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FOCUS: Braising The Limit

Long before “Angry Birds,” or game consoles like Xbox and Nintendo, even before “Space Invaders” and “Pac-Man,” there were pinball machines. Anyone old enough to remember them will know that part of a player’s game strategy was to bump the machine hard enough to guide the pinball without causing the machine to “tilt.” In a foodservice kitchen, though, tilting the equipment is good, at least in one case.

Tilting braising pans, often called tilting skillets, are one of the most versatile pieces of cooking equipment on the market. Operators who use them say that for many applications they’re a kitchen star because they’re so simple and straightforward, yet so multi-functional. 

Very simply, these are large, deep-sided, bottom-heated pans that are hinged to allow you to tip them and empty their contents more easily. Typically rectangular—although some smaller countertop models are round with sloped sides—their large cooking surface allows you to griddle, brown, braise and fry a variety of foods. And because they’re lidded, you also can roast, steam, simmer and even bake, in a fashion.

Capacities range from 10-gal. countertop units to 40-gal. floor models, so they fit into operations both small and large. Their multi-functionality makes them ideal for recipes with several steps, such as a stew that requires browning and braising meat and then simmering with vegetables until done. Operators use them primarily for batch cooking everything from sauces to rice to scrambled eggs for a breakfast buffet. 

Countertop models typically come in 10-gal., 12-gal. and 15- or 16-gal. sizes, although the latter also may be available in a floor model. The most common floor-model sizes are 30 and 40 gal.

Built Like A Tank

As befits cooking vessels of this size, braising pans, even small ones are constructed with heavy-gauge stainless (usually 10- to 12- ga.), and all are ruggedly built to last. But there are subtle differences among models and makes, so weigh benefits vs. cost when you shop. 

Open vs. closed base. Two basic designs for this equipment are open and closed construction. Open designs essentially hang the braising pan in a frame that gives you open access to the floor beneath the unit, making cleaning easier. Closed designs present you with a solid front—like much of the equipment in your kitchen—which can make cleaning under the unit more difficult.

Pan construction. The heavy-gauge stainless used for the pan body may be assembled in a few different ways. In less expensive models, four panels are seam-welded together to form the walls, which are welded to the bottom or base. More expensive models may bend a single sheet of stainless to form the walls, which then is welded to the base. 

The basic shape of most braising pans, as mentioned earlier, is rectangular. Less expensive models have straight sides with 90-degree corners. Coved corners in many models, however, make cleaning much easier. The radius of these coved corners ranges from ½-in. to 3-in. on one manufacturer’s models. The wider the radius, obviously, the easier it is for employees to get corners clean. Coved corners on most models are in four vertical corners of the pan sides only, but one manufacturer designs and constructs its pans with coved corners in the four vertical corners and along the horizontal base edges where the base meets the sides.

Several makers also design their pans with a front wall that angles outward. The idea is that when you tilt the pan, the contents will pour more readily, and the pan will be easier to empty. The sloped front also lessens the chance that contents will slosh when the pan tilts, and the last thing you want is 40 gal. of boiling food slopping out of the pan and scalding employees. One maker actually shapes its sloped front wall into a “v” to further guide contents toward the pouring lip. 

A couple of manufacturers make models with insulated walls. The design not only holds heat better and makes the units more energy efficient, it also makes them safer for employees because the outer surface remains relatively cool to the touch.

Lids. Keeping a lid on a braising pan lets you hold heat in for simmering stews or steaming vegetables and starches. Lids are permanently mounted, but hinges let you swing them up and out of the way whenever you need to stir the contents or load and unload the pan. Lids typically have a lip in the back that collects steam condensate and either channels it safely to a floor drain or back into the pan. Some lids also have a vent, but in most cases, lids are counterbalanced to stay in place so you can open them a little to vent steam. 

Manufacturers use three types of counterbalance: springs, torsion bar (a horizontal bar with coiled spring around it providing counterbalance to the lid), or a counterbalance weight system. All do the job, but designs with the most working parts likely will wear out more quickly.

Power It Up

While there are electric models that work just fine, gas models tend to heat faster and respond more quickly. With natural gas prices as low as they’ve been in most parts of the country, they may make more sense from a lifecycle cost perspective. 

You’ll find a range of power outputs on these pans from about 96,000 BTUs on a 30-gal. unit to 144,000 BTUs on a 40-gal. model. One manufacturer offers a line with dual power settings from an efficient, forced-air power burner. The 30-gal. model puts out 90,000 BTUs at the low, energy-efficient setting and 125,000 BTUs on the power setting. The 40-gal. unit puts out 160,000 BTUs and 200,000 BTUs for the respective settings, by far the highest output of any pan its size.

As important as output, however, is heat transfer. Most pans are designed with a bottom that’s constructed of ½-in. or 5/8-in. carbon steel plate clad in stainless. The steel is a better heat conductor and heat sink than stainless (with thermal conductivity of about 31 compared with about 9 for stainless), but the stainless veneer is easier to clean. Copper, of course, is an even better heat conductor than steel (with thermal conductivity of about 223), so one manufacturer uses a layer of copper in its bottom for better heat transfer. 

Simply running burners under the length of the pan every 12 in. or so can create hot and cool spots, so many manufacturers add heat fins to the bottom of the pan to distribute heat more evenly across the surface.

Accurate temperature control contributes to more consistent performance, too. Some manufacturers weld temperature sensors to the bottom of the pan. A better solution used by several manufacturers is embedding the temperature sensors in the stainless-clad steel plate that forms the clad bottom of the pan. 

One manufacturer’s braising pans are designed as pressure cookers with locking lids. Cooking at about 5.8 psi creates superheated steam, which cooks faster and more evenly than traditional cooking. The manufacturer claims its units can cook items up to 70% faster, saving energy as well as time. The company says the pans can cook up to 50 lb. of rice in 10-12 min. and dried black beans in 40 min. without soaking them first.

A note on pan bottom finish: You’ll see manufacturers talk about a bead-blasted finish or an emery-polished finish. Makers of the former claim that blasting the bottom with little pellets makes it porous and easier to season, which helps give it non-stick properties. Makers of the latter claim that sanding the bottoms of their pans with fine grit polishes it to a smooth finish more comparable to a griddle, giving it non-stick properties. We suggest you take both types out for a spin and test which one you prefer. 

Rock And Roll

Two styles of pan tilt tend to dominate. Most closed-base models are hinged in front and tip up from the rear. Most open-base models are center-hinged and essentially rotate in place, axle-style. In either case, look for smooth operation of the tilting mechanism so product doesn’t slosh to the front of the pan and threaten to slop over the sides.

Both manual and automatic tilt options are typically available on most models; automatic models usually cost more. The gearbox, usually a worm gear, should be sealed and permanently lubricated. You’ll either see a wheel or a folding hand crank on the front of all models because auto-tilt models have a manual override as well. You may prefer one over the other. 

Most models let you tilt the pan at least 90° so it empties completely, but several models tilt past 90°, making both emptying contents and cleaning more thorough and easier.

Something else to consider is whether or not you want to cook in the pan while it’s tilted. While braising pans can’t replace a good griddle—pan bottoms don’t release food as easily as the smooth finish of a griddle—they can fill in for one when you need additional volumes. Because of the pan’s deep sides, however, griddling food can be challenging unless you can tilt the pan toward the cook. 

Several models will continue to operate while the pan is tilted. Two lines cook at up to a 5° tilt, another cooks at up to a 7° tilt and several let you cook when the pan is tilted as much as 10°.

Safety And Control

You don’t want flames on gas models shooting up behind a tilted pan, so most gas models feature a safety shutoff that turns off the pan at, no surprise, 5°, 7° or 10° depending on the model. Also featured on many models is a high-temperature cutoff that turns off the burners or electricity when the pan reaches 500ºF. 

While we mentioned the condensate lip/guide on the back of most lids, something else you might want to consider is where handles are located. Oddly, most models put the handle on the front of the lid, but employees need to be careful of escaping steam when lifting the lid. One manufacturer locates handles on the side of its lid.

Controls on most models are water-resistant because employees tend to hose down equipment and the environment in and around a braising pan is likely to be humid and wet. Side-mounted controls are less likely to encounter spills than bottom-mounted. Solid-state thermostat and controls are more durable and accurate, and you should choose a model with a thermostat that lets you control actual temperature by degrees, not by “low, medium, high” type designations. Most pans give you a range of from 100ºF to 450ºF. At least one line has a minimum pan temperature of 170ºF, which it says helps you maintain HACCP control (where rethermed foods, for example, need to hit 165°F) and makes cleaning easier. Some models also have timers. The controls for the pressure skillet are more sophisticated and can be programmed. 

A variety of available options and accessories from most makers also will give you more control. Draw valves, mounted in various configurations and typically 2 in. in diameter, let you safely siphon off fat or excess liquid. Steamer inserts obviously give you the capability to steam vegetables or fish, for example. Faucets for cold and/or hot water can be mounted on the side of the pan or frame, making it easier to fill the pan, and spray hoses simplify cleaning. A hotel pan bracket that mounts to the front lets you pour directly into steam table pans.

If you do any sort of batch cooking in your operation, from taco meat to marinara sauce, a tilting skillet might just be the versatile piece of equipment you’re looking for.

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