Today's dining public is looking for excitement and new flavors in the foods they eat. Ordinary meat and potatoes don't make the grade anymore. This has helped fuel the use of specialized cooking equipment like smokers, tandoor ovens and wood burning-style hearth ovens.
Fusion cuisines of all types have melded flavors of the world at many types of establishments. Some operations like to show off their unique cooking talent and the equipment they operate. Many specialty cooking items can be easily adapted to the open kitchen. Some provide a cooking process that is especially pleasing to watch or that customers wish they could do at home.
Hearth ovens with a visible flame and their distinct aromas that always make a good showing and are used by several restaurant chains and many independents around the country. Most wood burning “style” pizza ovens look like igloos, with a massive stone hearth and fire brick sides. They can weigh as much as a ton and one-half, so once a unit is in place, it won't be moved too often. The bulk of stone and brick are key to the oven's most important feature, its ability to store heat. Recovery time when doing high volume is generally not an issue. The ovens are also surprisingly energy efficient, since little of heat leaves the oven through its small opening.
Most range in size from about four to six feet in diameter, with a slightly smaller cooking surface, and a few smaller size ovens are now available with footprints as small as 30"×30." These are especially good for smaller operations and can bake two or three 10" pizzas at a time. Ovens in the four to five foot diameter range are most common. The overall diameter of an oven with a nine square foot cooking surface is about five feet when all the fire brick and insulation is added.
Pizzas can be baked in as little as three minutes but may take up to seven minutes depending on toppings and thickness. A nine square foot oven can hold 8-10 large pizzas at a time, so with experience it is possible to bake up to around 100 pizzas in an hour.
Further, the equipment doesn't really have to be wood burning to get a lot of the effect, and an increasing number of these ovens are actually gas fired. You can still get the crisp crust and a tasty product — as well as the traditional open flame look inside.
A tandoor oven is basically a clay or ceramic-lined barrel with a burner at the bottom and a small opening at the top for getting food in and out. The burner heats the inner ceramic, which retains the heat and does a lot of the actual cooking. This is not unlike the basic principle of a pizza oven. Food items can be cooked in different ways. Some products like chicken or lamb cubes are speared on long steel rods stuck into the oven. Other items like naan bread are “pasted” to the sides and cooked directly in contact with the unit.
Tandoor ovens were only found in authentic Indian restaurants until recently. The oven itself was usually poor quality and sometimes not safe. One US manufacturer has appeared on the market making a high quality oven that will outlast any other by using similar technologies to those used with the high temperature ceramics of pizza ovens.
Just as important for equipment as longevity is its productivity. As the tandoor cook places product against the wall, such as naan bread, heat is taken out of the clay. To compensate, chefs operating traditional tandoors run the ovens at full throttle, cook a batch, then pause from cooking to allow the ceramic to reheat. A high quality oven and ceramic liner has superior heat retention, allowing the operator to cook non-stop and at lower temperatures, resulting in a more consistent and efficient operation.
Smoked foods are popular and can fit into many restaurant concepts. Whether your operation is a quick service BBQ counter or a high-end restaurant, smoking may fit into your menu. There are a wide variety of capacities to choose.
Large volume operations often use the pit-style smokers, with capacities of several hundred pounds of meat at a time. They use fireplace size logs and cook and smoke the product at low temperatures for many hours. Some have a rotisserie feature to eliminate the need for turning product while cooking and to provide self-basting. Most smokers of any type use very little wood and are designed to contain and concentrate the smoke for flavoring the food within.
The other type of smoker is the low temperature oven fitted with a small heated wood chip container. These are generally smaller than pits but some can hold over 300 pounds of meat. Units for smaller menu demand can fit under counter and hold up to 75 pounds of meat. These low temp smoker ovens generally use less than a pound of wood chips to smoke meats over 8-10 hours. The oven seal traps the smoke and allows it to permeate the product. Low temp ovens use electric heat, with the smoldering wood only contributing flavor, not heat. Pit style smokers may use gas or electric burners but some use only wood for heating and smoking.
Low temp smoker ovens are also suitable for cold smoking, which is popular with items like cheeses, sauces, or some seafood. In this process the oven heat is off and the smoldering wood chips provide the smoke curing needed.
Beware of taste transfer from a smoker when not preparing smoked products. You generally don't want to use a smoker for other types of roasting because the smoke flavor is not easy to remove.
A little bit of show is important in an open kitchen as we all know. There is no better piece of cooking equipment to show than a wood fired broiler. And once a chef learns a few tricks, they are very easy to use.
Make sure you select a quality broiler, as cheap models won't stand up to the intense temperatures. Next, you need the proper type of wood for cooking: avoid soft woods like pine which is light, burns too rapidly, and has too much sap. Woods like apple, cherry, walnut and pecan make the best cooking woods. Hickory and oak are also good woods; and for that delicious flavor of the southwest the much sought after mesquite is a favorite.
Dense woods will give you a hot fire without burning too quickly. Also, remember that a three to four foot long charbroiler uses 150-200 pounds of wood daily and that you will need a place to store it.
Most new users of wood broilers use too much wood. A veteran chef will save on wood while still making a hot fire. The secret is in moving the coals around and selecting a grill with a heavy duty ceramic brick firebox. The firebox construction should be one of the most important things to look for in a new piece of equipment. Some models of good design have as much as 350 pounds of ceramic in them.
Consider and research carefully the special exhaust requirements of “solid fuel” (wood or charcoal) cooking equipment. Recent guidelines from the National Fire Protection Association require all solid fuel equipment to have a separate exhaust system from all other cooking equipment. Separate ductwork can be expensive, especially if you need to go up through a multi-story building. Also, many locales now have regulations related to smoke and exhaust emissions you may need to comply with if planning for solid fuel equipment. Some areas do not permit discharge of wood smoke, which means you would have to purchase an expensive air cleaning system or go back to a typical gas fired unit.
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 301-926-8181.