February 2001 Issue [Updated March 2003]
By Brian Ward
SPECIAL REPORT: Finding The Right Combination
Speed, flexibility, food quality. Combination oven-steamers deliver all threeand then some.
If youre a noncommercial operator, chances are youre way ahead of commercial types when it comes to knowing combination oven-steamers. Many of you took them to heart soon after they first hit the U.S. market back in the mid-1980s. Youve run them as convection ovens, youve switched them to convection steam, and for an amazing number of items youve used their combination modes to amazingly good effect.
Whats odd is that commercial operators have been so slow to jump aboard. Thereve been notable exceptions, of course. Hotel operators picked up on combis right awaythanks to their chef-driven environments. And casino foodservice has jumped onto combis with both feet lately. Likewise supermarkets. But until recently, only a few foodservice chains had ventured into the combi world.
Early efforts to market these units in North America didnt help. When combis first hit these shores from Europe (joined almost immediately by American makes), marketers werent sure how to present them.
Here, price figured to be the resistance point. So some execs back then tried to position combis as an alternative to buying multiple pieces of equipment. Buy a combi, they said, and you wouldnt need a separate convection oven and steamer. Save footprint, save money (or break even).
Which didnt fly. As soon as you needed to steam something while roasting something else, you had your thumbs in your apron. Then, too, at that point many operators were put off by never-seen-before, high-falutin electronic panels. And it didnt help when poor seals in early models allowed a few too many of those panels to get poached.
The other challenge: Descriptions of what a combi will do, and with such excellent results, are just too hard to believe. They sound like hype. As one exec says, We found out that you have to actually see it, demonstrate it, try it yourself, to understand.
So noncommercial ops, with different budget priorities and payback formulas, still forged ahead, while chain foodservice in general kept a firm grip on its wallet.
What You Really, Really Want
But the world has changed a lot during the last 15 years. Combis have proliferated like only a good idea can, with sizes now ranging down to six pans. And commercial ops are competing more now than ever before on speed, menu flexibility and food qualityexactly the combis strong suits.
First consider the nature of the beast. In a combination mode, you put steam energy and hot-air convection together. Depending on the settings and the product, speeds one of the byproducts, though its not usually the touted one. Second, flexibility. Youve probably heard the litany of cooking processes a combi will do, but think about it again: As one makers spec sheet shows, you can steam, blanch, roast, poach, bake. The list goes on. You can retain moisture while browning meats perfectly, bake breads and desserts and then steam vegetables. You can do low-temp steaming. Combis are excellent retherm tools as well.
Varying features from model to model add to the list of capabilities, but essentially, as one supplier put it, You can do anything in a combi but deep-fat fry. And soup is difficult.
Its an amazing piece of equipment. On the low-temp steam mode, you can do custard or crème brûlée without the water bath. Meats cooked in combi mode show higher yields than in convection ovens, too. (Slow-cook-and-holds fare better on this count, but then again, theyre much slower, too.)
Tales From The Field
Combis can yield unforeseen savings, too. One example we heard of: A Mexican-menu concept started using combis for its chicken breasts, and was able to reduce the size of the breasts by two ounces because of the improved yield. That same chain found that in combination mode, the drippings didnt dry upan advantage that quickly mounted to thousands of dollars of savings in canned chicken stock.
Another advantage: Changing entire cooking methods can reduce labor. Take ribs, for example. Usually you buy them frozen, then slack em. You boil or steam or slow-cook the ribs. Then you refrigerate them and finally throw them on the grill for finishing. Every step is time and money.
If you put them into a combination oven-steamer instead, in combi mode, you can take frozen ribs, sauce and season them, and cook them in half an hour. (Note you cant try that in hot-air convection or steam modeyou need the combination setting.)
So theres plenty of reason to look again at these units if you have a menu and food-quality standard that warrant them. And fortunately for you, your choices have never been better.
Today, counting gas and electric models in a variety of sizes, 15 suppliers actively market combis in one form or another in the United States. Today, the vast majority (maybe 70%) of combis still goes to noncommercial addresses. Of those, the majority tend to be gas units.
Interestingly, when the smaller-but-growing numbers of combis do go to commercial operations, the power of choice tends to be electricity. Why? Footprint, for one thing. Electric units generally, though not always, take slightly smaller footprints for a given capacity. A good thing in tight spaces.
So when we got the wheels rolling for this story, we had a decision. Cover the biggest segment of the market (bigger units, probably gas ones) or a category more likely to fit into commercial operations (smaller, electric). We went for the latter.
So we settled on 10-level (also known as 10-pan, but that can be trickier than youd think) combis, electric. In that group, 14 brands compete. Hobart Corp. isnt covered here because it markets mainly on the supermarket side a unit similar to its sister companys Vulcan-Hart Co. unit. And Southbend, for now at least, focuses on a gas model.
Nine Line Up
Set aside a couple of other brands with good units but less national penetration in this category, and you get the nine brands shown here. Pick any one of these models, and you can budget for street prices anywhere from about $8,500 for a basic package up to about $12,700 for a higher-end unit. Stands and accessories are extra.
First up alphabetically, Alto-Shaam hits this market with its Combitherm line, in this case the Model 10-10ML, which is an upgrade from the 10-10 we originally ran in this story. First seen about nine years ago, at that point the unit was a European Convotherm design. But since then, Alto-Shaam has acquired technologies and made changes that make the current unit a true Alto-Shaam.
The Combitherm boasts a five-mode control system, which gets you the requisite convection-steam-combination selections and also a low-temp steam mode for delicate products and a retherm mode. Retherm essentially is a double-steam combi setting for quick temperature regeneration without drying. Among other goodies: a standard probe for core-temp cooking, and a patented, closed steam system that uses a water trap to block steam from immediately condensing near the drain and disappearing. Another handy item for delicate product: a two-speed fan. Ante up for the deluxe model, and you can have programmable controls for up to 250 menu items.
Blodgett Combis BC-14E, meanwhile, provides standard control of steam, hot air, a combination of both, and steam on demand. The solid-state rotary dial thermostat maintains a temp range of 150&Mac251;F to 500&Mac251;F, and a motor-driven 120-minute timer automatically shuts down at the elapsed time. Other features include a door-mounted condensate trough and roll-out control panel that exposes most serviceable parts.
Cleveland Range, part of the Enodis stable of companies, comes to town with its Combicraft line, European technology imported from Lainox. The Combicraft CCE-110M distinguishes itself with simple dial controls that wont turn off kitchen help, and a two-speed fan that incorporates an auto reverse cycle. The flexibility in the fan lets you tune airflow to product delicacy, and the reverse feature is to reverse airflow to aid in even cooking. For the more elaborate menu systems, programmables are optional.
Groens home-grown C/2-20E is part of a long line that traces back to the 80sone of the first to jump into the American combi market. The unit comes standard with three-mode cooking controls and an automatic cleaning cycle for the generator and cavity both. And this model, which replaces the solid-door model we told you about last year, comes with an optional glass door.
Some High-Zoot Entries
Next up, alphabetically, is Henny Penny Corp. The manufacturer of a variety of equipment markets multiple lines of combis, a sort of good-better-best approach. They all are Rationals.
In this particular category, Henny Penny and Rational both opted to present their top-of-line, full-zoot version. Henny Penny delivers what it calls its LCS-10 model, and Rationals own manuals call it the CPC 101.
Whichever badge it wears, the unit is loaded, and you can put together functions and sequences in limitless combinations.
Basically, though, you get eight manual selectionsthe basic three plus low-temp steam, high-temp steam, retherm, a cook-hold mode and variable steam. In addition, you get probe-priority core-temp cooking, and also whats called a delta-T function. Delta-T programming measures the products core temp, and adjusts the cavity temperature for a set differential, say a 100&Mac251;F difference. As the product warms, the cavity set temp rises. Theres more to it than that, but thats the basic idea. The result is a perfect finish that doesnt overbrown the exterior while the interiors still cold.
Among features too numerous to list completely, the ClimaPlus infinitely adjustable steam system lets you match moisture in the cavity to specific product needs, and it provides a self-washing system. The fan one-ups everybody elses, with two speeds, an auto reversing cycle, and a pulse mode. A half-energy mode is for partial loads or overnight cooling/holding.
A Boilerless Alternative, And Other Goodies
Lang Mfg. entered the combi fray in 1999, as well. Partnering with European-based Angelo Po, Lang markets several combi models including the LCE-101M. The LCE-101M sticks with the basic three-mode approach to cooking, manipulated with a simple dial control.
The most obvious difference in the LCE is its steam system. Unique in this group, its boilerless. Which means it needs and gets no deliming port. Just wipe it down as needed, and away you go. Also, how the steam gets to the cavity is different. It arrives in atomized form straight from the center of the fan rotor, essentially flung onto heated fan blades, where it turns to steam.
And finally, even the basic model includes a nine-way adjustable steam system, with settings from 10% for such high-browning, low-moisture items as tater tots up to 90% for, say, lengthy roasting of meats. A half-energy mode also is included.
Market Forge Industries, meanwhile, markets several models. The Combi-Tech 10/11 comes with five cooking modes, including low-temp steam and retherm, and comes standard with a product probe for core-temp cooking. A half-energy setting is standard; programmable controls for 99 menu items are optional.
One of the notable differences in the Market Forge unit is its large fan, which is part of an elaborate aero effort in the cavity. The big blades rotate in a radiused inset on the rear of the cavity, directing air outward. Indentations in the walls are meant to aid in directing the air along with a baffle system. Placement of the elements, too, is directed to aiding even heating, Market Forge says.
Vulcan-Hart rounds out the group with its CombiAir Oven, imported from the European maker Bourgeois. The basic setup includes touchpad controls and three cooking modes, plus cool-down and descaling functions and a probe.
A standard package offers time-or-probe cooking and a variable steam system with six settings. The upgraded controls feature programmable cooking routines and a delta-T selection for managing cooking temps that rise as the products internal temp rises. A full- or half-speed fan control also is part of that package.
Sweating The Small Stuff
When you sit down to sort out your options, you have more to think about than just which unit you want. First, consider capacities. Its very important to note that the capacities in the chart are stated capacities. In some cases the 10 pans listed might fit the same way three adults might cram into the back seat of a sportscar. You really want at least a half-inch clearance from pan to pan, and a full inch is better.
Second, you have to remember that you cant just line up spec sheets to find out whats what. Some sheets, for example, will list a cool-down as a feature. Other sheets might not mention it, even though all the models here have a cool-down mode. Note some of them are manually triggered, while others are automatic.
As for power ratings, note that most models here hover right around 2kW for every claimed steam pan. Some are lower; some higher. Cook times might be influenced by this variation, among other things.
Two more power issues: Keep in mind that these units in three-phase generally take about 45 to 50 amps; in single phase theyll draw 60 to 66 amps. Make sure your facility will deliver. If you decide to go with a gas unit, understand that the gas and electric versions of the same unit might not have comparable Btu ratings, and their cook times might be different.
How many modes do you want? Whether a unit has three modes or two dozen, these units all basically offer convection, convection steam and a combination of the two. Modes beyond three are a matter of refinement and make even higher food quality possible in the hands of a knowledgeable operator. And programmables make for greater consistency and dont require labor periodically stopping to make changes.
Cleaning is a big deal here, too, as combis commonly are used for so many functions and menu items that you can have quite a variety of residue to clean off. Think about your labor load and whether you need an automated or semi-auto cleaning system. Some models here offer detachable wash wands; others have retractable self-cleaning systems.
And dont forget about the steam generator. All the units here except the boilerless Lang require periodic deliming. Some units have periodic deliming reminders; others have active sensors.
Also consider that these units all need their generators drained at the end of the day. Some do it automatically; others have manual controls. And get clear on whether a flush is literally a flush (a cycle that raises the water level before draining) or a straightforward drain.