WORKHORSE: Combi ovens can perform many cooking tasks.
SPEED: Top-notch combi ovens like these save space and cook dozens of items well.
Only a few years ago combi ovens were an exotic hybrid found in only "gold-plated" kitchens. Today their popularity has grown so much that they are commonplace in many types of operations. If you ask a chef to name the most productive pieces of equipment in his or her kitchen, invariably the combination oven/steamer is singled out at the top of most lists. Many will say the combi is the heart of the hot food production line. Others say they use it to finish more items on the menu than any other piece of equipment.
The really great thing about a combi is that many menu items can be wonderfully baked, roasted and steamed in this one unit. Products that are often dried out in conventional ovens come out of a combi tender and moist. It's no wonder chefs like combis, especially since versatility is the name of the game in today's kitchen. The combination oven/steamer is a piece of equipment that can bake and roast like a convection oven; steam and poach like a steamer; and reheat or cook product without drying it out.
Essentially an oven/steamer can do everything either a steamer or a convection oven can do and in many cases better than either. Cooks can operate the units in any one of the three operating modes—steam, convection or steam plus convection.
Some models offer additional specialty modes using hot air and steam to defrost, rethermalize, poach or gently steam and warm. Many types of red meats and poultry are well adapted to combination cooking because they can be prepared so many ways. Steaming vegetables and fish is easily done. Some users say their best baked pastries and rolls come from their unit.
The steamer/oven operating in the combination mode mixes forced air convection for even browning, along with steam for moist heat to reduce product drying. The combination mode is especially well suited for producing less shrinkage in meats than typical ovens. Breads and rolls baked in the combi mode will be fluffier and have more oven spring than those baked in traditional ovens. Rethermalizing leftovers and heating prepackaged frozen convenience foods using the combi mode reduces drying and overbrowning.
There are other reasons to use the equipment. The combination oven/steamer can save space, which is the ultimate premium in many operations these days. As we all know, today's kitchens are shrinking because we can't afford the luxury of space found in many older kitchens. The combi takes up about half the space of a convection oven and steamer. The space saved can translate into cost savings as well. A combi uses less exhaust-hood stainless steel, which means less air-conditioned air is lost. That translates to an energy savings. The hood cost, along with the savings due to reducing or consolidating pieces of equipment, can be significant, but the typical combi is still expensive.
Several manufacturers have engineered and are about to introduce an economy line of combi ovens that will appeal to the operation on a budget. The new item is the boilerless combi. The expensive boiler is eliminated and the resulting steamer/ovens are about 15-20 percent less than the typically sized counterpart. The only drawback is slightly reduced steam output needed in high-volume fast cooking. In many applications the difference in the units is not noticeable.
These new boilerless units have opened an additional market for smaller operations. There is an added benefit to the boilerless combi, which is reduced liming problems due to hard water. Over half of combi maintenance problems are due to excessive scale and lime buildup, which can be eliminated in a boilerless model.
The oven/steamers on today's market range from smallvolume countertop units to floor-mounted roll-in units with large capacities for banquets or institutional use. Typical sizes are stated by manufacturers in standard steamtable pan (12" x 20") or baking sheet pan (18" x 26") capacities. Note that shallow 2 1/2 pans are typically used in the sizing ratings. You will need to reduce capacity accordingly if using 4" or 6" pans that would be most typical for casserole items or lasagna.
Most manufacturers make several of the more popular oven sizes. The models most available are the four to six 12" x 20"-pan countertop unit, a seven- to 10-pan unit and the larger floor or stand-mounted 14-, 18- and 20-pan models. The smaller units generally hold only a 12" x 20" pan or half-size baking pan. The larger units hold two 12" x 20" pans on each shelf or a single 18" x 26" baking pan. At least one manufacturer makes a specialized rotisserie combi great for displaying and cooking rotisserie-style chicken or other products. The unit can also be converted to traditional shelves for cooking other products.
Once the necessary size unit for your operation is determined, a primary consideration is whether you'll be using gas or electric. All sizes and styles are generally available as electric units. Gas units are produced by some manufacturers. However, they are usually more expensive than electric units and available only in certain sized models. Generally, the smaller units are only available for electric operation. If you are using an electric unit, be sure to have enough power because they require a fairly substantial load. For example, a 10-steam table pan unit requires between 13 and 19 kilowatts to operate.
As with all steam equipment, the quality of water going into the combi is vital for good equipment performance. The majority of all service problems with combis are related to liming or mineral deposit build-up. Most manufacturers definitely recommend a water filter for the equipment. Have your tap water tested for hardness and use filters to correct the level to within the standards the manufacturers' recommend, but don't stop there. Along with water filters, also have a regular program for manual or automatic deliming. Some of the full-featured ovens have a program that automatically alerts the operators to delime. When activated, the combi goes into a deliming cycle using chemicals supplied to a special reservoir on the unit.
When selecting equipment, you also need to be aware of and perhaps choose among several options. Several manufacturers have multiple lines of combis from basic to deluxe, with varying amounts of programmability or other options. Look carefully and buy the options you need, but don't overbuy, as steps up in features are generally several thousands of dollars even in the small counter-top models.
Most units are fully stainless steel inside and out with a glass window. They are generally easy to clean, although several models have a built-in spray hose for washing out the interior. Meat probes are not standard with some units and should be purchased, especially if a lot of meat roasting is planned. The probes are integrated into the computerized controls to provide consistent product every time you use the unit.
One important, but often overlooked operational consideration is a side shield required on some units. The side shield is used when the oven/steamer is next to other cooking appliances to prevent the item's electrical controls from getting overheated. The solid-state and computerized controls are very sensitive to heat and can easily be damaged in the vicinity of a range or broiler.
There are other more subtle advancements in combis being made by several of the main manufacturers. One improvement is in enhanced fan design for more even air movement. Another is better self-cleaning options for those who want to pay for this labor- saving feature.
Most operations can take advantage of the oven's versatility and benefit from the wide range of food products that can be cooked in combis. Wide acceptance and appeal among chefs and clear advantages in food preparation have made the combi oven an expected item in the modern kitchen.
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.