By Daniel Bendall
Combi ovens can help operators save valuable kitchen space, but the biggest attraction is usually the oven's greater capabilities and three operating modes.
It was only a few years ago that combination oven/steamers were still something of a novelty, representing an innovative new cooking style. But times change, and they are now becoming commonplace in today's high-tech, more efficient kitchens.
There are over 50 different models of steamer/ovens on the market, made by at least half a dozen manufacturers. If you ask a contemporary chef what the most productive piece of cooking equipment in his or her kitchen is, many will quickly point to the combination oven/steamer.
"Combis," as they are known, can bake and roast like a convection oven, steam and poach like a steamer, and reheat or cook product without drying it out. 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.
At the same time, the cost of a combi oven is still a consideration. Making a good selection will help you get the most for your money.
Space and energy savings
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. And in these tight environments, the combi oven clearly shines.
A combi takes up about half the area needed if you have both a convection oven and a steamer. This can free up space for other equipment or just provide some badly needed workspace. The space saved can translate in to other cost savings as well.
For one thing, buying less exhaust hood 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 also represent a significant ongoing energy cost reduction.
Still, it's not the space saved that draws most operators to buy a combi— its all the things such ovens can do. Combi's 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 to give service history and usage.
Complex cooking programs with hot air and steam can be input and used, and computer savvy chefs can adapt such programs so that kitchen staff achieve high quality results with "one button" operation. 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 mid-priced 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. An operation needs to have highly trained chefs to make full use of features on a top of the line combi. The mid-line combi usually costs about 30% less than topofthe-line models.
In the past several years, economy lines of so-called "boilerless" combi ovens have been introduced by some manufacturers. These often appeal to operations on a budget because the separate boiler component use to make steam is eliminated from the unit. Instead, the ovens spray a fine mist of tap water on to a heated plate within the unit, creating enough steam for many applications. 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 which can be an issue 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.
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 steam table pan (12" x 20") or baking sheet pan (18" x 26") capacities. Note that shallow 2 1/2" pans 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 requires 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 commonly available are four to six 12" x 20" pan capacity countertop units, a seven to ten 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, which is 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 foodservice operations can use combis—from small limited-service outlets to large volume 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. Choose an oven wisely and you may soon wonder how you did without it.
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. Bendall can be reached at 240-314-0660.