If you're looking for drama in your restaurant and on your menu, then consider installing a piece or two of wood-burning equipment.
Today's diners are looking for excitement and new food flavors. This taste for adventure has helped fuel the need for some specialized cooking equipment, including wood-burning ovens and smokers.
You don't have to be a barbecue joint to have a smoker. Fusion cuisines of all types have melded flavors of the world into many types of establishments. Many specialty cooking items can be easily adapted to the open kitchen. Wood-burning equipment with its flames and aromas always make for a good show.
Wood-fired brick hearth pizza ovens are one of the most popular types of wood-burning equipment. Most wood-burning pizza ovens typically have a massive stone hearth and firebrick sides. The bulk of stone and brick (as much as a ton-and-a-half) 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 the heat energy leaves the oven through its small opening.
Most ovens are round and range in size from about four to six feet in diameter with a slightly smaller cooking surface. There are also ovens with footprints as small as 30" × 30", which makes them good for a bar or smaller bistro operation. They can bake two or three 10" pizzas at a time. Ovens in the four- to five-foot diameter range are most common, however. The small unit can produce quite a volume because pizzas can be baked in as little as three minutes, but may take five to seven minutes depending on toppings and thickness. The large brick ovens can hold eight to 10 large pizzas at a time.
Often you'll hear the phrase wood-burning style, which means the oven looks like a wood-burner, but is really gas-fired. Real wood ovens are being restricted in many locations largely because of fire and exhaust emissions regulations. So, if you're having a challenge with real wood-burning equipment, a gas-fired model should still be a strong consideration. You can still get the crisp crust and a tasty product, and most of the ovens have a nice-looking flame burner inside.
Large-volume operations often use pit-style smokers. They generally have capacities of more than 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.
Another type of smoker is a low-temperature oven fitted with a small heated woodchip container. These smokers are generally smaller than the pits but can hold more than 300 pounds of meat when filled to capacity. Smokers for smaller menus can fit under counter and hold up to 75 pounds of meat.
These low-temp ovens generally use less than a pound of wood chips to smoke meats over 8-10 hours. The oven seal is able to trap the smoke and permeate the meat. Low-temp ovens use electric heat with the smoldering wood just contributing flavor, not heat. The 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 and some seafood. In this process there is no oven heat 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. Another oven should be used for non-smoked products.
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 301-233-5226.