue plugs into a mains outlet.
New electric barbecues for 2023
Our first electrical contender is the Weber Lumin. This dandy portable is available in two sizes, with or without an optional scissor cart. I’ve already tried the Lumin Compact – which you can read about in T3’s guide to the best electric grills – and I was surprised by how easy it was to control. I was also surprised by the flavour of the food it produced which was suitably smoky and, well, very barbecue like. This is because the fats dripped through the cast-iron grate slats straight on to the red-hot heating element below and immediately vaporised, creating flavoursome smoke in the process. Furthermore, this stylish little titan can also steam and smoke meats and veg at lower temperatures. All in all, it made me think that maybe there is a place for an electric barbecue after all. Mind, I’ve yet to give it a full test so watch this space.
The new do-it-all Ninja Woodfire is the most innovative outdoor grilling, air frying and smoking solution I think I’ve ever laid eyes on. This, too, will be extensively reviewed shortly but in the meantime I can tell you that, after a quick test using some chicken legs, it looks like it could be a real goer for anyone who fancies using a variety of cooking methods.
For my experiment, I opted to fill the small aroma-producing pellet hopper with the supplied wood pellets and selected the air fry setting. Yes I know, air frying is not barbecuing, but have you ever tasted air-fried drumsticks? I can tell you that they are out-of-this-world crispy with a much more moist centre than any barbecue or oven can produce. Anyway, the results were excellent and the pellets gave the chicken real smoky flavour, too.
I confess to not having tried the Woodfire’s grilling system yet but, given that the cooking surface is a solid plate with raised grooves rather than a standard grate with gaps, I’m not sure how authentic this machine will be as a bona fide outdoor grill. Time will tell.
This is the model that spawned this article, mostly because I have never actually seen or indeed heard of a full-sized electric barbecue grill. Char-Broil is one of the biggest Stateside manufacturers of barbecues so this looks like an opening salvo of what’s to come.
I haven’t used the Char-Broil Smart-E grill yet though I have assembled it in readiness for the sun to properly come out and the air to warm up a bit. What I can say is that the grill grate is a rather substantial 57 x 39cm in dimensions – that’s enough meal estate for a party of six and many more for grilling smaller items like sausages or drumsticks.
Like Char-Broil’s gas and charcoal barbies, the Smart-E uses the manufacturer’s trademark TRU-Infrared grill grate system which comprises a non-slatted wave-shaped plate directly above a perforated aluminium heat-radiating sheet. I’ve used this type of grill grate system many times on both the company’s charcoal and gas grills and can vouch that, for some bizarre reason, it really does produce more succulent and juicier results than most standard slatted grates while still tasting like the food has been properly barbecued.
The Smart-E is an elegant looking beast that uses a simple 2.4kW oven-style heating element directly below the grate. But what really sets this model apart from other normal full-size grills is the huge and exceedingly attractive control display on the front. In fact, this might be the prettiest digital display I’ve ever seen on a barbecue – better even than those on Traeger and Broil King’s pellet grills. With its gigantic, crystal clear LED readout, colourful knob surround and wherewithal to hold temperature like an indoor oven, the Smart-E could turn out to be the barbecue grill of the year.
Final thoughts: is electric the future of barbecue?
Given that the age of burning fossil fuels is coming to a speedy close, manufacturers of all fossil fuel-powered products are looking to electricity as the most sustainable and ecological way forward, whether it’s electric cars or air source systems and infrared panels for home-based central heating.
Yes, we’re still scrabbling about in a last-ditch panic by dabbling with a range of environment-friendly methods with which to create ‘clean' energy (offshore wind farms, solar farms, tidal generators, nuclear power stations, etc.) but one thing’s for certain – electricity, a remarkable invention that is now an incredible 271 years old, is undoubtedly the universal fuel of the future. It’s been under our feet and above our heads for all this time and only now are we beginning to truly embrace its frankly mind-blowing ability to power absolutely everything on the planet.