|A fast-cook oven is a key equipment component at The Café, a sophisticated venue on the Stanford University campus that offers quick-serve sandwiches, salads and barbecue items (see related story on p. 36)|
| Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm that specializes in planning foodservice facilities. A member of Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI), Bendall can be reached at 240-314-0660. |
Speed is the name of the game in foodservice today. To paraphrase an advertising slogan, everyone wants fresh food fast not just fast food. The challenge for operators is to provide fresh food in a hurry—not having prepared food sitting on a buffet, steamtable, or otherwise ready to serve for a long time while quality deteriorates. Operators also cannot afford to employ an army of kitchen workers to pull off the feat of quick meal service. Manufacturers have responded with several improved and new high speed cooking equipment items.
One item that has really become widely used in recent years is the induction cooker. These small approximately 14-inch square countertop or in-counter units have a power supply that generates a magnetic field through a coil located under the ceramic top of the unit. When an iron or magnetic metal pan is placed in the magnetic field, currents are induced in the cooking utensil and instant heat is generated due to resistance of the pan. Heating is instantaneous and can be regulated by output control buttons.
In addition to being superfast, induction units are also super efficient as nearly all of the electrical energy consumed is converted to heat in the pan. High powered induction units have even been shown to be faster than gas burners in cooking tests. Induction is also more energy efficient than gas or conventional electric heat. Since almost all the power consumed goes directly into the pan not into the surrounding area, air conditioning and hood exhaust requirements may be less than when using conventional cooking sources.
Look for more heavy duty back-of-house production cooking equipment to be introduced in the next few years. Induction is widely used on buffet lines. It is well suited for an omelet station or a stir fry area. It is 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.
Many operators believe falsely that using induction means you will not need an exhaust hood. You should be aware that although it is true in some places, in many locations you will need a hood. In a few instances you will need a hood over units intended to warm buffet items. One manufacturer has developed a unit that has been accepted by local code authorities just about everywhere. This induction warmer has several fixed temperature settings limiting the temperature at the maximum setting to just over 200ºF.
There is also an induction unit made for wok cooking with a curved bowl cooktop.
Another type of high speed cooker is the new variety of hybrid equipment developed to meet the demand for high quality food cooked rapidly. These high speed cookers are items that use either multiple heating methods introduced in the same piece of equipment or new forms of cooking technology. Manufacturers are promising big things for operations with the “supercookers” which are one of the few truly new technology advancements in foodservice equipment in recent years.
The latest in oven technology combines some of the best features of the convection oven, microwave oven and the impingement oven to create some of the fastest quality food producing units ever introduced. A new generation of oven, the supercooker has made its debut over the past few years and is still being refined and finding its place in today’s kitchen. The high speed cookers are the new multitask ovens that can cook a wide variety of products and cook them faster than anything previously on the market.
The new generation ovens promise to deliver food so fast it will change the way operators think about producing food.
Because of patents on the new technology each company has its own twist on how to “speedcook” food. Two of the more popular cooking methods use combinations of cooking types. One style oven made by several companies, combines forced air similar to an impingement oven with microwaves. 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 uses microwaves again but combines high intensity light wave energy. Others use infrared radiant heat in addition to other heating sources. Similar to the microwave hybrid oven, heating is instantaneous, virtually no preheating is required and the units cook in a fraction of the time of conventional ovens.
How to take best advantage of the high speed cookers may be the most difficult challenge for operators. The units are generally small so they can be easily fit into existing kitchens. They can also often be installed without an exhaust hood, making installation of electrical power the only utility consideration. As an operator you need to work with an equipment supplier and even work with a demonstration oven to ensure this is the product for you before you spend the sometimes large amount of money on one of these units.
The cookers do have some limitations though, including cost. Many of these units have high price tags which range from a low end of about $3,500 up to as much as $10,000 or more. You need to weigh the payback of cooking speed versus cost for your individual operation. The units are also not a replacement for all your cooking capacity and may not be suitable for all your existing menu items. They may have limitations in volume of product cooked simultaneously but some of the lack of volume 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.
Some of the high speed units have another advantage besides speed. A few units may not need exhaust hoods, thereby offering a potential large savings to an operator. Some are certified by UL for a ventless installation but check your local requirements before purchasing to make sure.
The units have built in catalytic converters that filter smoke and odors from the air, allowing for ventless installation.
Manufacturing companies have stepped up and made a significant contribution to new technology in foodservice equipment lately. Most importantly the new high speed cookers fill a need for many operations in being able to serve a high quality product faster. In the near future manufacturers have guaranteed improvements, more variety of products, and even more user friendly features.