As the arsenal of food preparation equipment continues to expand, Anne Bruce explains what to look for to make your kitchen more productive and safety compliant
Purists would argue that all that is needed in the kitchen is a really sharp knife, good-quality ingredients and a lot of imagination. But for chefs, working long hours in hot and often cramped kitchens, the use of labour-saving gadgets is advisable.
So what food preparation equipment is worth investing in for speed and convenience? How can chefs harness technology and take advantage of the latest innovations to reduce their overheads, increase efficiency and even cut kitchen wastage?
Hot holding bins, sous vide baths, multifunctional slicers and dicers, and Wi-Fi-based temperature-logging systems are some of this year's on-trend preparation gadgets, according to Glenn Roberts, chair of the Catering Equipment Suppliers' Association. Toasters with wider slots to accommodate artisan breads and vertical food slicers are also a current favourite, driven by the demand for cured meats. They allow larger cuts to be thinly sliced without putting pressure on the blade.
Innovation is a driving force in food prep equipment, and knowing about
new concepts can give you a competitive advantage, Roberts says.
One major focus is the prevention of cross-contamination, which has become increasingly important since the introduction of EU allergen regulations.
Manufacturers are launching products, such as chopping boards and utensils, with colour coding that can be used for allergen-free food preparation to protect customers from cross-contamination of foods. There are also lots of new food storage ideas designed to improve food safety and hygiene.
Food waste is one of the biggest challenges facing operators. With the cost of food and ingredients rising, food preparation kit that helps reduce waste is in demand, says Alex Shannon, director of Sous Vide Tools.
Whether its finding ways of using as much of a particular item as possible, such as drying citrus peel to make it into a powdered zest, or getting the maximum yield from fruit and vegetables by investing in top-quality equipment, there are many ways for operators to reduce their waste. The PolyScience Smoking Gun Pro from Sous Vide Tools is a handheld cool food smoker that can be used with foods that a chef would not usually be able to smoke, such as butter, oysters, cocktails, salads, chocolate and meringue. The ability to expose food to smoke without heat opens up new ways of creating exciting flavours and unexpected combinations, says Shannon.
With consumers looking for more interesting flavours, investing in a dehydrator allows chefs to create their own dried fruits and vegetables for decorating meals, adding to desserts, garnishing drinks and infusing old recipes with new flavours.
Suppliers such as Sous Vide Tools and Mitchell & Cooper sell the Excalibur 10- tray dehydrator, offering 16 square feet of drying area, which can be used for anything from creating tomato seasoning to dehydrating chicken jerky.
The dehydrator can also save money by reducing wastage. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be dehydrated to prolong their life and usefulness, for example.
"Creative chefs can even experiment with dehydrating other items, such as flowers, to experiment with exciting new flavours and finishes for their menu items," suggests Shannon.
Steve Morris, sales director at Jestic, says the latest product in its Vitamix range is the Aeration Container, which has recently launched in the UK. Designed to quickly create emulsions, foams, whipped cream, meringue and much more, the specially designed disc blade provides an easy way to generate new textures, rapidly producing dense and pourable foam. It is suitable for use with the most popular appliances in the Vitamix range.
Caterers are always trying to stay one step ahead of new trends in cooking, says Neil Richards, managing director at Metcalfe, but there will always be fresh trends, such as the current interest in thermal blending.
The basic food preparation requirements of any kitchen are still well served by
tried and tested equipment, such as slicers, mixers, veg prep machines, food processors and vegetable peelers. However, one of the challenges that operators face is from cheap, inferior equipment that has found its way on to the market. Equipment needs to be robust enough to handle the demands placed on it in a commercial environment, says Richards.
If an operator is prepared to invest money in stronger, higher-quality equipment, then its whole-life cost will be much less than for cheaper, inferior equipment because the latter will not last long in a demanding kitchen.
Manufacturers are also working on products that offer higher output and yield, he says. The Ceado ES700 centrifugal juice extractor from Metcalfe can deliver a 16% higher juice yield from fruits and vegetables than other juicers by using efficient motors, high-specification blades and a double-feed hopper that directs fruit and vegetables to hit the blades at the optimum angle for a high juice yield.
Guy Cooper, managing director at Mitchell & Cooper, recommends that chefs choose lightweight catering equipment for ease of handling. "Caterers interact with light items in a different way altogether, allowing for total control and mobility," he says. "The best-designed light equipment can also allow for flexibility with fluctuating demand, while sustaining a steady level of productivity in little time."
Meanwhile, the use of equipment to monitor processes is becoming more prevalent in the commercial kitchen. For restaurants preparing deep-fried foods such as chips, onion rings and doughnuts, the cleanliness of the frying oil makes a difference. In these circumstances, it may be worth investing in technology to test the oil, and start optimising its usage, says supplier Testo. It's impossible to know when frying oil needs changing just by looking at it. And if your restaurant just changes its oil on a particular day of the week for insurance purposes, or even as and when it sees fit, you are probably not being as economical with the oil as you could be.
Using a cooking-oil tester such as the Testo 270 with a spot check, you can start to optimise cooking oil usage and save up to 20% on wastage. The device tests the percentage levels of total polar material (TPM) in the frying oil. TPM levels build up in the oil during regular use, and measuring them is the most reliable and accurate way of assessing the quality and cleanliness of frying oil. It provides clear notifications to kitchen teams, so they know when it's time to change the oil.
The safety angle
Digital food safety technology is also being used in many kitchens for optimising compliance and managing staff, according to suppliers. Solutions such as Checkit's handsets, for example, reduce the time staff spend on filling in records. When a scheduled food safety check is due, the digital handset alerts staff and provides instructions on how to perform the task. Wireless sensors can also be used to continuously monitor fridge and freezer temperatures, protecting valuable stock and relieving staff from doing repetitive checks manually.
The Checkit Solo version is suitable for smaller businesses. It includes the handheld Checkit Memo, loaded with digital check-lists based on the Food Standards Agency's Safer Food Better Business; a smart wireless temperature probe; real-time alerts; and secure online storage for food safety records.
Catering Equipment Suppliers' Association www.cesa.org.uk
Mitchell & Cooper www.mitchellcooper.co.uk
Sous Vide Tools www.sousvidetools.com