Speed is the name of the game in foodservice today. Operators are under constant pressure to provide quality food in a hurry, à la minute, instead of keeping prepared food sitting on a buffet or steam table. Most 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 and be space- and labor-efficient as well.
Many of the latest equipment innovations speed up the cooking process. Combi and high-speed ovens use multiple cooking methods to cook product quicker. An earlier invention, the convection oven, bakes in a fraction of the time of a traditional oven. Two more recent introductions, induction and hybrid technology, offer even more options for trimming cooking times.
Induction has become widely used in restaurants in recent years. These small (approximately 14 inches 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. Induction units are also super efficient, since 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 for conventional cooking sources.
Induction is widely used on buffet lines in restaurants. It's well suited for an omelet station or a stir fry area in a cafeteria or buffet outlet, and it's 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 falsely believe that using induction means no exhaust hood is needed. That may be true in some places, but often local authorities require a hood, and technically a hood should be provided whenever cooking is done. In a few instances you will even need a hood over units intended to warm buffet items since technically you could cook even though it would not make sense in most layouts. One manufacturer has developed a unit that many local code authorities have accepted. This induction warmer has several fixed temperature settings limiting the maximum temperature 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.
Hybrid ovens are being touted as the wave of the future. These high-speed ovens use either multiple heating methods introduced in the same piece of equipment or new forms of cooking technology.
The latest in oven technology combines some of the best features of the convection oven, microwave oven and impingement oven to create some of the fastest quality food-producing units ever introduced. A new generation of oven, the supercooker, has debuted over the past few years and is still being refined and finding its place in today's kitchen. The new multitask ovens promise to deliver food so fast that they 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 speed cook food. Two of the more popular cooking methods use combinations of cooking types. One style of oven, made by several companies, combines forced air similar to an impingement oven with microwaves. Superheated 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 and the units cook in a fraction of the time of conventional ovens.
In some instances these so-called supercooker ovens can be installed without an exhaust hood, making electrical power the only utility consideration. It's advisable to consult an equipment supplier and even work with a demonstration oven to determine if this is the right product for you before buying one.
One drawback of high-speed equipment can be the cost. The price tags for some of these units range from $4,500 up to $10,000 or more. You need to weigh the payback of cooking speed versus cost for your individual operation. The units also may not be suitable for all your existing menu items. They may have limitations in volume of product cooked simultaneously (although some of that lower 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.
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 specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. He can be reached at 241-314-0660.