A combi oven's versatility lies in the fact that it can combine three cooking modes: steam, hot air and a combination of the two.
"The combination mode can prepare all types of foods perfectly, because the cabinet's environment can be adjusted to suit whatever is being cooked," says Nick Oryino, chair of CESA, the Catering Equipment Suppliers Association.
"It is ideal for meats as well as baking rolls, breads and pastries. Roasting, baking, poaching, grilling - the combi steamer does it all. It is also good for thawing and reheating prepared foods or cook-chill products."
However, according to the Carbon Trust's Industrial Energy Efficiency Accelerator for the catering sector many chefs do not use the full functionality of combi steamers to get the most efficient and effective use of their features.
It highlights the use of combi-ovens for frying and grilling, as well as their traditional functions of roasting, steaming and low-temperature slow cooking. A big advantage of a combi steamer is the ability to do numerous tasks using one space-efficient model, Oryino adds.
Lee Norton, managing director of Rational UK, says that increasingly combi-ovens are a 'must-have', because they offer such a variety of cooking processes in a small footprint.
"An advanced combi steamer like the Rational SelfCookingCenter whitefficiency is a multifunctional cooking appliance - it can roast, poach, bake, toast, braise - it can even pan-fry fish and cook chips," he says. "It's suitable for all types of cuisines, whether it's British roast, classic French, Indian, pizza or Beijing duck."
Norton also highlights the oven's ability to allow mixed loads of food to be cooked at the same time. "It takes all the juggling out of preparing a full English breakfast," he explains. "Toast, eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, hash browns, fried bread and mushrooms can be cooked perfectly together in six minutes."
The combi-oven is a useful tool when it comes to satisfying the health-conscious, according to Stuart Brereton, business development manager for MKN, which supplies the HansDampf range of combi ovens.
"Caterers can maximise nutrition retention in vegetables, meat and fish with a high level of precision and control. From vegetables and rice to meat - all retain their nutritional value and colour when steamed, and reduced shrinkage results in cost savings."
Many ovens have features that make catering for a spot of indulgence easier, too. Brereton says: "With the MKN combi, when preparing afternoon tea and cakes, caterers can use the auto-reverse fan at different speeds for different products. This balances air distribution in the cooking chamber for consistent results, and is especially good for bakery products."
At Hobart Cooking Solutions, the latest generation of Bonnet combis includes the higher-tier Precijet and the medium-tier Equator model. Product manager Paul Godfrey believes that outlets offering a variety of food styles would benefit from the combi oven's versitility.
"A growing number of caterers are recognising the advantages of combi ovens because of their extensive capabilities and the fact they can handle emerging food trends," he says.
Indeed, Stuart Flint, business and training development manager at Electrolux Professional, which supplies the air-o-steam Touchline combi ovens, says they can handle a process that is bang on-trend - sous vide.
"Traditionally, with sous vide cooking, food is vacuum-packed in a marinade and cooked in a water bath at a regulated temperature," he says. "However, what we're seeing more of is vacuum-packed food being cooked in a combi-oven.
"The main advantage of this is obviously the number of portions you can get out of a combi oven - there are space limitations when using a water bath - but a combi-oven could also help facilitate larger banqueting functions."
Although Paul Hickman, development chef at Lincat, says the combi is now widely regarded as an essential item of cooking equipment in many commercial kitchens, it takes a little planning to ensure you get the most out of it. "The key is to think ahead and plan your production," he says. "A good place to start is to think how many hours a day your combi is used. Then think about filling the gaps - perhaps with pastry production or blanching vegetables.
"Also consider what could be done outside traditional working hours. For example, the Opus SelfCookingCenter whitefficiency can be used to braise, roast and moist cook overnight before holding the food in perfect condition - with minimal shrinkage - until the morning."
In fact, says Mark Hogan, marketing manager for FEM, the range of products that can be cooked in a combi oven means that it does not need to stand idle at any time during the day. "From breakfast service, such as baking croissants and bread rolls and cooking eggs and bacon, through to pastries at coffee time, to lunch and dinner service. Almost everything can be cooked: starters, vegetables, meat and fish, and delicate puddings and desserts, including re-generation of prepared items.
"One oven can replace several pieces of equipment and, if using compact combi ovens, such as the Alto-Shaam CT Express, two units can be stacked together to further increase output and versatility in the same footprint. They cook up to 70% faster than conventional methods."
Kurran Gadhvi, marketing manager at Valera, suppliers of Fagor Advance Concept combi ovens, believes that with more menu items being cooked using a combi oven, it is becoming increasingly important for a chef to plan its use.
"You can use a combi oven for so much these days that the demands placed upon it are significant. Every section of the kitchen wants a piece of it," he says.
"You can maximise its efficiency by devising a schedule planning what mode of cooking is required by the different sections to avoid constant changes to the oven's settings. This is very inefficient and wastes time while the chef waits to switch from one mode to another."
Timing is everything at the Elephant
Timing functions on combi-ovens are a real asset to chefs, and Simon Hulstone of the Elephant restaurant in Torquay is just one Michelin-starred chef to have benefited from the recently updated MultiTimer feature on the Electrolux Professional air-o-steam touchline combi-oven.
MultiTimer is a new function that gives chefs the ability to manage up to 14 different timers in a cooking cycle. It provides improved flexibility when planning and managing the cooking of multiple types of food during rush hours - ideal for Á la carte menus - and helps to achieve perfect results by sounding an alarm when the exact cooking time for each item is reached. In addition, it allows the user to assign a name to each type of food in the oven.
"The MultiTimer function has been a massive benefit for me and my team," says Hulstone. "Having 14 separate timers guarantees peace of mind, and being able to name each product on a separate timer makes everything so much easier during really busy periods.
"Crucially, the team will be able to save time without compromising on reliability, leaving us to concentrate on producing high-quality dishes that meet the expectations of our customers. For me, that is invaluable."
Combi-ovens take the strain at Bird of Smithfield
Spread over five floors of a Georgian townhouse in London's Smithfield Street, Alan Bird's new venture, Bird of Smithfield, feeds up to 250 people a day. There are two kitchens: one on the first floor for the main restaurant and another on the second floor for the private dining area.
The food is modern British. "We do classic dishes, cooked very well, using the best ingredients and sourced seasonally from the UK," says Bird, who has two six-grid SelfCookingCenter whitefficiency models in the main kitchen and a 10-grid unit in the private dining kitchen.
He estimates that the operation uses Rationals for 80% of its cooking. "We use them for everything: to roast, braise, for pastry and bread, for long cooking, baking - you name it. We also use Rational's accessories. They extend the combi's versatility even more, such as the flat plate for pizza, the rotisserie and the griddle plate, which is great for cooking and sear-marking burgers and steaks - the non-stick surface is excellent. We've used the Multibaker tray to make fried eggs, Yorkshire puddings and cookies."
He continues: "The new models have several features I really like. HiDensityControl is brilliant for pastry. The Efficient LevelControl makes it easy to cook different foods on different shelves, and each shelf has its own timer. You can cook fish and meat together with no transfer of flavours. We've even experimented with a full English breakfast. They can do so much. Having a Rational is like having an extra chef in the kitchen."
CESA - www.cesa.org.uk
Electrolux Professional - 0844 375 3444 www.electrolux-professional.co.uk
FEM - 01355 244111 www.fem.co.uk
Hobart - 0844 225 1999 www.hobartuk.com
Lincat - 01522 875500 www.lincat.co.uk
MKN - 01886 832379 www.mkn.eu
Rational UK - 0800 389 2944 www.rational-UK.com
Valera - 0845 270 4321 www.valera.co.uk