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FER FOCUS: Any Way You Slice It

Sandwiches are still king when it comes to a convenient way to get a meal in an easy-to-eat package, so it’s no wonder deli-style service is growing by leaps and bounds. Made-to-order sandwiches aren’t just the purview of supermarket delis or sandwich chains. Operators from hospital cafeterias to coffeeshops and c-store commissaries are taking a slice.

While a high-volume feeder like a hospital, airline or hotel might use an industrial automatic slicer, most operations can get by with one (or several) gravity-feed slicers. And depending on what you’re slicing and how many hours a day you plan to use your machine, models range from economy manual slicers to heavy-duty automatic machines with lots of bells and whistles.

Now’s the perfect time to look if you’re thinking of starting a deli-style sandwich program or you need to replace an old machine. Back in 2010, NSF announced that in conjunction with ANSI, it had developed a new standard for commercial food slicers. Concerned about food safety, NSF imposed new requirements on manufacturers to enhance cleanability by eliminating hard-to-clean cavities between attached parts, improving performance of fasteners, gaskets and seals, and providing detailed cleaning and sanitizing instructions with each unit.

The new NSF/ANSI Standard 8 2010 took effect last fall, which means that any new NSF-approved slicer you see out on the market meets or exceeds the new requirements. In most cases, bodies now are one-piece, construction; if not, seams are smooth so they can’t trap bacteria. Manufacturers have tweaked angles or increased distances between parts to make it easier for kitchen staff to clean and sanitize the machine. And other parts, like the slide rod that holds the product pusher, are now completely removable so they can be run through a dishmachine to comply with the new standard.

Under Construction

The basics, though, remain pretty much the same. Manufacturers use several different materials for the body or base of a slicer. Some models have an FDA-approved molded poly base that’s typically lighter weight than other materials and easy to clean. Plastic is easily scratched, of course, but if you’re using the slicer in the kitchen, appearance may not matter as much to you.

Most common are models with aluminum bases, and manufacturers offer both anodized aluminum and burnished aluminum. Aluminum is sanitary, solid and can be molded in a single piece to eliminate seams. Its one drawback is that it’s susceptible pitting and tarnishing if exposed to acidic foods.

Stainless is used on a few models since it’s extremely durable, attractive, and easy to clean. But stainless construction may require seams, and it’s more expensive than other materials.

Motors range in size from 1/4 hp to 1/3 hp and 1/2 hp. Obviously, the larger the motor, the more power the slicer has to get through not only tough cuts (a dense cheese can be tougher than a roast because of the drag the sticky cheese puts on the knife), but also through long days in high-volume operations.

In addition to the horses under the hood, though, what gives a slicer its power is torque, and that can be affected by two factors. One is amperage. A higher amp motor might provide more consistent power with tougher-to-slice products like cheese. Some models draw 2.5 amps, others up to 7 amps.

A slicer’s drive also could affect torque if, for some reason, it’s slipping. Manufacturers use either gear drive or belt drive to transfer power from the motor to the knife, and a couple of makers offer both types. In the past, some argued that gear drives are more reliable, but both should provide enough power and be fairly trouble-free with proper maintenance. Belts on heavy-duty slicers are typically V-shaped ribbed poly, so they’re designed not to slip, but they will wear in time and require replacement. Manufacturers usually design gear drives with a continuous lubrication feature so they don’t require a lot of maintenance.

A Keen Knife

Another key to performance is a slicer’s circular blade, more commonly called a knife. Slicers often are referred to by the size in diameter of the knife used. At the small end are 9-in. and 10-in. knives. More common are 12-in. and 13-in. slicers, and occasionally you’ll see a 14-in. in use. 

You may choose size based on the size of the products you plan to slice. You might not want a slicer with a 13in. knife if you’re going to slice 2-in. pepperoni sticks. Conversely, you can’t put a large roast on a 9-in. slicer and expect great results.

It’s important to note, however, that slicers with larger knives are typically larger machines with more powerful motors. Larger knives also tend to provide a better slice since product is exposed to more knife edge as it’s sliced, and a larger knife won’t dull quite as quickly.

You’ll find knives typically fashioned from one of four materials—high-carbon steel, chrome-plated carbon steel, stainless, or stainless with an alloy edge. High-carbon steel has always been touted as hard enough to maintain a sharp edge for a long time, but also stains and oxidizes easily. That leads many manufacturers to chrome-plate their carbon knives. Recognize that after many sharpenings, more of the carbon steel near the edge may be exposed and subject to corrosion if you don’t take care of it properly.

Stainless is much easier to keep clean, but might be more expensive. As far as keeping its edge, though, a stainless knife is just as suitable in a slicer as a carbon-steel knife, according to the Food Service Technology Center, San Ramon, Calif. To render the argument moot, one manufacturer welds a special alloy to the edge of its stainless knives, which it says holds an edge as well as carbon steel.

Technology for both casting and stamping knives has changed so both tend to be equally strong. Manufacturers now use spin-casting to make sure knives have no air bubbles, thus no weakness. And stamped knives now are actually laser cut, not stamped.

You’ll get the most out of a slicer when the knife is sharp, so manufacturers typically provide a sharpener. Some are permanently affixed to the slicer (though removable for cleaning). Others simply snap on when needed. The process should be as simple as possible to encourage employees to keep the knife sharp.

Most sharpeners have two stones, one to sharpen, the other to de-burr the knife edge. Material used to make sharpening stones, by the way, is important. Composite stones can absorb moisture, and shouldn’t be used when wet. Several manufacturers use Borazon stones which don’t absorb water and can be used wet. (Borazon is a trade name for a crystal form of boron nitride, a substance hard enough to scratch a diamond.) They generally come with a lifetime guarantee.

Oh, and if you have any thoughts of using your slicer to shave a frozen roast for chipped beef or to slice frozen fish for fillets or steaks, don’t, at least not with a standard knife. There are serrated knives available for slicing frozen products.

Safety First

The new NSF/ANSI Standard 8 2010 really focused on making slicers safer from a microbiological standpoint. All the new slicers come with cleaning and sanitation instructions and should be much easier to clean as a result.

Keeping that knife out of the way of fingers and other parts that don’t belong in your recipes is really the focus of other safety features designed into many slicers. Virtually all models have a ring-guard, for example, that covers the knife when the slicer is in operation. Some models now have special tools that employees can use to safely remove the knife from the slicer for cleaning. Other safety features include:

No-volt release. Common to most slicers, this safety feature requires you to restart the slicer after a power loss before it will continue operation.

Home-start interlock. On some models, you have to make sure the product tray is pulled all the way toward the operator before the slicer will start. That keeps the operator’s hands away from the knife when the machine is turned on.

Gauge-plate interlock. Prevents you from tilting or removing the product tray for cleaning when the gauge plate is open and the knife is exposed.

Knife-cover interlock. Several models have an interlock that prevents them from operating if the knife cover is removed.

Auto shut-off. Some models automatically shut off the knife motor if the product tray or carriage hasn’t moved for a certain amount of time. On some models it’s a 10-second delay, on others it’s 30 seconds.

Close to stop. On some models a quick turn of the index knob that sets slice thickness back to zero automatically shuts off the machine.

Thermal shut-off. Some makers equip their slicers with a thermal switch that automatically shuts off the slicer when the motor gets too hot to prevent it from burning out.

Kickstand. Larger machines have kickstands that let you prop the machines up at an angle, making it easier to clean underneath. One model has a lever that lifts the slicer onto legs with wheels so you can roll the machine out of the way. Another make offers a gas piston lift-assist that helps tilt and hold the slicer up.

Running on Auto-Pilot

Larger, heavy-duty slicers often are designed as automatic machines or offer it as an option. The feature frees up staff to do other tasks while the slicer carves its way through a loaf of luncheon meat or cheese. The auto function differs from model to model, though, so be sure to look for features you want.

Speed. Carriage speed varies from two to three, four and nine speeds. Nine might sound like too many, but two might not be enough depending on the products you slice.

Stroke length. When you’re slicing salami or pepperoni, the carriage doesn’t need to travel its full length of 12 inches or more. Some models come with three or four preset carriage stroke lengths. Others allow you to enter a set point in memory anywhere along the carriage length. The set point remains in memory for 30 seconds after pausing the slicer, giving you enough time to replenish product.

Playing Goldilocks

Slicers typically are classified as light-, medium- and heavy-duty machines. So which machine is right for you?

If you plan to use the slicer a half-hour to an hour or less, and won’t be processing a lot of tough-to-slice product like soft cheese, a light-duty will suit you fine. For somewhere in the range of $500-$750, you can get a 9-in. or 10-in. manual slicer with a ¼-hp motor. An economy 12-in. slicer for larger products will likely run you between $1,000 and $1,500.

If your machine will be in operation for one to three hours a day with a percentage of that time slicing cheese, you’ll need a medium-duty slicer. Around $1,500-$2,000 will buy you a 12-in. manual slicer with a 1/3-hp (and possibly a 1/2-hp) motor. Premium models with more features will likely start around $2,500.

Any more than three hours of slicing a day calls for a heavy-duty machine. Starting at around $3,000 to $4,000, these 12-in., 13-in. and 14-in. slicers are kitchen workhorses with standard 1/2-hp motors and beefier chassis and bodies. For an automatic slicer, plan on spending $5,000 to $6,000.

Of course, when you’re shelling out that kind of dough for a piece of equipment, you’ll want to check out warranties and service networks to make sure a manufacturer can respond should you need it.

Any way you slice it, though, today’s slicers are better than ever.

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