A La Plancha
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Grilling on a solid-surface griddle called a plancha is catching on as a fun way to cook outdoors. “A la plancha” translates to “grilled” in Spanish, and involves cooking food by direct contact with a hot, flat cooking surface through a method called conduction, similar to the way one would cook in a cast-iron skillet. Most traditional gas grills cook food using a combination of conduction and hot-air-convection cooking.
A plancha retains heat and distributes it evenly and efficiently. Since more of the food comes in contact with the cooking surface, it creates an exceptional sear across the entire surface of the meat, not just where it touches the grate as in a traditional grill. Without hot air involved in the cooking process, fans say food is more moist.
One of plancha cooking’s most ardent fans is grilling guru Steven Raichlen. He calls it “one of the best ways to marry the searing and crusting capabilities of a cast-iron skillet with the intense heat and smoke flavor produced by your grill…The plancha gives you a different sort of sear and crust than you get with straight grilling…Sometimes a slab of cast iron can do an even better job than a conventional grill grate.”
Plancha grills offer tremendous cooking versatility beyond crusty-seared steaks. They are great for making everything from bacon, eggs, and other breakfast dishes, to stir-fries, fajitas, grilled cheese, veggies, shrimp, scallops, or other delicate and small foods that might fall through a traditional grilling grid.
Cleaning is easy; simply pour water over the hot surface to deglaze, and then scrape away any residue. But many argue the best thing about flattop grills is that, without a lid to block the action, they encourage people to gather around and be part of the cooking process. Grilling becomes live theater – an interactive experience.
Plancha-style grills are found all over the world, and many of today’s available models have international roots, or at least, international inspiration. Made in France, the ENO La Plancha by Eurodib comes in one-, two-, and three-burner, tabletop or cart models. Its porcelain-enameled, cast-iron griddle surface reaches 680-degree temperatures to instantly sear foods and lock in juices without flare-ups.
“Plancha cooking is a healthier way to cook because you don’t need any fats,” says Shaun McDonald, the company’s vice president Sales and Marketing, U.S. “It’s good for vegetarian cooking – which is increasing – and it also fits in with the cast-iron cooking trend.”
Le Griddle, made in France and imported by Sisteria USA, features an innovative, patented cooking system that combines a half-inch-thick, cast-iron heat-distribution plate beneath the stainless-steel griddle surface. The result is such extreme efficiency, heat retention and distribution, that searing temperatures can be achieved with lower-Btu burners, saving fuel.
Brasero by Favex, also produced in France, is a portable, tabletop, gas-fired plancha with a porcelain-enameled cast-iron cooking grid.
Aupa Planchas from the Basque region of France, come in two- and three-burner tabletop models with stainless-steel cooking surfaces and powder-coated steel, fold-down lids.
My Hibachi BBQ Teppanyaki Table by Outdoor Grilling Innovations creates a Benihana-type hibachi experience in the backyard or at the tailgate. The portable unit – a Vesta Awards finalist at last year’s HPBExpo – sits on a collapsible cart with casters, and comes with three interchangeable cooking surfaces (hibachi griddle, open-slatted grill, and a power burner for wok-cooking, deep-frying or boiling).
Beechwood and ceramic-tile dining counters surround the cooking station on three sides, and fold down when not in use for easy storage; four stools also are included. “We’re not selling an appliance, we’re selling an event,” says Edgar Perea, vice president, Marketing. “You can cook surrounded by family and friends. It has the ‘wow factor’ and it’s fun.”
|Evo Affinity 30G.|
In 2001, EVO was one of the first companies to introduce the concept of solid-surface grilling to American audiences. The patented, made-in-the-USA circular grill has a solid-steel, seasoned and naturally non-stick cooking surface with a flanged edge to trap heat. It runs on propane or natural gas and hits temperatures between 225 and 550 degrees.
Drippings run off the slightly crowned cooking surface and are caught in a stainless-steel drip trough that runs around the grill. EVO is available on a wheeled cart base, as a portable tabletop unit, or built-in for indoor or outdoor kitchens.
Last year, Bull introduced its 24-in., three-burner Commercial Griddle with a chromium-plated, cast-iron cooking surface, available as a built-in or on a cart. “We’ve had a huge demand for a griddle,” says Gabriel Negron of Bull. “People love the versatility. You can cook anything from pancakes to burgers and steaks. Everyone wants more than just a barbecue grill. This product creates an experience and takes outdoor living to the next level,” he says.
The company joins the growing ranks of other premium gas grill manufacturers offering griddle-grill units. The 30-in. Blaze Outdoor Products Griddle Grill is available as a built-in or on a cart base, with or without removable, stainless-steel shelves that surround the cooker on three sides for added prep and serving space.
Twin Eagles’ Teppanyaki Grill and Breakfast Club units come with full- and half-griddle surfaces, respectively.
Camp Chef’s new Flat Top Grills are available in three-, four-, and six-burner units. Other options include the Lynx Asado Grill, the Blackstone Griddle Station, and the FireDisc Cooker, a portable, solid-surface, gas grill based on the design of a tractor plow disc.
|The OFYR grill is at the center of any gathering. In the background is Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.|
Recently, manufacturers have introduced some unique variations of the plancha concept. One, OFYR, is equal parts fire pit, live-fire grill, and garden sculpture. It is designed with a wide, flat cooking surface made of half-inch-thick, cold-rolled-steel that encircles a cone-shaped fire bowl. The wood fire in the center heats up the steel surface for cooking and lends smoke to flavor the food. Guests can gather around the fire enjoying the warmth, while watching or helping the grill chef cook the rest of the meal.
“This is social grilling,” explains Steven Kovens, the company’s executive vice president. “We are trying to create a social lifestyle and a unique entertaining experience centered on cooking. The cook is not isolated with his or her back to the guests; guests can hang out with the cook around the fire and even participate in cooking.”
Made in Holland, the product comes with the option of several different Corten-steel bases, some with openings to store firewood. Other optional accessories include a traditional grilling grate that can be suspended over the fire, a steel cover to protect the surface when not in use, and cooking tools.
Arteflame is a similar concept – a beautiful and functional piece of outdoor artwork that becomes a hub for entertaining and social cooking. A wood or charcoal fire in the fire bowl heats the broad, carbon-steel rim, turning it into a plancha-style grill. The heat is concentrated closest to the fire, allowing vegetables or other foods that require lower temperatures to cook simultaneously on the outer edges.
The plancha cooktop becomes a seasoned and naturally nonstick surface with use, and is easily cleaned by scraping debris into the fire and wiping it with an oiled cloth. The cooking surface can be removed to enjoy the unit simply as a fire pit. Made in Cincinnati from American Corten-steel, Arteflame comes in several designs and in varying heights. The company also makes inserts that can retrofit any kettle or kamado-style grill into a plancha grill and fire pit.
Retailers should consider adding the plancha category to their grill line-up. For one, it’s a trending category that is still not commonly found in Big Box stores, and therefore a good way to differentiate your store’s product mix. Besides backyard use, the portable grills are ideal as a second grill for camping, tailgating, and cooking at the beach.
Another benefit is that plancha grills open the door to add-on sales of related accessory products, including special spatulas; gear for oiling the cooking surface; grill scrapers and cleaning kits; covers; and domes for steaming vegetables or fish.
For customers not ready to commit to a dedicated plancha appliance, there are plenty of griddle accessory options available for retailers to stock. Many grill manufacturers offer rectangular or half-moon griddle accessories that can be placed on top of, or swapped out for, the standard grilling grid.
|Griddle and cart by Bull Outdoor Products.|
In addition, products such as Charcoal Companion’s Stainless Steel Pro Griddle; Steven Raichlen’s Best of Barbecue Cast Iron Plancha, and Little Griddle Company’s Stainless Steel BBQ Griddles come in various shapes, sizes and price points, and can be used on any gas or charcoal grill to simulate plancha cooking.
More than just for cooking dinner, these grills help create new grilling occasions and expand the types of foods that can be cooked outdoors – including breakfast, brunch, lunch, and even cocktail parties with hors d’oeuvres served hot off the grill. In fact, plancha grills and griddle accessories would be perfect products around which to build promotional displays that tie in with the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association’s “Barbecue Your Breakfast” consumer public relations campaign.
This still mostly unfamiliar cooking method creates a buzz of excitement and interest whenever the grills are fired up for demos. Classes teaching the art of plancha cooking could be another revenue stream.
This “flat” category might just add some lift to your sales!