Much of today's food processing equipment is versatile, user-friendly and relatively safe. Many machines are available with a wide range of attachments to meet the special preparation requirements of most operations. They can do anything from slicing produce to mixing dressing.
Typically, mixers and food processors are easy to operate and today's required safety features make the equipment nearly foolproof. Machine operation is usually simple and straightforward.
The general-purpose mixer is a standard equipment item in most full-service kitchens. You can find mixers with capacities ranging from five to 140 quarts. Mixers can be used for tasks ranging from making whipped cream or meringue to mixing dough.
Various sized mixers are often required for various tasks, but purchasing different sized mixers can be expensive, so look for a mixer that has attachments available for different sized bowls. For example, one manufacturer's 40-quart mixer has 20- and 30-quart bowls available as options. This allows for mixing a wide variety of batch sizes. You may also want to consider a mixer with an automatic timer that shuts it off after a preset time has elapsed, eliminating over-mixing and increasing productivity by allowing employees to do other things.
If your operation requires a lot of heavy dough mixing, pay special attention to motor size. Many standard motors, while sufficient for mixing batter or salad dressing, won't meet the demand of mixing large batches of dough. Some manufacturers have specially equipped dough mixing models or extra heavy-duty motors for these applications. For instance, a large 60-80 quart mixer for dough should have a three horsepower motor.
Spiral mixer. Some manufacturers make spiral mixers, whose mixing action is able to knead the dough more effecitvely without building up excess friction and heat. There are also horizontal mixers usually used in large food plants or commissaries that mix delicate foods like vegetable or potato salads.
Something you'll notice in new mixers is the safety features. Most now have cage-type bowl guards to prevent anything from getting caught up in the beater, and lockout switches to prevent operation unless the guard is in place.
Most mixers are available with a variety of beaters and attachments for mixing various products. Be sure to buy the attachments to suit the products you'll be preparing. For example, if you want to whip a salad dressing or make whipped cream, a wire whip will be an essential attachment. Some mixers have accessory hubs on the unit for attaching slicing and dicing plates. These can be convenient and are relatively inexpensive for the service they offer. Keep in mind that most equipment will not be effective with the mixer and hub attachment working at the same time.
First, there's the all-purpose continuous feed processor. Although capable of many other uses, they generally process vegetables and perform a variety of cutting functions. The typical unit consists of a motor base, a continuous feed, a dis-charge chute and space for one of several removable round cutting plates between the chutes.
Each cutting plate is made to produce a very specific cut. Many food-processing machines are available with a wide range of attachment plates. Some manufacturers make as many as 35 attachment plates to meet various special preparation requirements. You can usually get pretty close to the exact cut you need with standard plates. For example, one manufacturer makes eight different-sized julienne plates just for one unit.
Unit size and capacity varies widely. The smallest are about the size of home-style models and are adequate for small operations. For the larger establishment, one-horsepower models usually suffice. Even a one horsepower unit takes up less than two square feet of counter space and can cut up to 50 servings of vegetables in one minute.
The food processor can be a true labor saver, with medium capacity units able to dice a bag of potatoes or onions in a matter of minutes or slice the same amount of food in only a few minutes more time. Where consistent cut is important, a continuous feed machine is the unit to use. Rarely does too small a unit get selected. More often operators select an unnecessarily large unit that just winds up not being used to full capacity. If you want to save money, buy the smallest unit that meets your needs.
The vertical cutter and mixer. The vertical cutter/ mixer has a cutter bowl with knives at the base that spin and allow the food processor to work like a blender. Food processed in a bowl can be chopped, blended, or even pureed. The bowl can be used to mix ingredients or even to knead dough. Like continuous feed units, cutter/mixers cut vegetables, but the cuts will be less consistent.
If chopped meat, bread crumbs, or pate is a part of your menu, these are the machines to do the job. Most bowl type food processors are quite fast, especially the larger models. Some features to consider are bowls with a clear top or an inspection window so you can tell when food is processed. Another handy feature is a bowl scraper you can use while the machine is in operation. Some units have a scraper built into the bowl so you won't need to stop the machine to scrape off the sides of the bowl for an even mix.
For the most flexibility, choose a processor with both a bowl and continuous feed attachment and a variety of processing plates. These hybrid models can do both fine consistent vegetable processing and vertical cutting and mixing. They have a single motor base that can be used with a continuous feed attachment or a bowl for cutting and mixing. The combination unit may be the right choice if there are a variety of jobs to be done, although some manufacturers claim that you are better served with individual units for each task.
For the best results, don't over-fill bowl processors. Several small batches will give more uniform results than a single large batch. Also, try to cut all pieces to be processed down to one-inch cubes. When mixing dough, add dry ingredients before the liquid while the processor is running. When processing hard cheeses or breadcrumbs, pulse the unit for the best results.
The hand-held power mixer/blender. Hand-held power mixer/blenders are basically por-table blender assemblies on a shaft connected to a motor. They're excellent for mixing sauces and gravies and can also puree fruits and vegetables or mix cake or pancake batters. The machines generally operate at high speeds around 10,000 rpm so they can mix quite quickly. Their advantages include portability, reduced clean-up, less need to transfer product between containers and small size.
If your menu requires even some food processing or mixing, you should take the time to compare features. These machines are labor saving devices that can bring profits to the bottom line.
Dan Bendall is vice president and managing director of hospitality and leisure for Cini-Little International, a Maryland-based consulting firm. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International.