If a George Foreman indoor grill had a brain, it might use an optical sensor to detect the thickness of steak and automatically cook to order — rare, medium or well-done — even when the meat is frozen.
If it also had a panini fetish, it might look like an overstuffed panini-maker and brand everything it cooked with familiar black panini racing stripes.
That’s the T-fal OptiGrill ($179.99 at bestbuy.com), a countertop appliance with a Foremanesque twist on a panini-maker at a Cuisinart price. Indoor grill-makers like to brag that these grills cook meat like outdoor grills, but I’ve yet to see one that does. The OptiGrill doesn’t, though it surprised by cooking a vegetable medley virtually indistinguishable from veggies finished on my outdoor Weber gas grill. Not surprisingly, it’s also an accomplished panini-maker.
OptiGrill arrives in the United States from France, where the company is known as Tefal, an amalgam of Teflon and aluminum. In Europe, Tefal is known as the inventor of nonstick cookware, though DuPont owns a chemical patent that might indicate otherwise. Because DuPont owns the Teflon name and considers Tefal, in any language, too similar, it demanded a name change for Tefal’s U.S. sales. So Tefal here is T-fal.
That satisfies the legal departments, but it also tells everyone that the OptiGrill likely uses a nonstick cooking surface that makes some people queasy. The American Cancer Society says Teflon is not a cancer risk, but it does have health concerns about perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a man-made chemical used in Teflon production. Consider this a consumer warning.
The OptiGrill, indeed, uses two die-cast aluminum cooking plates, removable and dishwasher-safe, with a ribbed, nonstick surface. The plates, mounted on an angle to facilitate runoff into the grill’s drip pan, lock into place. Release buttons make removal and cleaning easy.
This countertop appliance is 14.4 inches long, 13.6 inches wide and 7.1 inches high, which covers a lot of countertop. When fully opened it’s more than 16 inches tall — too tall to open beneath my upper cabinets. The OptiGrill also weighs close to 12 pounds. With its size and overbearing presence, it’s a candidate for storage in a pantry or lower-berth cabinet.
The OptiGrill is suitable for the cooking novice, with automatic presets for hamburgers, poultry, sandwiches, pork and sausage, red meat and fish. A color-coded LED cooking-level indicator, next to the push-button presets on the grill’s handle, announces each level of preheating and cooking. A beep accompanies each stage of cooking readiness, from rare to well-done.
Here’s the degree of difficulty: Select the cooking mode, place the food on the preheated grill, drop the top down and wait for appropriately colored light. The OptiGrill consistently produced the desired doneness, but the black stripes deceive: No meat or fish emerged with seared, just-off-the-outdoor-grill flavor.
Wild-caught Atlantic cod fillets made a nice dinner but tasted more baked than grilled. Boneless chicken thighs cooked quickly but messily, an unexpected OptiGrill trait. The grill often made a bigger mess than stove top cooking. Despite a drip pan, it produced so much splattered grease and smoke that I finally started using it on the stove top with the exhaust fan running. Bacon cooked in manual mode covered the stove top in splattered grease and shot smoke toward the exhaust.
The OptiGrill can only accommodate food up to 11/2 inches thick, and it prefers level cuts of meat, no bones, for even cooking. The cooking surface, about 100 square inches, fits maybe two burgers or two boneless pork chops or four pieces of bacon at a time.
It makes a mess, yes, but it’s fast, cleans up quickly and requires little aptitude. I don’t think I need an OptiGrill in my kitchen, but I can see one in a dorm (where permitted), apartment or wherever there’s a need for a smart alternative to fast food.
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The good: A semi-smart indoor grill that cooks food automatically to desired doneness.
The not so good: Messy, nonstick finish might alarm some people and cannot replicate outdoor-grill finish with meats, fish.