Lean, mean grill goes the distance

Foreman's Champ gives quick, tasty results, and it's convenient, too

As Seen on TV

Your Money

February 08, 2004|By Matthew Kauffman

George Foreman was a middle-aged man in 1994 when he laced up his boxing gloves, climbed into the ring with a fighter young enough to be his son and delivered a ferocious punch 10 rounds later to reclaim his title as heavyweight champion of the world.

But that's not what makes Foreman one of the greatest comeback kids in history.

What might loom largest when the last of the profiles is written - and when all the cash is tallied - is Foreman's unlikely odyssey from a nearly broke has-been to a wealthy TV pitchman.

In dorm rooms and gourmet kitchens, from the fluorescent-lighted aisles of Wal-Mart to the refined wedding registry at Bloomingdale's, it's a safe bet that Foreman is known less for his 13-inch fists than for one absurdly successful phenomenon of marketing, the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine, made by Salton.

More than 12 million have been sold. If you don't own one, there's a good chance one of your neighbors does. And the brand has been extended again and again, to include a gaggle of sizes, roasters, rotisseries, griddles and outdoor grills.

It is the darling of direct-response television and possibly the most successful product ever at making the jump from infomercial to retail store shelf. Does it deserve all the fuss?

To find out, we bought the new George Foreman Champ Grill with Bun Warmer, which is generally available at retail stores for about $25. Overall, we found it worked very well, cooking a variety of foods surprisingly quickly and with tasty results. But its key claim - that it lets you "knock out the fat" - proved a little lean in our tests.

The Champ is the smallest of the "grilling machines," with a 6-by-7-inch surface that barely accommodates two hamburger patties. If you're cooking for more than two, you'll want a bigger surface.

Despite its diminutive size, the Champ shares with all Foreman models the three features that have proved so popular with consumers: The appliance is a "contact grill" with heating surfaces top and bottom to cook food more quickly. The surfaces have a nonstick coating to make cleanup easier. And the bottom surface is tilted to allow fat to drain off, producing leaner food.

That last feature is the grill's leading sales proposition, and in infomercials, it was the sight of fat dripping harmlessly into a tray that made the switchboards light up.

But our tests, and others conducted under more rigorous conditions, found only modest differences in the amount of fat removed when cooking with the Foreman grill compared with using a frying pan. Still, the health-conscious among you would probably do just as well to abandon the concept of a diet hamburger.

The Champ is a fairly bare-bones model that comes without a thermostat, a timer or an on-off switch. Nevertheless, the scientists at Salton hit on a good surface temperature to provide even cooking, as long as you like your food rare to medium. We found we could cook 5- and 6-ounce hamburgers that were juicy and pink in the middle, and seared but not scorched on the outside.

But if you leave food on the grill long enough for it to be well done in the middle, you'll probably burn the top and bottom.

The Foreman grill also did a good job grilling onions and other vegetables, hot dogs and imitation chicken patties.

Because the grill cooks from both sides, it saves a few minutes. Our unit preheated in three minutes and cooked a 5-ounce burger in an additional 4 1/2 minutes. Our cast-iron pan preheated a minute quicker, but it took 9 1/2 minutes to cook the burger, and we needed to stand over the pan most of that time.

The ads claim that the grill can be cleaned up quickly with a damp sponge, but it was rarely that easy, particularly after the surfaces had cooled. Our grill required plenty of scrubbing to remove baked-on grease and food, and, because no part of the grill is submersible in water, it never seemed to get completely free of grease. That said, cleaning the Foreman grill still took several minutes less than cleaning the cast-iron pan and lid.

But all that scrubbing had me worried about the nonstick coating, and I've heard from users whose surfaces have peeled in a matter of months.

Still, if I have to chuck the thing in a year, it'll have run me only $2 a month. At that price, for the convenience, the Foreman grill's a solid contender.

For a full review of this product and an archive of previous tests, visit www.ctnow. com/ontv. To comment on items sold on television or to recommend a product for testing, e-mail Matthew Kauffman at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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