It seems like everyone has started buying high speed cooking equipment. Speed is the name of the game in foodservice today. The challenge for operators is to provide quality 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 a lot of space or an army of kitchen workers to pull off the feat of quick meal service. The equipment must cook fast, be space efficient and labor effective as well. Manufacturers have responded with several improved and new high speed cooking equipment items.
Many of the latest cooking equipment innovations improve the speed of the cooking process. The combi oven and high speed ovens use multiple cooking methods to cook product quicker. Before these items, the convection oven was the success it has been because it can bake in a fraction of the time of a traditional oven. The induction plate unit, which requires no heat up time, is a speed improvement over the standard electric burner. It even offers benefits over a gas burner because it uses a technology that is more efficient than traditional methods in getting heat to food.
Induction has become widely used in restaurants in recent years. These small (approximately 14" square) countertop or in-counter units work like this: a power supply 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 super fast, 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.
Induction is widely used on buffet lines in restaurants. It is well suited for an omelet station or a stir fry area in a cafeteria or buffet outlet. 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. Although it is true in some places, in many locations you will need a hood, and technically, a hood should be provided whenever cooking is done.
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 200°F. There is also an induction unit made for wok cooking with a curved bowl cooktop. Watch for other innovations in induction cooking in the next few years.
Another type of high-speed cooker is the new variety of hybrid ovens developed to meet our demand for high quality food cooked rapidly.
These ovens 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 these ovens, which are one of the few truly new technology advancements in foodservice equipment in recent years.
The industry has now moved to the next generation beyond convection and even typical impingement type ovens like the conveyor pizza ovens. 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, is a multi-task oven that can cook a wide variety of products and cook them faster than anything previously on the market. They 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 combined with 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. Each approach is geared to provide extremely fast cook times.
How to take best advantage of the high speed cookers may be the most difficult challenge for operators. The units are generally small, which is good since 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.
There are limitations. Many of these units have high price tags which range from a low end of about $4,500 up to as much as $10,000 or more. 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.
Manufacturing companies have stepped up and made a significant contribution to new technology in foodservice equipment lately. Many operations, in their quest to meet customer desires, are ready for induction units or another high-speed cooker.
In the near future manufacturers have guaranteed improvements, more variety of products, and even more user friendly features. Keep watching for more significant improvements.
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.