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Really Fast Cooking Equipment

FAST AS THE BLAZES: Advances in food heating technology have produced a series of new equipment that dramatically reduce the time it takes to cook food, sometimes cutting prep time by hours.
Cooking faster has been a goal of equipment makers and users alike for as long as cooking equipment has been around. In today's hurried world the race to speed up cooking has intensified with cooking time being counted in seconds rather than minutes. Equipment manufacturers have responded to the needs of operators.

Major improvements in cooking equipment have been made in all categories, from traditional items to today's supercookers.

The supercooker is a new breed of hybrid equipment that manufacturers are saying will meet our demand for high-quality food prepared quickly.

Supercookers 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 supercookers, which are one of the few truly new technology advancements in foodservice equipment in recent years.

A conventional oven uses radiant energy to transfer heat to food products. The problem with radiant transfer is that you need to wait for the heat to penetrate the thermal barrier or cool air zone around the food before the heat is transferred to the product.

The first technology to speed things up was the development of the convection oven. The convection oven differs from the standard oven in that it adds forced air movement to strip away the cool thermal barrier allowing faster heat transfer.

The simple addition of a fan to provide air movement is old news now, but was the first significant step impacting cooking speed in the evolution of the oven.

In addition to reduced cook times, convection ovens could be operated at a lower temperature than traditional ovens while cooking more evenly.

The production improvements in convection ovens directed at giving operators a quicker finished product and better results have all but eliminated the conventional oven from the modern kitchen except as a secondary production piece under ranges.

Air Impingement Oven Although it has also been around for years, another development in oven technology is the air impingement oven. Many of these ovens are the conveyor style units often used as pizza ovens, although they can be quite versatile and can cook a variety of other products as well. Air impingement uses many small nozzles to force high velocity heated air directly at the food product surfaces.

This form of convection is especially effective at scrubbing or stripping away the cool air barrier around a food product, allowing quick browning and cooking.

Many operators say the air impingement actually improves the texture of the finished product due to the rapid cooking. Surfaces are uniformly browned and naturally crisp without drying due to shorter cook times.

There are generally higher yields because of less evaporation and greater moisture retention. Almost all foods are cooked at one-half the time required in a traditional oven and many foods are cooked faster than that.

Supercookers The industry has now moved to the next generation 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 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 supercookers 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.

For example, here are some scenarios for you to think about. If you can prepare three orders of salmon fillet in under three minutes, why prepare it ahead of time and have it sit under a warmer?

Because you can prepare individual pizzas in 60 seconds, you can begin cooking while the rest of the order is being assembled.

Imagine a baked quarter chicken in one and one-half minutes from raw to crispy brown. The new ovens not only cook super fast, they can help you eliminate waste by reducing or eliminating holding time. If you can prepare three orders of salmon fillet in under three minutes, why prepare it ahead of time and have it sit under a warmer?

The supercooker is a generic term for an increasing number of units made by a variety of companies taking different approaches to speed cooking. Because of patents on the new technology, 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, 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 convected air can penetrate.

Another hybrid oven uses microwaves combined with high-intensity lightwave energy. Similar to the other oven type, 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 is good since they can easily fit into existing kitchens. They can also often be installed without an exhaust hood making installation of electrical power the only utility type 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 money on one of these units.

The supercookers do have some limitations though, including cost.

Many of them have super price tags that range from a low end of about $3,000 up to as much as $10,000. 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 the lack of volume is often 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.

Despite some possible limitations, given all the advantages in speed and cooking quality, these ovens are certainly worth buying if speed is important to you.

Manufacturing companies have stepped up and made a significant contribution to new technology in foodservice equipment and, most importantly, they have filled a need for many operations in many segments of the foodservice industry. For the near future, manufacturers have guaranteed improvements, a wider variety of products, and even more user-friendly features for these types of cooking units. So keep watching for more significant improvements in the years ahead.

Dan Bendall is a principal of Food- Strategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI).
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