Durability and flexibility have always been the leading factors cooks look for when selecting a range. The leading manufacturers all try to produce tough equipment that will withstand years of use and even abuse in high volume applications. In the past few years, they have also become much more sensitive to the flexibility and operational demands of a variety of different needs in the foodservice industry. If you look closely, manufacturers have been adding some features to make units even more user-friendly and attractive at the same time.
There are at least 10 range manufacturers producing quality equipment in the United States. Some are regionalized, but most market their product and have service capabilities nationwide. The majority of the basic operating features you will see one manufacturer displaying are common to most of the other manufacturers, with only a few exceptions. Often times, though, manufacturers have a few of their own special features that may make them the supplier of choice for your specific needs. Some of these special features include a slightly narrower range for a very tight space, special range top configurations or the availability of special finishes.
Most manufacturers have two lines of equipment, a heavy duty line that can be "batteried" together into a continuous lineup of ranges, and a lighter-duty series called restaurant ranges. The restaurant ranges are often smaller in both length and width and built less ruggedly for lower-volume operations. Even though the heavy-duty range costs nearly double the price of a restaurant range, most production kitchens would be advised to opt for the additional cost.
The restaurant range does have its place, though, in a snack bar or low usage area. Restaurant ranges have some nice features that would be welcome in heavy-duty versions, such as the all-in-one range. These ranges have a broiler, griddle, open burners and two ovens all in one five- or six-ft. unit, perfect for the small operation.
Aside from the "traditional" range and cooking battery, there is a new range style out there gaining popularity, and manufacturers are hustling to keep up with demand. Island ranges--sometimes called Waldorf or European-style ranges--have been popular in Europe for more than a century. This style of back-to-back banked ranges have only recently made a big impact on the American dining scene but are expected to become more popular in coming years. The great thing about an island cooking arrangement is that it merchandises well in an open kitchen environment and when operated properly with trained staff, can put on a tremendous show by bringing your kitchen talent in contact with the customers.
European chefs claim the island range set up is the most efficient way to arrange a cooking line. The functional advantage of the island range is that it allows food product as it is being made to be passed across the range battery and side to side to complete each step of the preparation process. Chefs can communicate back and forth better than in the traditional line cooking battery.
There are many types of ranges to choose from on the market today. Most of what makes ranges different is the configuration of the cooktop discussed further below. The variety of options today were recently not available, such as mixing a cooktop with a refrigerated cold pan unit. Manufacturers are trying to provide options that make a cook's job easier and give them the flexibility they need.
Below the range: In addition to the cooktop choice, you need to decide what to put above and below the cooktop to take full advantage of the space available vertically, not just at working height. Let's first look below the range. Your basic choices are an oven base, storage base or no base if you mount the range on a table or on a specially constructed refrigerator. A storage base is sometimes convenient for holding sauté pans when not in use.
The most popular base is an oven. The oven seems to always come in handy and, at about a $500 upcharge over a storage base, is the least expensive oven you will ever buy. Also available are convection oven bases that tend to be costly, about $2,000 more than a standard oven, and have limited capacity. Typically, the convection oven is just large enough for an 18-in. x 26-in. baking pan and only about 14 in. high inside. Convection ovens often add to the depth of the range so be sure to consider the size when making the purchase decision.
Above the cooktop
The choices and options above the cooktop are many. Often operators will want a high flue riser. A stainless steel flue riser will help divert flue gases to the exhaust hood in gas models and also reduces the opportunity for spills or debris to get inside the range or oven mechanisms. The flue riser also helps keep splatters off your back wall for easier clean up. Shelves mounted on the flue riser are common and also handy in many instances. Usually you can have a choice of one or two high shelves that can be an excellent storage spot for extra pans.
The other common items for over the range are the salamander broiler and cheesemelter. Generally the cheesemelter is good for just what its name implies, melting cheese or quick browning of precooked items. The salamander broiler is a heavier duty item for broiling smaller sized items. Some salamanders or back shelf broilers have infrared heating elements for extra heat. It's important to remember that often shelves or broilers are not allowed over griddles where grease vapors could cause a messy situation.
Fuel source is an important consideration in choosing ranges. Some manufacturers make both gas and electric models while others specialize in one or the other. Many traditional chefs prefer gas equipment because of the instant heat. In most areas of the country gas is less expensive to use compared to electricity, but availability of utilities and local fuel costs should be a determining factor in the fuel source decision. If you use bottled gas, the equipment you need requires special burners depending upon the type of gas.
The following are some available cooktop choices:
Open Burners: Open burners for gas or electric coils are the most popular range top configuration. There are burners sized specifically for smaller pans used for restaurant sauté and a la carte work and there are some sized for large stockpots for bulk production. Generally, the six-burner style is for smaller pans and the four burners are for stockpots. Some ranges are built so there is a flat surface across the range top to easily move pans around the top without lifting or spilling.
The rating of each burner of a typical sauté range is 20-35,000 BTUs, depending upon the type and the particular manufacturer. Even the 20,000 BTU unit is powerful enough for most saucepan work. By comparison, typical gas ranges for home use have a 9-15,000 BTU rating, or about one-half the power of their commercial counterpart.
Hot Tops: Hot tops are ranges with the entire top being a flat metal heating surface where any combination of pots and pans can be used simultaneously. Hot tops can be of the even heat variety, made up of flat steel plates for saucepans or stockpots. The top surface is different from a griddle and not for direct grilling of foods.
The other hot top is the graduated heat top. It has a ring burner and top that is very hot in the center and cooler at the edges. The graduated heat top can be used for simmering pans around the edges and high-speed cooking or boiling in the center. Both these range types take a while to heat up so they are often kept on at a cooking temperature that is 500-800°F throughout the service period.
While they have excellent features and are good for cooking, the amount of energy used and wasted is much greater than the open burner range.
Griddle Tops: Griddles are used for cooking directly on the range top surface. The thickness of the steel top and the burner configuration determine the production capacity and how evenly food will cook. Typical griddle tops are a half or 1-inch thick. A 1-inch-thick top is preferred if you are cooking a lot of frozen product. The thicker top will recover temperature quicker and retain more heat than the thinner top, but will take longer to heat up initially.
Most griddles have a separate temperature control for at least every two feet of length. You may want to ensure there are several temperature zones along the length of the griddle if there is a need to grill different products at different temperatures at the same time. Some manufacturers can provide grooved griddles to give product a broiled look. Be sure your unit comes with adequate splatter guards around the perimeter of the griddle surface and check for ease of cleaning the grease trough.
Combination Tops and other Configurations: Most manufacturers will build almost any combination of burners, griddles, and hot tops in approximately 12-inch widths.
A quick look at a major manufacturer's catalog shows 20 different standard range top configurations. In addition, there are numerous other customized tops that can be special ordered. The tops can be tailored to suit your particular application.
Some manufacturers also will split hot tops and burners front to back or provide steps up to the back row of burners that some chefs like for versatility. One or two companies even make ranges with built-in cold pans behind burners or refrigerated bases. Prices of a specialized combination range, with the exception of the more expensive refrigerated models, are usually the same or only slightly more than regular ranges. If a custom configuration fits your application, consider it.
As chefs are getting more creative with their menus and presentation methods, range manufacturers are following with many creative solutions to the operator's needs.
Dan Bendall is vice president of Cini-Little International, a Maryland-based consulting firm.