Meet the most flexible piece of kit in the kitchen - the combi-oven. However, as Diane Lane reports, chefs need to be properly trained in its use to realise its full potential.
Combination ovens bring huge versatility to any type of catering operation, combining the benefits of a fast, efficient convection oven and a steamer. It's probably the most versatile piece of kit in the kitchen and yet few chefs take full advantage of its flexibility.
"Combi-ovens can play a role in most different types of operation, particularly where consistency and high levels of control are required," says Mike Mellor, managing director of Space Catering Equipment. "Combi-mode introduces steam into the oven and is great for slow cooking, banqueting and producing delicate products. The amount of flexibility in combination mode is generally governed by the programmability of the individual unit. Basic models have more simple settings, while more complex units allow the chef to control the humidity in the oven cavity to the nearest 1% and also vary it within a single cooking cycle."
"In fine-dining applications, when used in gentle steam modes, they provide really accurate temperature control for cooking fish and delicate desserts, while in a hotel setting, they act as a kind of one-stop-shop, for example, in turning out a high-quality full English breakfast with sausage, bacon, eggs, tomatoes and fried bread all out of the same oven."
"Combis are a popular choice in many restaurant chains, where they're in widespread use for consistent volume production of protein - chicken, for example, which is cooked in the oven and then finished off on the chargrill before being dressed and served.
"Meanwhile, pub operators can use their convected heat and steam functions together, or in each mode separately, to deliver consistently good results in busy operations, no matter what the skill level in the kitchen.
"Also, schools and colleges are increasingly replacing atmospheric steamers and pressure steamers with combis to maximise nutrient retention in vegetables, meat and fish with a high-level of precision and control. The same applies to healthcare, where consistency and ensuring the best nutritional profile for the food that is produced is essential."
It would seem the possibilities are endless, yet at Angelo Po, research and development chef Nick Bates estimates that the proportion of chefs getting the most out of their combination ovens could be as low as 50%. "The combi could effectively, if used to its full potential, be used for everything including steaming, baking, regeneration, sous-vide, frying, roasting, cook and hold and slow cooking," he says.
It is perhaps in catering for large numbers that the combi-oven has really shown how invaluable it can be, a point taken up by Paul Hickman, development chef for Lincat, which supplies the Opus SelfCooking Center.
"A modern combi-steamer is practically indispensable for banqueting operations," he says. "Combis enable catering establishments of all sizes to cater for larger numbers than they might think possible. This is because a combi provides an excellent solution to the essential challenge of banqueting - timing. In other words, how to produce large volumes of high-quality food and serve it simultaneously when the schedule is apt to change with little or no notice. Even the smallest six-grid model can make a large impact on the problem."
For those that think combi-ovens are reserved solely for larger operations that cater for many meals in one sitting, Paul Godfrey, food equipment manager for Hobart, has some news. "Toasted sandwiches, a favourite light lunch and popular bar snack, can easily be prepared in a combi-oven with the minimum skill level," he says.
"Chef can prep a range of toasties during his shift and during the quieter times, pubs can offer something hot. Set the oven on combination mode, at 250°C and 80% moisture. Both sides of the bread will be perfectly toasted, the cheese will be melted and you could toast up to 40 at a time."
Staying with pubs, Godfrey adds: "Those that serve the traditional Sunday roast but are struggling with margins should try roasting joints in a combi-oven, it can reduce shrinkage by up to 30%, increasing yield and saving money."
John Harvey, development chef at Valera, which distributes Leventi ovens, recalls one school site where his company replaced the existing combi-ovens and on starting to train the staff how to operate the new kit, it became apparent that they had been using the old combis purely as convection ovens, his point being that training is key to getting the most out of your combi. "They had never been trained on how to use them to their full potential and you will only get the maximum benefit from the oven if staff are shown how to use it correctly," he says.
Keith Howland, development chef at Manitowoc Foodservice UK, distributors of Convotherm ovens, also laments the fact that combi-ovens are so often under-utilised. He says: "Scores of kitchens use a combi-oven like a washing machine, where they use one setting and hit start, or have one combi for steaming and another for roasting and never the twain shall meet.
"However, the combi is so much more versatile than that, and I would even go as far as saying that whatever you do on a stove you can do in a combi. Take pasta and rice, for example. In just 20 minutes you can cook penne pasta in a combi and, because you fill the tray with water from the attached hose, you don't have the safety issue of carrying a pan of water across the kitchen, or having to wait for the water to boil or, because of uneven cooking, the problem with the pasta catching on the bottom of the pan. Similarly, with rice, it is far harder to overcook in a combi than it is on a stove."
Rational UK managing director Vic Brown concurs on the versatility aspect. "The latest generation of combi-steamers has the ability to mimic virtually any cooking process, which is proving popular even in ethnic restaurants, where it is displacing traditional cooking equipment because it does a better job," he says, citing the example of Alex Chow, head chef of the Kai Chinese restaurant in Mayfair, London, whose Rational combi acts as steamer, rice cooker and duck-roasting oven.
"It can prepare perfect Peking Duck - crispy on the outside, succulent within. First the duck's skin is heated with steam, using the "steamed poultry" process, then brushed with a glaze made from honey, vinegar and water and left to dry in a cool place. Then it's put back in the combi to roast. The modern combi takes the guesswork out of getting food right and will adjust the cooking processes to match the condition, composition and quantity of the products. Typically a 1.5kg duck will cook in 45 minutes," Brown adds.
All operators at the fine-dining end of the scale can reap the benefits of combi technology as Alan Evans, executive training chef for Electrolux Professional, explains. "When training chefs in fine-dining restaurants on maximising their new combi-ovens, it is features such as the overnight cooking function, the ability to prove bread products and the drying units for fruit and vegetables that we highlight. Other capabilities valuable to fine-dining establishments include low-temperature cooking, the cook-and-chill option, multi-sensor probe cooking and the ability to take advantage of different cooking mediums such as grill, chargrill and chicken rôtisserie, using Electrolux special combi-grids."
At Angelo Po, Bates continues the list of benefits. "The combi allows larger à la carte menus owing to its flexibility - the early preparation and gentle and forgiving reheating means more choice. Also, the accuracy of the thermostats and software allow precise cooking and attention to detail during both cooking and presentation.
"The combi is truly a piece of equipment that has changed the face of cooking in every sector forever. The power of the combination oven is in the hands of the knowledgeable user."
Angelo Po 0870 460 6750
0800 988 2809
0844 888 7777
0800 389 2944
Space Catering Equipment
0845 270 4321