The siren song of grilled food is tough to resist. Everything from seared steaks and pork chops, to blackened poultry and fish, ingredients hit with high heat have a smoky deliciousness all their own. Unfortunately it usually takes cooking over an open flame outdoors to impart this lovely flavor to meats and produce. T-Fal's $180 (£148, AU$239) OptiGrill, however, is designed to do exactly that right from your kitchen countertop.
This ability by itself isn't a new development. Similar products from DeLonghi, Breville, and of course George Foreman have tackled these tasks for years. The OptiGrill sets itself apart by sensing the thickness of your food then automatically cooking it to the level of doneness you'd like. Save for the disappointing tendency to overcook its items, the OptiGrill succeeds at its mission.
Almost $200 is steep for a jumped up sandwich press, considering they can cost a little as $40. Still the price range for the category went even higher recently with a $500 model from Cinder (US only) that, surprise, surprise, has so-called "smart cooking" features, including precise, sous vide-like temperature controls. As tempting as that model might sound to fancy electric grill shoppers, know that you're not missing much if you stick with the non-connected Optigrill.
Design and operation
If you've seen or owned an electric panini press then the look and feel of the T-Fal OptiGrill will come as no surprise. Like those other products the appliance is relatively compact and employs a clam-shaped design. Forming the upper and lower half of the OptiGrill's clam mouth are two ridged grilling surfaces connected by a sturdy arm. The heavy arm swivels up and down to open and close the contraption plus functions as a control panel when shut.
Running along this panel are numerous buttons including one for main power in addition to six keys that engage cooking presets based on food type. All labeled with line-drawn symbols instead of printed text, you'll find icons for whipping up hamburgers, poultry, hot sandwiches, sausages, red meat and fish. If any of these items happen to be frozen, tap the button with the snowflake logo first then punch in your desired food category.
T-Fal recommends that you apply a coating of oil or grease to both grill grates to avoid material sticking before you turn the appliance on. Thankfully the grates are not only removable but you can toss them onto the dishwasher without fear as well.
While all of the OptiGrill's keys are backlit, the strangest indicator on the panel is a big circular LED. It gives the OptiGrill its name and will in theory glow in shifting colors to match the doneness level of what you're cooking. Want that steak rare? Stop cooking when the LED is yellow.
For red meat cooked to medium temperature, halt the process when you see orange. The red hue screams that your steak is well done, you get the idea. To grill up veggies and other foods outside of the OptiGrill's presets, there's a manual mode too. Just toggle the key to one of four temperature settings.
Since the OptiGrill can't function as a griddle, don't expect the appliance to serve up eggs, pancakes and waffles for you in the AM. Wet ingredients like this will either be mangled by the grill's deeply ridged plates or slide down their angled surfaces into the drip tray before cooking.
Performance and taste
Using the T-Fal OptiGrill wasn't quite as easy as I hoped. The device plays soft chimes when it reaches a cooking milestone, say when preheating is complete or when food hits points for rare, medium and well done. Unfortunately the alerts are hard to hear and easy to miss, especially inside a noisy kitchen.
Without a reference point, I also found the OptiGrill's color indicator tricky to interpret. That was particularly the case if I stepped away from it to quickly rinse a dish or utensil. Sure, I could tell the LED was yellow (rare) but was it closer to orange (medium)? Since the indicator shifts hues so slowly and doesn't pinpoint itself within a scale, it felt to me too much like a guessing game unless I hovered over the machine.
When I followed the machine's audio and video prompts exactly to hopefully reach medium doneness, the results were accurate but not ideal. Steaks prepared this way were medium in color, initially moist and juicy but liquid from the meat quickly leaked away. It wasn't long before my poor steak was rendered cold, dry and a pale echo of what it once was.
For the record I heeded the OptiGrill's manual which advised cutting into cooked meat immediately without any time to rest. That's contrary to what many professional cooks suggest since slicing into a hot steak too soon creates an opening for excited juices to escape. When I did let my test steaks rest for 10 minutes they ended up overcooked more often than not.
By comparison the Cinder Precision Grill produced steak of superior tenderness, and ultimately more enjoyable to eat. Keep in mind the Cinder works slowly, taking about twice as long to cook a steak of similar thickness. Blind taste-testers also preferred the intense smoky flavor the OptiGrill created in its food.
Chicken in the OptiGrill made according to T-Fal's instructions was surprisingly tasty despite the fact that it was heated well beyond what I even call well done (past 205 degrees Fahrenheit). Chicken breasts were certainly on the dry side but its meat was still surrounded by a good amount of moisture.
As you might imagine, the gadget works as a competent panini press in a pinch too. It's a good idea though to built your sandwich with crusty bread. While not as heavy-handed as the Cinder, the OptiGrill does put a good amount of pressure on items inside it.
When all the grilling is done
I came away from my time with the $180 T-Fal OptiGrill far from what I would call impressed. Still I wasn't terribly let down either, and I'm sure the way it handles humble chicken breast played a big part. I enjoyed the satisfying smoky flavor the indoor appliance gave to food it seared too. Still I'll bet that with a little practice, even novice home cooks can cajole similar or superior results from a basic George Foreman machine. If you have your heart set to grill indoors, I'd recommend saving your cash and grabbing an appliance like that over the OptiGrill.
Those looking to replicate gourmet dining at home would be best served by the $129 Anova Precision Cooker (roughly converted to £106 or AU$170). While other products provide a higher degree of temperature control along with smart functions like the $500 Cinder, the Anova delivers fantastic results when paired with an ordinary skillet and stovetop.