Steam kettles and braising pans are often grouped together in the "steam/ cooking" equipment category. In actuality, neither uses steam in direct food contact to cook. The braising pan, in fact, does not use steam at all. The kettle and braising pan, however, are both high production cookers that can be invaluable in your kitchen. Both the kettle and braising pan can be selected in a variety of sizes chosen depending on the volume of your operation. Each has a different way of cooking and can produce a substantial amount of cooked food for its size. We will examine some of the characteristics of each of these important cooking items.
Steam kettles. The kettle as was stated, does not use steam in direct food contact but it does use the extremely efficient heating properties of steam. Steam is a nearly 100% efficient heat source. All of steam’s heat energy transfers to the product being cooked or in the case of a kettle to the inner steel jacket then to the food upon contact. The temperature of steam at atmospheric pressure is 212°F, the same temperature as boiling water. Steam, however, has six times the heat potential when it condenses on a cool food product. This tremendous heat transfer potential is why you can put your hand in a 400°F oven and not have it burn, while putting your hand over the opening of a boiling tea kettle will scald immediately.
A steam kettle, like the steamer, takes advantage of the high heat energy transfer of steam. A steam kettle is basically a double boiler with both vessels welded together so that no steam escapes when heated and pressurized. As we mentioned before, steam at atmospheric pressure is 212°F, but when the steam fed to the kettle is at 15 pounds. of pressure, the temperature rises to about 250°F. Higher pressures produce correspondingly higher temperatures that have advantages for some cooking situations. Unlike a steamer, it’s important to remember the steam kettle is not a moist heat source. At high steam pressures, you can actually brown meat in a steam kettle.
Kettle sizes range from one quart up to 200 gallons for very large institutions. The most popular sizes for the restaurant operator are between 20 quarts and 40 gallons. Small kettles, from 5 to 40 quarts, are usually mounted on a table and are convenient for preparing soups or sauces in these small quantities. The larger kettles are usually bolted to the floor or mounted on a wall and recommended for large production activities.
When choosing the kettle size for your operation, remember that the working capacity is roughly 75 percent of the actual kettle capacity. If 10 gallons of soup is needed daily, it can’t be cooked in a single batch in a 10-gallon kettle. Do not be afraid to move up in size when purchasing a kettle, especially if you think business may grow. Kettles are not inexpensive, but the added cost to move up in size is comparatively low.
The type of food prepared in kettles and how it will be removed from the kettle will influence the type of equipment purchased. Stationary kettles have a draw-off valve at the bottom of the unit to remove its contents. Different size draw-offs are available and should be specified depending upon the types of products to be cooked. For instance, a stew with large chunks of vegetables and meats may best be removed from the kettle with a 3-inch-wide draw-off to preserve the large food pieces adequately.
The tilting kettle, which has a mechanism to tilt the entire kettle to empty the contents, adds an extra degree of flexibility that is preferred by many chefs. Cleanability is generally easier with a tilting kettle since the kettle can be easily dumped. When planning for a new kettle, remember to have a floor drain or preferably a floor trench drain in front of the equipment to catch run-off liquid or water dumped from the kettle.
When selecting a kettle, you also need to choose a source of steam. A direct steam connection is usually the most efficient source if it is not contaminated. If the steam source is not clean, it’s all right for a kettle but not for a steamer. Direct steam is sometimes available in commercial buildings or as a utility in some large cities, although typically most restaurants are left with either electric or gas-fired boilers as options. There is no difference in how one type cooks product versus the other. Consider which energy source is most convenient and economical for you.
Braising pans. Many call the braising pan the most versatile piece of cooking equipment in the kitchen. One can begin to tell why by the different names given the units. They are sometimes called braising pans as we have here, while others call them tilting skillets or tilting fry pans. These units have a unique combination of a large griddle surface along with sides for liquid holding, a large open or covered surface area, and the ability to tilt to remove product quickly. This combination of features allows the units to do griddle, kettle, and steamer cooking as well as pan frying, roasting, and braising.
The flat steel bottom of the unit can readily handle any sort of griddle work needed. Either electric coils or gas flame directly under the surface of the griddle plate bottom heat the units. A thermostat controls the heat just like a griddle. They can produce hamburgers, brown meats or grill sandwiches in large quantity. The braising pan can be a perfect supplement to your stand alone griddle.
Braising pans are sized by gallons of capacity similar to a kettle from about 10 to 40 gallons. They can simmer soups or boil water, cook pasta, or make a sauce just like a kettle. The braising pan has the added advantage that you can brown meat as the first step in making soup in the same unit where you simmer the soup. The large top surface area allows rapid stock reduction for quicker finishing of product.
Some braising pans have an accessory steamer rack so the unit can do atmospheric steaming. The steamer rack fits inside the pan above the cooking surface allowing you to boil water in the bottom while holding product above for steaming. Using the connected cover works well to hold in steam for cooking large quantities of vegetables or seafood.
Pan frying in large quantities is something unique the braising pan can do. The heated griddle surface, combined with its high sides, can let you cook with plenty of oil and minimize grease splatter. The units are much larger than any range top skillets so you can do the production of six or more burners and pans in a single unit.
Some operators even use their braising pans as ovens. The units can actually do a reasonable job at some types of roasting for meat and poultry. Product is cradled on special racks in the braising pan. With the heat turned up and the cover closed, the unit acts like a conventional oven. The units are especially good at low temperature cooking.
Of course, the braising pan can also braise. These units are probably the best appliance in the kitchen for braising meats. Those dishes needing long simmering to bring out the natural flavors and tenderize the product can be prepared well in a braising pan.
Choosing a braising pan size is an important decision, but one that depends on the types of cooking you will be doing as described above. If you will be doing a lot of liquid or kettle-type cooking the unit should be sized similar to the way described for a kettle. If, however, you will be using the unit more as a griddle you should size your purchase based on the bottom surface area needed. For example, a 40-gallon braising pan can handle about 40 four-inch beef patties per batch.
The kettle and the braising pan can both be workhorses in most kitchens. They are among the most durable cooking appliances because of their heavy-duty construction and simple operation. Any kitchen can benefit from the versatility of these cooking equipment items.
Dan Bendall is vice president of Cini-Lilttle International, a Maryland-based consulting firm.