How we tested
Thanks largely to George Foreman's Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine, indoor electric grills have become common kitchen appliances. But the champ now has plenty of competition, so we brought seven models, all priced under $80, into the test kitchen for some culinary sparring. We grilled hamburgers, salmon, zucchini, grilled cheese sandwiches, and thick Cubano panini (roast pork, ham, and cheese on sub rolls). The following features separated the winners from the losers.
Fat drainage is one of the popular selling points for many indoor grills, but in our tests the removable reservoirs on four models never filled with much, if any, fat. The moats surrounding the other three grills never overflowed, even after two batches of hamburgers.
Removable grill plates are easy to clean, but we noticed a tradeoff in performance. The grills with removable plates had noticeable hot spots or a top plate that ran hotter than the bottom. The grills with fixed plates produced even heat across their grilling surfaces.
With both a top and bottom heat source, an indoor grill will take roughly half the time of conventional stovetop cooking. However, aside from the speed, hamburgers and salmon didn't gain anything other than some attractive grill marks. With a few extra minutes, a skillet could have done just as well and offers more possibilities (like deglazing the pan to make a sauce). On the other hand, indoor grills made shatteringly crisp sandwiches and panini.
The size of the cooking surfaces ranged from 62 square inches to 110 square inches. While the largest grill could accommodate five burgers or two large panini, the smaller grills could handle just two burgers or one panini at a time.
We used an infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of the cooking surfaces when fully preheated and found slight variations that didn't correlate with performance. A better gauge of performance was the width of the ridges (the portion of the cooking surface that actually touches the food) and the distance between those ridges. Models with wide, closely spaced ridges have nearly half their cooking surface in contact with the food. Narrow, widely spaced ridges meant that just a fraction of the cooking space was in contact with the food. This means less heat applied to the food, less browning, and sandwiches that are less crisp.
In the end, our testing revealed one clear winner if you like grilled sandwiches, but for burgers and fish we found a heavy pan is just as good.