June 2001 Issue (Updated March 2002 Issue)
By Jennifer Hicks
Whens the last time you looked into rapid-cooking technology? The latest convection-microwave ovens offer high-quality production and speed, speed, speed. Plus a lightwave-microwave oven gives you even more to think about.
That a difference a few years make. When we first covered rapid-cook ovens in February 1998, four U.S. suppliers and their convection-microwave and lightwave ovens met the description and came under our editorial scrutiny. Since then, the categorys developed like a soap opera: Manufacturers have forged and dismantled alliances, given birth to new brands and retired others.
Fortunately, all the changes in oven production and marketing mean big benefits for you. And thats because todays ovens, three convection-microwaves and a lightwave-microwave, can do more in less time and less space than ever before, thanks to corporate commitments to reengineering and ongoing refinements. For you, that means high-quality results in a fraction of the time needed for conventional cooking.
This time around well tell you about what we call combi-microwave ovens from Amana Commercial, Garland Commercial Industries/Enodis, TurboChef and Vulcan-Hart Co. Note that youll pay roughly $2,900 to $5,000 for three of these models, while the more sophisticated TurboChef unit will tag you for about $8,000.
The Long Arm Of The Microwave
While it still may be new to some segments of U.S. commercial foodservice, convection-microwave technology has a longer history than most Americans realize. In fact, convection-microwaves have been an established component of British and other European kitchens for decades. Mealstream U.K. Ltd. introduced the first convection-microwave in 1960; later the company merged with Merrychef Ltd., also based in the U.K. Today Merrychef is a division of Enodis making four models of combination convection-microwaves for the Euro market.
American operators first got a taste of the technology when Litton introduced the Jetwave oven in the mid-80s. Several years and a couple divestitures later, Menumaster was selling Jetwaves mainly to supermarkets. Formidable in size and price, the Jetwave worked well but was too costly to produce.
In 93 Amana acquired Menumaster, and with it, the Jetwave convection-microwave technology. Two years later the Amana Convection Expressstill on the market and featured here in updated formdebuted. That same year, a larger convection-microwave unit from TurboChef came on the market.
Other suppliers have come into and out of the category, most notably G.S. Blodgett, now owned by Middleby Corp. Under an agreement forged in 97, TurboChef granted Blodgett the right to manufacture and sell ovens that incorporated TurboChefs proprietary technology. TurboChef granted exclusive rights for the North American market but retained international rights. Blodgett marketed ovens under the trade name Accellis.
However, last May Blodgett exited the commercial rapid-cook business and transitioned the business back to TurboChef. TurboChef now will market its C3 rapid-cook oven in the United States and service commercial units through a nationwide sales and service network.
And as of last year, theres a new entrant in rapid cooking. In May Garland jumped into the fray, introducing the Mealstream Series 5 oven at the National Restaurant Association Show. Mealstream technology comes from Merrychef, the aforementioned business unit of Enodis and sister company of Garland. After studying airflow patterns within the Mealstream, Garland engineers redesigned to better suit American foodservice.
Lightwave technology, on the other hand, has a shorter background. The first lightwave oven made its American debut at the 93 NRA Show as the Vulcan FlashBake Oven. The technology, developed by Quadlux and licensed to Vulcan, uses top- and bottom-mounted quartz halogen lamps to heat and crisp.
Vulcan continues to sell three FlashBake models, but the big news is the companys introduction of the VFBMW lightwave-microwave at last years NRA Show. The VFBMW uses both lightwave and microwave power.
And while this is the first time a commercial equipment manufacturer has married the two technologies, the concept itself isnt new. Several years ago General Electric introduced a lightwave-microwave for the high-end residential market. Vulcans hybrid unit is based, in fact, on a partnership with GE.
So How Do These Things Work?
In everyday operation, the convection-microwave certainly can be used as either a convection oven or a microwave unit. Its when you combine the heat sources that you get all the benefits of convection with the added benefits of microwave defrosting and cooking.
Every convection-microwave allows you to set oven temps and microwave power levels in endless combinations. The result is what oven suppliers call stage cooking: You program your unit to defrost, cook and hold chicken kiev, for example, and with one push of a button your products on its way.
The lightwave-microwave oven in this group also allows you to cook with either lightwaves or microwaves and in various combinations of both. The lightwave part of the equation stems from quartz halogen lamps that create intense visible light to penetrate food with heat. Plus the lamps infrared light browns and crisps the outside.
Both of these combi-microwave technologies get high marks for good reason. Product consistency, versatility and high-quality cooking results come out of units that fit nicely on your countertop. And did we mention speed? Depending on the oven, you can turn out a whole chicken in four to 14 minutes, grilled salmon steaks in two to six minutes, baked potatoes in five. You can pretty much whip up a feast for a fourtopincluding dessertin the time itll take you to read this story.
But Im Just Not Sure About Microwaving...
At this point in their evolution, combi-microwave technologies are about as advanced as they can get. Yet theres still some skepticism in the industry, mainly because the speedy cook times seem too good to be true, and after all, these ovens use microwaves. And microwaves havent always had the best reputation.
Microwave technology has been so misused in the consumer market that what was a reliable way of doing things has gotten a bad rap unnecessarily, says one convection-microwave product manager. These ovens are convection ovens that use microwaves to assist. Youre not microwaving the food. The idea is that used in correct quantities, the right balance of heat sources will cut cook times while retaining quality.
The best approach, says another rapid-cook oven manufacturer, is to demo these ovens at supplier headquarters or in your own operation. Bring your own stores recipes. Work the way your staffers work in their kitchens, and see what the technology can do.
But before you do that, read up on specific models. First up alphabetically, Amana, a division of Maytag, offers the latest version of its Convection Express. A top-mounted magnetron outputs 1kW of microwave power, and microwaves are distributed throughout the cabinet via a top-mounted rotating stirrer. Convected air enters the cabinet via a back-mounted fan; max oven temperature runs to 475&Mac251;F.
Upgrades to this model include expanded touchpad controls. Whereas the old Convection Express allowed you to set up to 24 programs, this new model provides four times that capability, able to hold as many as 100 menu item programs. You can program for four-stage cooking, making it possible to defrost, cook and finish with any combination of microwave and convection with one push of a button.
Ease of cleaning gets a boost, too, with a Teflon-coated interior. And thats an important point for any of you doing a lot of greasy appetizers in the oven.
But Convection Express isnt just an appetizer or pizza oven. In fact, Amana offers a chefs cooking guidedownloadable at www.amanacommercial.comthat includes recipes for meat, poultry, seafood, baked goods and desserts, casseroles and more. Cook times average from two to 10 minutes for anything from French onion soup to salmon steak.
Convection Express offers a 1.2-cu.-ft. cavity that easily accommodates a standard quarter-size pan. And the oven, which runs 191&Mac218;4W x 261&Mac218;4D, is stackable.
Menu Keys And Catalytic Converters
Next up: Garlands Mealstream, the new-for-the-U.S.-market oven using Merrychefs time-tested convection-microwave technology. Mealstream outputs 1.4kW of microwave oomph adjustable in four power levels along with convected heat of up to 480&Mac251;F. Two magnetrons are top-mounted; microwaves are distributed via a stirrer. Mealstreams interior of 1.6 cu. ft. lets you use half-size metal sheet pans.
Standard Mealstream touchpad controls allow you to program up to 10 three-stage cooking options. And soon youll be able to step up to an optional Menu Key, which will provide up to 99 programs using a system of programmable and insertable key cards. Once youve downloaded your menu item particulars into a key, you can walk over to the Mealstream oven, insert the key and instantly transfer the details to the ovens brain.
As for menu versatility, the skys the limit. You can produce anything from appetizers to center-of-the-plate items in a fraction of the time required with conventional cooking. For example, Mealstream can cook a 10-oz. rack of lamb in just four minutes, a dozen baked potatoes in 14 minutes; or an 8 pizza in four. And the Mealstream boasts a door that opens top-down, allowing you to use the inside door surface as a staging platform.
The Mealstream is just the first of five Merrychef-inspired units coming over to the states this year. The next Garland/ Merrychef oven, the MicrocookTA II, will offer both microwaves and blasts of hot air from above the product, making the unit ideal for retherming baked goods and other foods that require a crisp exterior.
Like other suppliers featured here, meanwhile, TurboChef continues to improve and expand its technology and now focuses on the C3.
The C3 uses high-speed variable airflow that wraps the food while microwave energy is applied. The result is high-quality food cooked seven times faster than with conventional cooking, according to the company. Impinged hot air ranges to 525&Mac251;F; a single bottom-mounted magnetron outputs 1.2kW of microwave power.
Touchpad controls let you choose from 64 pre-programmed menu items, and new software allows you to program for up to six cooking stages per item, adjusting for cook time, variable air velocity and microwave power. TurboChefs C3 also features a top-down door, ideal for staging. The C3, which occupies a footprint of 29W x 291&Mac218;2D, is stackable, and its capacity is 1.06 cu. ft.
Another unique C3 technology is its patented catalytic converter, which removes airborne grease and smoke and thereby prevents flavor transfer. Inside the converter smoke and grease combust into carbon dioxide and water vapor, with resulting heat staying inside the oven. In the end you have a cool-operating oven that requires no ventilation.
You should also know that recent PG&E Food Service Technology Center test data shows that as the C3s catalytic temperature increases, so does the ovens filtration efficiency. (Contact the FSTC in San Ramon, Calif., or TurboChef for details.)
And finally we come to the VFBMW lightwave-microwave from Vulcan-Hart. Cooking power stems from three halogen bulbs, each rated at 1.5kW, mounted two on top and one on the bottom. One side-mounted magnetron generates 950W of microwave power. A rotating 13 turntable ensures even heat and microwave distribution around the food. The VFBMWs footprint comes in at 30W x 151&Mac218;2D and capacity is 1.25 cu. ft.although that works out to an actual capacity of 0.6 cu. ft., due the turntable.
A key feature on the VFBMW is an onboard cooking guide thats factory-programmed for 70 menu items. You can access these set programs or tinker and reprogram for your own operations. In addition, special software allows you to program for up to 24 custom items. Sample cook times include eight minutes for four frozen burritos; five to seven minutes for four 4-oz. chicken breasts; and six minutes for a 6-oz. portion of refrigerated lasagna.
The VFBMW is well suited for a variety of foods, from appetizers to sandwiches and baked goods. No preheatings necessary with the oven, since the cooking process is instantaneous. Plus, the stackable oven retains no heat, so items can be prepared back-to-back without concern for different heat requirements. And in some applications a hood may not be needed, but check with your local authorities first.
Another key: the VFBMW automatically measures line voltage and adjusts the preprogrammed cook times to achieve consistent results. Also note that three FlashBake models remain in the Vulcan lineup and are currently the only lightwave-only ovens sold for foodservice.
A Question Of Efficiency
For the simplest approach to discerning electrical usage, study the power input and output figures found on spec sheets. This wont be easy; we found theres no conformity among supplier spec sheets. But when you track down kW input/output figures, youre looking for peak operating numbers for each heating medium, the figures suppliers must report to NSF and UL for certification. The difference between the input and output will tell you just how much energy is consumed en route, and how much gets into the cavity.
So heres the data on the convec- tion-microwaves: Reported peak kW input/output for Amanas Convection Express reads 3.4kW of power in and 2.5kW of power out when operating in peak combination mode. That works out to 1.5kW output for convection and 1kW for magnetron power.
Garlands Mealstream inputs 6.2 kW and outputs 3kW from the convection component and 1.4kW from the magnetrons, or 4.4kW total. And the TurboChef C3 draws 7kW and outputs 6kW peak, 4.8kW through hot moving air and 1.2kW through microwaves.
Again, these are peak functioning figures, and your convection-microwave may never run at its peak continuously.
As for the VFBMW, reported peak figures are input of 6kW and output of about 5.1kW, 4.1kW of that from the halogen lamps and 950W from the magnetron. And remember that here, too, figures are for peak operating conditions, and that actual energy usage is difficult to determine. The halogen technology gives this oven an edge, since the unit doesnt idle when not in use. Also, lamps start up immediately, which does away with the preheat time thats typical with convection-microwaves.
Finally, consider this: Your rapid-cook ovens efficiency may be less important than the reduced energy usage it helps you attain by shutting down other equipment. For example, if you have a pizza outfit with three conveyors running to keep up with heavy volume, during downtimes you might turn off two of those conveyors and use your rapid-cook oven to fill in. Any time you can avoid using your larger, energy-dragging equipment and use a rapid-cook oven instead youll be ahead.
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