SMALL BUT MIGHTY: Compact countertop steamers are powerful performers.
COLORFUL: Green vegetables like asparagus cook best with steam.
Versatile steam cooking is where today's cooks and chefs are turning for healthy, hot, appetizing meals. Steam is probably the most efficient-heating source for most equipment applications since it can store a tremendous amount of energy and release it all to a food product upon contact.
The temperature of steam, when not under pressure, is 212°F, the same temperature as boiling water. Steam, however, has six times the heat potential when it condenses on a cool food product.This huge heat transfer potential is why steam is such an ideal cooking medium. Consider the difference in cooking power between an oven and steamer in this oversimplified example. You can put your hand in a 400°F oven and not burn yourself, but put your hand over a boiling teakettle and the 212°F steam will scald immediately.
Chefs of many different cuisines and ethnic styles find steam to be a wonderful way to cook because of its effectiveness in putting heat into a product rapidly without burning or damaging the food. Below are some items to consider about popular types of steam equipment.
A number of years ago convection steamers were available, but were much less popular than pressure units. Today it's the opposite. The vast majority of sales are now pressureless or convection steamers. Pressure steamers are not often used in today's new restaurant kitchens, though they may be applicable in larger food --service operations. Cooks have found that convection steamers can do a job comparable to their pressurized counterparts with some advantages.
Safety is a prime concern, and a pressureless steamer is perceived to be less of a hazard than its counterpart. With a pressureless model, cooks can open the cooking compartment at any time to check the product with no wait for depressurization. Most agree that the appearance and texture of green vegetables cooked in a convection steamer is better than product prepared in a pressure model. Convection steamers are also better suited to cooking product directly from a frozen state than pressure models, which perform better with thawed product.
At least 10 or 12 different manufacturers produce steamers. Each has its own selling points and specialized features, but most do an adequate job of steaming. There are a wide variety of available sizes. They range from the small two-or three-pan units to the large 16-pan multi-compartment models. The smaller three-to five-pan models are usually set on a countertop. The larger models are floor-mounted with stands.
Sizes are rated by capacity in 12" x 20" steamtable pans. It's important to note, however, that ratings are typically for shallow 21/2" deep pans. Though you may typically use 4"- or 6"-deep pans, the shallower pans produce a better product and will encourage smallerbatch cooking for fresher steamed items.
There are an astounding variety of sizes and configurations available in steamers. However, one steamer size is currently getting a lot more attention than others.
Owners and operators are demanding high production equipment using less floor area or a "smaller footprint" to keep construction costs low and efficiency high. At least four manufacturers now have compact countertop units that will sit on a standard 30" deep counter. All are less than 21" wide and some are as narrow as 16". Each holds at least three 12" x 20" x 2.5" deep steamtable pans.
There are three different fuel sources used to heat water to make steam for steamers. Most models are available as electric or gas, and some can be bought in direct steam-fired configurations. The smaller steamers may only be available in electric heat. Most often found in institutions, direct steam is the most economical heat source. Even if you have steam available in the restaurant, be sure the steam is clean, meaning that there are no chemicals added that would endanger food.
Electric-or gas-fired steamers work well and produce similar results. To make the electric versus gas decision, look at your utility rates. In many areas of the country gas models will be less expensive to operate. Also, consider the initial equipment cost. Models vary, but typically for the smaller steamers, electric-heated units are a bit lower in cost. As units get larger, however, the purchase cost tends to be more similar when comparing electric and gas.
Manufacturers continue to improve their convection steamers. Some of the newer models are quite efficient and offer user-friendly features. For efficiency, manufacturers are improving units to use less water and less energy while delivering the power needed for fast steam cooking. An attractive feature some units offer is automatic water fill and control to eliminate the need to constantly monitor and manually refill the water reservoir. Some steamers also have an energy efficient standby mode that reduces the water reservoir temperature below the boiling point when not in use, thereby keeping energy usage as low as possible.
An attractive feature some units offer is automatic water fill and control to eliminate
the need to constantly monitor and manually refill the water reservoir.
Steamers are a wonderful and very necessary piece of equipment for most kitchens. However you need to be prepared for some regular maintenance in order to get the most from your steamer. Any service agent will tell you steamer issues are one of the most frequent calls they get. Most of these issues are not because of poor equipment but rather lack of operator preventive maintenance.
One steamer size getting more attention these days is a compact countertop unit that sits
on a standard 30" deep counter and is less than 21" wide and as narrow as 16".
Typically neglected, deliming is the most frequent source of a service call according to service agencies. If deliming is not done when needed, the steamers will not operate at full efficiency and will eventually shut down altogether. Deliming the unit because of hard water build-up is an important need in many steamers.
Follow the manufacturer's direction for your water conditions and your equipment will perform well for many years. Some units have user-friendly features, including easy-to-use controls and warning lights to tell you when to delime. The built-in warning light offered by a few manufacturers should save some operations from hefty service bills.
Choosing the proper steamer and taking good care of it will ensure many years of satisfactory service.
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. He can be reached at 240-314-0660.