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Cooking at the Speed of Light

Supercookers have price tags that range from a low end of about $3,000 up to as much as $10,000 or more.You need to weigh the payback of cooking speed versus cost.

When you hear the term "fast food," most don't think of fresh, elaborate food that's prepared quickly. But that's changing. Manufacturers have recently developed and continue to refine equipment for high-speed cooking.

Induction Cookers. One item that is becoming widely used in foodservice is the induction cooker. Induction cookers work by generating a magnetic wave at the cooking surface. The magnetic wave actually produces no heat, but when you place a pan with magnetic metal on the cooktop surface, the magnetic wave heats the pan. Actually, the molecules in the pan start to move rapidly, generating heat. The result is even, instant and controllable heat.

Induction heat has even been shown to be faster than gas in cooking tests. Induction is also more energy efficient than gas or conventional electric heat. Since almost all the power generated goes directly into the pan and not into the surrounding area, air conditioning and hood exhaust requirements are often less than those required by conventional cooking sources.

Induction has not made its way widely into U.S. kitchens. In Europe, however, induction kitchens are common. Look for more heavy-duty production equipment to be introduced to the U.S. in the next few years. As we become more concerned about energy conservation and using fossil fuels, induction will become more popular. Although induction uses electric power, the units use much less energy because they only draw full current when cooking, unlike traditional burners that are on until turned off.

Induction is widely used on buffet lines and is well suited for an omelet station or a stir-fry area in a cafeteria or buffet outlet. It's also far safer than open flames in these close-customer contact areas. On the buffet line, induction is also excellent as a chafing dish warmer. The controlled heat can be set below cooking temperatures.

Some induction models are for built-in applications, meaning the ceramic-cooking surface is flush with your countertop,-creating a sleek, finished look. Countertops with the cookers imbedded can be used for other purposes during down times.

Induction cookers are not necessarily pricey, either. Some lower-cost, low-wattage units are fine for buffet warmers or tableside cooking. These cookers are usually about 1,500 watts and can cost as little as $500-700. Your best bet is to look for a model drawing at least 2,500 watts, which will cost around $1,000.

Many operators believe falsely that using induction means no exhaust hood is needed. But both an exhaust hood and a fire suppression system are required. Although in many locations you will see induction units without a hood, one should be provided whenever cooking is done. In addition to the obvious safety, odor and smoke issues, having a hood will eliminate stains on nearby walls and ceilings that will develop over time. In a few instances you will even need a hood over units intended to warm buffet items since, technically, the units can be used for cooking.

One manufacturer has developed a unit strictly for warming. It has been accepted by many local code authorities for use without a hood. This induction warmer has several fixed temperature settings limiting the temperature to a maximum 200°F. Watch for other innovations in induction cooking in the next few years.

A new breed of "supercookers" promises to cook food faster than you ever imagined. Here's what you need to know to buy a unit.

Supercookers. Another type of high-speed cooker is described by manufacturers as the way of the future. Some call the group of new cooking devices " supercookers," which are items that use either multiple heating methods introduced in the same piece of equipment or are new forms of cooking technology. They are the next generation of equipment beyond convection and even typical impingement type ovens.

The latest in oven technology combines some of the best features of the convection oven, microwave oven and impingement oven to create some of the fastest food producing units ever introduced. Supercookers have made their debut over the past few years and are still being refined. They are multitask ovens that can cook a wide variety of products and cook them faster than anything previously on the market.

Because of new technology patents, each company has its own twist on how to "supercook" food. Two of the more popular cooking methods use combinations of cooking types. One style of oven made by several companies combines microwaves with forced air, similar to an impingement oven. Super-heated air is forced over the food to brown the outside for taste and appearance. At the same time, microwave energy is added to penetrate the food and heat it through before the circulated air can penetrate.

Another hybrid oven also uses microwaves, but combines them with high-intensity light-wave energy. Similar to the microwave hybrid-oven, heating is instantaneous. No preheating is required and the units cook in a fraction of the time of conventional ovens. Each approach is geared to provide extremely fast cook times.

How to take best advantage of the supercookers may be the most difficult challenge for operators. The units are generally small, which means they can easily fit into existing kitchens. They often can be installed without an exhaust hood, making installation of electrical power the only utility consideration. You should work with an equipment supplier and try out a demonstration oven to ensure this is the product for you.

The supercookers do have some limitations, though, including cost. Many of them have price tags that range from a low end of about $3,000 up to as much as $10,000 or more. You need to weigh the payback of cooking speed versus cost for your individual operation. Also, the units are not a replacement for all your cooking equipment and may not be suitable for existing menu items. They may have limitations in volume of product cooked simultaneously, but this drawback is offset by sheer speed of operation. Users will need to experiment with recipes to determine how to adapt cooking time and temperature for a specific item to the units.

Manufacturers have recently made significant contributions to new technology in foodservice equipment. The new highspeed cookers fill a need for speed. Manufacturers have promised to introduce improvements, more variety of products, and even more user-friendly features in the near future. Keep watching for more significant improvements in the near future.

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 301-926-8181.

Speed: An induction grill can preheat quickly compared to conventional grills.

DUAL: Infrared heating and air impingement can, together, create high heat quickly.
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