WORKHORSE: Many chefs say the combi oven/steamer is invaluable.
VERSATILE: Combi ovens' three cooking modes yield tasty results for most foods.
Combination oven/steamers are all but commonplace in today's high-tech efficient kitchens. Only a few years ago they were an innovative new cooking style. Today,-more than 50 different models of steamer/ovens are made by at least half a dozen American manufacturers. If you ask chefs what the most productive piece of cooking equipment in their kitchen is, many will point to their combination oven/steamer.
The combination oven/steamer can bake and roast like a convection oven, steam and poach like a steamer and reheat or cook product without drying it out. With all the good points of the combi, cost is still a consideration. Making a good selection will help you get the most for your money.
Most users say an oven/steamer can do everything either a steamer or a convection oven can do and, in many cases, better than either. Cooks in restaurants find oven/steamers to be quite flexible. They can also save space.
The Name of the Game Is Space
Space is the ultimate premium in many operations. As we all know, today's kitchens are shrinking because we can't afford the luxury of space found in many older kitchens. The combi takes up about half the area needed if you have both a convection oven and a steamer. The space savings may free up area for other items or just provide some badly needed workspace. The space saved can translate in to cost savings as well.
Buying fewer exhaust hoods will save as much as $2,000 if you replace your oven and steamer. The hood savings, coupled with less air-conditioned air being exhausted, will represent a significant ongoing energy cost reduction.
It's not the space saved that draw most operators to buy a combi, however; it's the versatility. Combis can operate in any one of three operating modes and sometimes a combination of modes:
- Steam only— The equipment operates like a pressureless steamer cooking at 212°F. Food can be steamed quickly and gently. In most cases there is little or no flavor transfer between products.
- Convection heat—In the hot air mode the unit works by circulating hot air just like a convection oven. The range of temperatures is generally the same as a typical convection oven.
- Steam and convection heat—The combination mode works to provide much faster cooking than dry heat alone while limiting shrinkage and still browning. Manufacturer's claim the combi mode will cook 50% faster than a convection oven while improving quality.
Several manufacturers make two or three lines of combi ovens with different levels of sophistication. The top-of-the-line models have a host of features that may be beneficial to some, but will be unnecessary frills to others. Features include computerized controls with memory that tracks service history and usage. Complex cooking programs with hot air and steam can be input and used. Some models have indicators to tell you when it's time to delime the unit. Other features may include integral spray hoses and cook-and-hold controls.
The midpriced lines usually are constructed similarly to the more expensive units but have less automation and programming capability. Most operators find these units are fine for their needs and their staff's capabilities. An operation will need to have a group of highly trained chefs to make full use of features on a top-of-the-line combi. The midline combi usually costs about 30% less than the top-of-the-line models.
In the past several years, an economy line of boilerless combi ovens has been introduced by some manufacturers. This product will appeal to operations on a budget. The expensive boiler is eliminated from the unit. The resulting steamer/ovens are about 15-20% less costly than a similarly sized counterpart. Maintenance costs should also be lower than a combi with a boiler. The only drawback to these units is slightly reduced steam output needed in high-volume fast cooking. If you are doing slow roasting, the difference in the units should not be noticeable. The boilerless units will open an additional market for combi ovens and make them available to more operations with tighter budgets.
It's not the space saved that draws most operators to buy a combi,
it's the versatility. Combis can operate in any one of three operating
modes and sometimes a combination of modes.
The oven/steamers on today's market range from small volume countertop units to floor-mounted roll-in units with large capacities for banquets or institutional use. Typical sizes are stated by manufacturers in standard steamtable pan (12" x 20") or baking sheet pan (18" x 26") capacities. Note that shallow 2 1/2" pans (Bendall will call back with the right fraction) are typically used in the sizing ratings. You will need to reduce capacity accordingly if using 4" or 6" pans that would be most typical for casserole items or lasagna.
Also, you will need to decide if what you are cooking will need 18" x 26" baking pans. Most of the smaller units are sized for 12" x 20" steam-table pans, so you may need to go to a larger capacity unit than planned. Most manufacturers make several of the more popular oven sizes used in restaurants.
The models most available are the four to six 12" x 20"-pan capacity countertop unit, a 7- to 10- pan unit, and the larger floor-or stand-mounted 14-, 18-, and 20-pan models. The smaller units generally hold only a 12" x 20" pan or half-size baking pan. The larger units hold two 12" x 20" pans on each shelf or a single 18" x 26" baking pan. At least one manufacturer makes a specialized rotisserie combi great for displaying and cooking rotisserie-style chicken or other products. The unit can also be converted to traditional shelves for cooking other products.
Nearly all types of restaurants and other foodservice operations can use combis—from small limited-service outlets to large mass feeders, from upscale dinner houses to convenience food snack bars. Most any operation can take advantage of the oven's versatility and benefit from the wide range of food products that can be cooked in the units yielding high-quality results. Wide acceptance and appeal among chefs and clear advantages in food preparation have made the combi oven an expected item in the modern kitchen.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. He can be reached at 240-314-0660.