Grills have been used around the world for centuries to turn raw meat into delicious meals. Their functionality seems rather simple, apply heat → cook food. However, anyone who has ever tried to shop for a grill or even cook on a grill knows full well that not all grills are alike.
This all begs the question, what makes the perfect grill, and how can we design it?
How to engineer the grill
Starting with the basics, we're going to need some form of enclosure, a heat source, and a grilling platform to cook on. Different cultures take different approaches to fulfill these basic needs. BBQ pits of the south use giant wood-fired pits that produce some of the most delicious meat in the world (or delicious grilled veggies for all the non-meat eaters out there). Tribal cultures in Hawaii or South America will bury their food and cook with hot coals. There is a practically endless divergence from what one might consider the most basic grill design.
All these variations make it nailing down what exactly makes an objectively good grill hard, but not impossible...
In terms of adding taste, we can objectively say that wood-fired grills infuse the best taste as they are arguably the only cooking method that infuses taste from the heating process (through smoke). Propane and coals do cook or grill the food, but their end product results in a similar taste to other cooking methods like convection cooking or boiling. Keeping in line with BBQ traditions, if you want a "grilled" taste, you need a wood-fired grill.
This, however, imposes some problems to the end-user. Propane and quick light coals are easy to ignite and keep burning. A wood fire, on the other hand? It requires significantly more input and experience from the customer. The main challenge with these grills is that it requires the user to know how to build and maintain a fire – not a skill every potential user has honed.
One wrong move in a wood-fire grill and the user can end up with black and bitter meat as a result of creosote from excess smoke. If we truly are trying to engineer the perfect BBQ, we need to try and make this process easier.
Competition in creating the "perfect grill"
In this endeavor to engineer the perfect grill, there's a fitting case study that we can examine – the KBQ pit grill.
Bill Karau was a former engineer for the U.S. Navy and Motorola, and he spent four years prototyping and developing what he believes is the perfectly engineered grill. It's a design that uses an inverted flame firebox.
This counterintuitive design puts the flam above the meat, just as the name might suggest. Karau placed air filters to suck smoke back into the wood coals to ensure a clean combustion process. Along with a series of fans to allow the user to easily keep the fire lit, this inverted firebox design infuses the meat with a perfect smokey taste while making it nearly impossible to over-blacken your cut.
This means better BBQ for less work.
Karau has also assembled all of his grilling findings on his website. If you'd like to continue down the path of engineering the perfect grill, this will be a helpful resource to start with.
Now, grilling purists, at this point may argue that good BBQ and good grilled meat should take work, talent, and skill. The problem is, our job as engineers is to, in large part, take talent out of the equation. Consumers want to create better meat but don't want to learn how engineering the perfect grill meets that need.
Karau isn't without competition in his perfect grill engineering endeavor, however. We can look next to an IT program manager named Harry Soo. This man did something only an engineer at heart would do. He hooked a standard charcoal smoker up to supervisory control and data acquisition or SCADA system. This essentially gives Soo the ability to monitor and control temperature, smoke density and volume, and cooking time all electronically.
In order to overcome the lack of using unburned wood as the main heat source, Soo adds carefully controlled volumes of wood chips to regulate taste and flavor.
Using a computer data management system has allowed Soo to create award-winning BBQ on otherwise cheap grilling equipment. As we search for the perfect grill design, this gives us some idea that the physical design may not matter as much as data management and careful monitoring of the cooking process.
Between these two designs, we are left with a rather helpful look at what the perfect engineering grill might just look like. It might employ a combination of a well-designed SCADA system hooked up to an inverted firebox grill within a metal enclosure. Or, it could be something not yet researched or discovered yet.
So, engineers, get out there and start building this grill and who knows, maybe you'll be able to quit your day job and just grill all day long.