I See the Light
02/06/14 - 08:46 Filed in: Lessons Learned
This blog entry is going to try to make the case for using permanent lighting for your grill if at all possible. You will notice I am using the term grill, not Big Green Egg here. This blog is not at all grill specific and is written for all grills. There are a few times I will mention specific types of grills and it won’t be just the BGE. This past spring I added two light fixtures to my grill gazebo to replace the portable grill lights I had been using up until this point. I expected it to be somewhat more convenient, but it has really made a HUGE difference much to my surprise. I never knew what I was missing and so may you. I recently had the realization that grilling at night had now become no different for me than grilling in the day. Prior to this the experience had been a compromise and you had to “work harder” to achieve the same results. Let me make some points for your consideration.
FINDING THE PERFECT GRILL LIGHT: The search for the perfect grill light was always a bit of an obsession for me. To be honest, I never did find one. The lights had one or more of these flaws: Not enough light output, they could not light the entire grill surface evenly, oddly colored light, battery hogs, fragile construction and hard to mount. While it is hard to find a great grill light solution, there are all kinds of regular light fixtures you can use to get plenty of even lighting on your grill area. Then it is simply a matter of finding the best mounting method and spacing to get even lighting. This is far different than trying to use a single grill light where you have many limitations right from the start.
ENOUGH LIGHT: I found some grill lights that had a decent amount of light, but I never found one with enough light to make you forget you were grilling in the dark. With a permanent solution you can easily change the amount of light output by using the highest wattage light the fixture is rated for. Or use multiple light fixtures to get you the amount and lighting spread you need. I used to find judging doneness to be hard with some foods. You would get your food inside only to find things weren’t the way they looked out at the grill. With my permanent grill lighting, I really am not conscious of it being nighttime unless I look off to the distance. I really don’t feel like I am working in a more limited environment. I never realized how much of a difference this makes, until I suddenly had plenty of light.
EVEN LIGHTING: I used hanging lights which are 5’-6” (1.67m) above the grills and countertop. The lights have a shade which help keep the light from bleeding off into the distance and help focus it on the area below. Most grill lights seem to be a step above a flashlight with a focussed beam with a large falloff outside the main beam. I now have a circle of even light that is just slightly larger than the 10’ x 10’ (3m x 3m) footprint of my grill gazebo. Now that I have the start of an outdoor Kitchen (I have about 50 percent of the cabinets I ultimately plan to have) it is great having even lighting over the countertops too. Right now I have about 5’-6” (1.67m) of countertop space between my grills. This is a great sized space for doing some of the final prep for items going on the grill or working on items pulled from the grill mid-cook. My thought process on whether to do certain things out at the grill used to be: Will I really be able to see what I am doing? Now it is: Which is easier - doing this back in the Kitchen or staying out at the grill? The only other consideration is how cold it is. Lighting, or more accurately lack of good lighting no longer a factor.
Many of the grill lights out there seem to even have trouble evenly lighting a grill surface, never mind the side tables or counters. When I was using a wide 6 burner gas grill there was only one grill light that came close to evenly lighting the entire surface. Even that light had some falloff in the corners, plus that light had other issues. When you are grilling food at night and dealing with light falloff from a grill light, it makes it hard to judge the doneness of all of the food. It is also easy to loose track of how some of the items in the corner, in the dimmer areas, are doing.
COLOR TEMPERATURE: The human eye and brain combine to make a remarkable vision system. Light sources have what is called a color temperature. It is measured in degrees Kelvin and it is based on heating a black object so it emits light and what temperature in degrees K is required. Items just beginning to emit light are at the reddish end of the color spectrum. Items heated to a very high temperature emit a bluish to white light. Daylight which is the lighting we are most used to tends towards a blue tint from passing through the sky and is 6,500K on an overcast day and 15,000K on a blue sky day. Tungsten lighting, a regular incandescent light bulb for example, tends towards a more orange tint or 3,000K. Regular fluorescent lights skews towards the green end of the spectrum (5,000K). The human brain tends to compensate for these different color temperatures and adjusts our perception so that something the brain knows is white, like paper, is perceived by us to be white. Unlike our eyes, digital cameras do not adjust for different color temperatures of light sources. That is why they have White balance adjustment. When you are cooking, color is an important visual cue for judging doneness and presentation characteristics.
At this point I will move away from hard science and just explain what my real world experience has been and my best guess as to why. Some grill lights use bulbs that are high efficiency light sources that are not as color accurate (normal looking) as other light sources. You brain will compensate to some extent for this but it does take some time for this to become the “new normal”. Making quick trips out to the grill may not allow your eyes adequate to adjust. I am not sure why, but with the incandescent lights I use I am not aware of a large color shift. Perhaps it is because next to daylight, tungsten lighting is where I spend most of my time and seems normal to me.
MELTING: Depending on your grill, it can be somewhat easy to accidentally melt a grill light. If you manage to melt a permanent grill light, I’m guessing you have far bigger problems. Some of the clamps on grill lights do not grip the grill handle or side table as well as you would like. If the light loosens up it could lean over and make contact with the hot grill. Now I never had this happen to me, and you may be thinking you are careful too and this won’t happen to me either. Here is one that caught me by surprise and melted a grill light. I had a grill light that was mostly plastic that would clamp to the side table of the grill. I always installed this lamp so the head was placed close to the sides of the lid, an inch or two (3-5cm) away. One of the reasons I did this was to get as much light as possible on the grill surface, because the light had a fairly limited range. I still needed to be able to raise the lid without needing to adjust the position of the light. I had been doing this setup for several years without incident. One hot night in the summer I was warming up my gas grill, all 6 burners to high. In the hot weather my gas grill could hit 900 degrees (482C). When I came out to put the food on the grill I found the head of the light had melted. The sides of the stainless steel lid were a thick heavy metal casting. These had heated up and were radiating the heat into the air. Bottom line: With permanent lighting you don’t have to worry about light placement relative to a hot grill.
BATTERIES: Any of the portable grill lights I tried were battery powered. Some seemed to get reasonable battery life, while others just gobbled up batteries like a kid with candy. All of them suffered a huge battery life hit in the cold weather. In the winter if you are doing supper on the grill, you are going to be working after dark. So it was always necessary to keep a large supply of batteries around for winter night grilling. Also if you leave the light on when you are done, it doesn’t take long to run down the batteries. As the batteries became depleted, the light would grow dimmer and dimmer and you didn’t always realize it was happening. It was also not fun if the batteries died in the middle of a cook and you couldn’t take time to replace them. Don’t ask me how I know this.
INSTALLATION: Although most grill lights aren’t that hard to install, flipping a light switch is even easier. Also depending on your grill it may actually be problematic attaching a grill light. Your handle may be different than the “typical” handle the light was designed for or your side table may be thicker than the average side table. It is one more thing to have to remember to bring out and back in from the grill. You won’t forget to bring it out, but it is easy to forget to bring it back in.
DAYTIME USE: Since the permanent lighting solution lights the entire grilling area and not just the food on the grill, you can turn it on to brighten up a cloudy day. In fact during the summer I use my lights more in the day time than I do at night. In the winter I use them day and night.
BIG PICTURE: The less than perfect state of grill lights never prevented me from grilling at night. That said, I always felt like I was dealing with a situation that was less than ideal. It wasn’t always a conscious feeling, and it would come and go depending on what I was doing. But now that I have my permanent lighting solution I’ve noticed the total absence of this feeling. Going out and firing up the grill at night is really no different to me now than doing it during the day. Sure the surroundings look different but the most important part, cooking the food, is exactly the same.
In the last year and a half I have really made great strides towards making grilling outdoors a more natural experience, more like walking into your indoor Kitchen. With the Big Green Eggs I have weather independence. The BGE is not affected by the weather at all-something I initially didn’t believe, but it is true. My permanent grill gazebo gives me year round shelter. The Maverick remote read thermometers allow me to monitor cooks from the comfort of my house. The BGE’s are so rock steady indirect grilling or baking that putting food on the Egg. is like putting food in your indoor oven. If there is any variation the Maverick thermos will warn you. My new Looftlighter allows me to easily light the grills in any weather. Finally the addition of permanent grill lighting has taken away any pain points associated with portable grill lights. Grilling now is mostly about focussing most of my energies on getting the food just right, instead of dealing with technical issues. If you are using little portable grill lights, you should revisit your setup and see if there isn’t some way to incorporate a more permanent full sized lighting solution. In my case I never knew just what I was missing until I got the permanent lighting.
RELATED BLOG ENTRIES:
LET THERE BE LIGHT - Part 1
LET THERE BE LIGHT - Part 2
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