FOCUS: Ethnic Specialists

Over the past five years, we’ve seen a remarkable rise in the use of authentic ethnic equipment. Not satisfied to simply deliver tandoori-style menu selections, operators are installing actual tandoor ovens. The same goes for all of our categories: We look at dedicated rice cookers, tortilla machines, Mongolian grills, panini grills, wok ranges, planchas and hearth ovens, the kind of equipment that gives an operator instant credibility with customers who know authentic when they see it. —The editors.

Exotic Made Easy: TANDOOR OVENS

By Allison Rezendes, Contributing Editor

Tandoor ovens, self-contained, cylindrical-shaped cooking vessels with a tapered mouth and a heat source at the bottom, can add an exciting theater element to your operation’s cooking display.

Popular in Asian restaurants, tandoor ovens are well known for baking exceptional Indian flatbread (naan) and cooking juicy, flavorful proteins and vegetables strung on vertical skewers. Tandoor ovens cook food in a unique way. Even though the heat source—charcoal, gas (natural or propane) or electricity—rests at the bottom, the cooking vessel uniformly cooks the food from bottom to top using radiant heat. Temperature in the chamber can reach an intense level of 900°F.

“The way the food turns out, it reminds me of a deep fryer, except we’re using convection,” comments one chef.

Tandoor ovens are easy to operate and maintain. Installation is easy, but the unit does require a hood. Modern models boast low operation costs thanks to efficient insulation. Many units are mobile with heavy-duty swivel castors. At least one manufacturer sells units with adjustable legs for different height options.

Manufacturers offer a few thoughts when it comes to choosing a heat source for your tandoor oven. Charcoal needs to be replaced and the ashes removed. The gas models are almost maintenance free, they say, and the tandoor reheats quickly. Electric models are ideal in airports, shopping malls or on cruise ships where gas is not an option.

Traditionally constructed of clay, several modern tandoor ovens sport more energy-efficient, longer-lasting ceramicor mild-steel-lined chambers. Ceramic pots are ideal for cooking breads, but mild steel pots heat up fast. The pots’ internal diameters range from 19.7 to 35 in. The typical minimum wall thickness measures 3 in.

Manufacturers encase the cooking vessels in a variety of external shapes, including square, round, barrel-like and octagonal. One model has a forward-leaning design, making it easy to remove cooked items. External finishes include stainless, copper, mosaic tile or paint, such as textured terracotta enamel.

Other features available include ventilated lids for faster heating and removable drip/debris pans beneath the units. Be sure to find a unit ETL, NSF or UL listed.

In the U.S. industry, more operators are showing interest in tandoor ovens as they search for ways to entice well-traveled, younger generations demanding authentic ethnic food, says a manufacturer. “It’s an exciting piece of equipment that can change how we think about cooking,” he says.


By Allison Rezendes, Contributing Editor

As more consumers demand healthy menu items and gluten-free options, it’s possible you’ve thought about adding rice to your menu. If so, consider investing in a rice cooker. These dedicated appliances consistently turn out tasty rice. Many features are automatic, simplifying the cooking process.

Rice cookers are relatively basic pieces of equipment. Just remove the pot from the body of the unit and fill it with a specific amount of water and raw rice. Next, place the pot back in the body, close the lid and push the cook button. A heating element in the bottom of the cooker heats the pan, which heats the water to cook the rice. Some units sport a built-in safety device that turns the heating element off if the pan is removed or misaligned.

Unlike a pot on the stove, a kettle or tilt skillet, rice cookers have sensors that read when the rice is cooked and automatically shut off or switch to hold mode, eliminating the chance of burning or overcooking the rice. In hold mode, the cooker holds the rice at serving temperature for up to two hours. Some cooker/warmer models cook the rice and then switch to warm mode, maintaining the rice at serving temperature for up to 12 hours.

Before you start shopping for a rice cooker, determine if you want a gas, propane or electric model. One manufacturer offers an unusual volume induction version. Several manufacturers noted that gas models heat the water faster. For example, one company’s gas model (55 6-oz. cups) cooks rice in 18 to 25 min. while an electric model (25 to 55 6-oz. cups) takes 35 to 50 min. But if you don’t have enough space for a gas model on your cookline, an electric unit offers plug-in flexibility.

Additionally, research how many portions of rice you need the unit to cook per cycle. Commercial rice cookers measure in capacity anywhere from 20 cups to 25, 37, 55 or more cups. Not all manufacturers use the same portion sizes. Some manufacturers use the standard U.S. cup (8 oz.) while at least one manufacturer uses the standard Asian cup (6 oz.). Meanwhile, another company lists 3-oz. portion sizes. Be sure you get the purveyor to clarify the portion size.

Once you begin your search, look for a heavy-duty cooker that boasts a durable pot, heavy-duty lid hinge and a high-quality non-stick liner that you can clean easily. Your area dealer should offer a selection. Finding a unit that is UL, NSF or ETL listed also is important.


By Allison Rezendes, Contributing Editor

Making your own tortillas onsite boasts plenty of advantages. Preparing the thin, flat bread in front of customers offers entertainment and helps communicate your “fresh food” message. House-made tortillas are preservative free and tastier than store-bought counterparts. Plus, the cooking process fills your restaurant with a delicious aroma.

If you’re thinking about taking on the challenge, manufacturers offer a variety of equipment to help you succeed. You can outfit your display cookline with a tortilla production system, which automatically presses and cooks tortillas. If you don’t have the front-of-house space for a floor model, a tortilla press and flat grill provides countertop or back-of-house flexibility.

Tortilla machines range in price from $4,300 for a press to $60,000 for a fully automated system. Often your return on investment will come in the form of labor savings. A skilled artisan might take two to four hours to make 400 to 500 tortillas by hand when any less skilled, but motivated employee can do the same in one hour with a small, easy-to-use press. The machines also take the guesswork out of the pressing process, giving a consistent, high-quality product.

Display tortilla-production systems measure 10 to 16 sq. ft. and are built with stainless exteriors. An employee drops dough balls (house-made or supplier-purchased) into an automatic feeder. A press fl attens the dough, then forces it to drop into an oven or onto a grill to cook.

The systems are easy to clean, and many models feature open designs or glass-encased ovens to maximize display benefits. One company sells display models that produce 450 to 900 4- to 7-in. tortillas per hour. Another company offers a model that turns out 900 6- to 8-in. tortillas per hour. Electric, gas and propane-powered units are available.

Measuring 2 to 3 sq. ft., tortilla presses are ideal for countertops. With many models, you place one or several dough balls on a heated plate and the press flattens the bread into just about any specified thickness. Companies sell manual or automatic presses, which are powered by electric motors or compressors. Presses produce anywhere from 380 to 900 ready-to-cook tortillas per hour, depending on diameter and thickness.

Several manufacturers offer flat grills to cook your tortillas. One company sells grills ranging in size from 2 ft. x 2 ft. to 2 ft. x 4 ft. that feature non-stick aluminum cooking surfaces and thermostat-controlled heat. Countertop or rotating grills called comals (36-in. diameter) are available as well and add to the show.

Display Cooking King: MONGOLIAN GRILL

By Janice Cha, Contributing Editor

Mongolian grills have served as the linchpin of display equipment at Mongolian barbecue concepts—interactive eateries where guests choose raw ingredients from a buffet and hand off their bowls for finishing to cooks. Multiple cooks work around the huge, round griddle. Today, you find them in college and university dining halls, healthcare cafes, casinos and other foodservices.

For starters, let’s clear up a few misconceptions. First, the Mongolian grill is really a griddle, usually cast iron (but also steel) and typically freestanding so cooks can work all of the way around it. But most people know them as grills, which is how we’ll refer to them.

Second, the Mongolian grill is not just for Asian food. The temperatures, ranging from 350°F or 450°F to as high as 600°F on a cast-iron surface, can cook anything with alacrity—including breakfast eggs, bacon and pancakes; lunchtime grilled sandwiches; and dinner steaks. The grill surface also can be used to hold pots of broths and sauces hot for ready access. Mongolian grills range in size from 36 in. in diameter up to a massive 84 in. across. The smallest grills operate on three burners and offer three cooking zones with a combined heat output of 123,000 Btu. (Some suppliers’ Mongolian grills rely on a single powerful center burner that gradates heat to the edges.)

Mid-sized grills—60-in. diameter with up to 10 burners—put out about 410,000 Btu. The largest grills—such as an 84-in.-diameter unit, in the case of one supplier—sport 14 burners and put out up to 574,000 Btu of heat. The burners are all individually controlled, each with its own safety pilot button in case of emergency.

When spec’ing a Mongolian grill, be conservative. Keep in mind that units with multiple burners should have all burners on when in use. If not, the temperature differential from one side to the other can warp the grill surface.

As with any griddle, proper seasoning at startup is critical to imparting and retaining a practically nonstick surface. And cleaning protocol is essential. If your crew is in a rush and throws ice and water on the grill, the thermal shock will, in time, cause hairline cracks to develop and ruin your investment.

Mongolian grill tools include holsters, swords and order dividers. The holsters clip onto the edge of the grill and hold bottles of oils and sauces. The swords are the long, narrow, angled spatulas that experienced chefs use to dramatically turn, flip and slide finished orders into bowls. And dividers are stainless bars used to separate orders during cooking.


By Janice Cha, Contributing Editor

Panini presses are famous for their sandwich-toasting chops. But for anyone seeking new “grilled” menu items, consider using a panini press for vegetables (such as asparagus or eggplant); thin, boneless cuts of meat; marinated tofu slices; halloumi cheese; Japanese mochi; polenta slices; and even sliced fruit (pineapple, for example).

Panini presses generally are available in 10-, 14- and 28-in. widths. Some makers offer double-wide units (with two lids or one double-wide lid) for high-volume operations. Single presses (about 10-in. wide) draw 1,500 to 1,800W and can operate on standard 120V outlets, while double units will draw up to 2,300W and require a 208/240V outlet. Thermostats let you dial temperatures ranging from 200°F to 700°F, depending on the model. High-end models offer programmable heat cycles and sensors that maintain steady heat levels.

Panini elements: Platens, hinges and handles are all components to consider when spec’ing a panini press.

Platens—the heating surfaces—can be ribbed, flat or one of each. Choose wisely, because commercial panini-press platens usually are not interchangeable. (One supplier, however, has debuted a high-end unit that does permit platens to be swapped out.) Platens are usually made of cast iron, which becomes seasoned with use, retains heat well and can be cleaned with a wire brush. You also can opt for aluminum platens, often Teflon-coated, which heat fast and can be wiped clean. Ceramic glass platens are an easy-to-clean option if you don’t need the grill marks; they’re smooth.

Hinges are another consideration. Does their design let you toast sandwiches of different thicknesses? Do the lids close with sufficient pressure to transfer heat efficiently, yet not so tightly as to flatten the sandwich? Are they spring-loaded or counterbalanced so the lid stays safely in the open position? Several manufacturers have introduced hinge systems that keep the platens parallel across top and bottom for thick items. Handles should be insulated for comfortable use.

In a move to bring panini presses to blazingly fast new speeds, one supplier, working in conjunction with a national bakery-café chain, has developed a programmable unit that combines infrared, contact heat and microwave heat. The resulting hybrid takes only 40 sec. to crisp a sandwich and bring its interior temps to about 150°F, the supplier says.

Bottom line: Panini presses let you add variety to menus and are available at reasonable prices.

Working The WOK

By Janice Cha, Contributing Editor

Wok ranges, nearly always powered by natural gas, come in many sizes, shapes and intensities, making them one of the most customizable pieces of commercial cooking equipment out there. For Asian chefs, the quality of the heat is every bit as important as their knives. The unmistakable flavor imparted by super-hot woks makes firepower the top priority in spec’ing wok ranges.

Most operators use a variety of burners per range. Here’s a quick rundown of burner options:

■ Ring burners, used for bulk production of Cantonese-style foods, support large, double-handled woks above holes (chambers) as wide as 22 in. in diameter. Ring burners can have two or three concentric burners that put out 75,000 to 137,000 Btu.

■ Volcano burners, used for fast, small batches typical of Mandarin-style cookery, focus intense heat to the bottom of the wok using a set of gas orifices, or tips, facing straight up from the bottom of a deep, narrow heat chamber. Depending on the number of tips and chamber size, volcano burners can range up to 75,000 Btu.

■ Jet burners, also used with Mandarin-style cooking, offer a wider flame pattern conducive to wider chambers. Depending on the number of tips and chamber size, jet burners can range up to 125,000 to 130,000 Btu.

■ Clog-free burners feature gas tip openings that are shielded from food debris.

Other considerations include flues. So-called “East Coast” models tend to include flue risers for ventilation and help expel heat. “West Coast” models do not have flues. Some models offer chambers lined with refractory brick or fiber ceramic insulation for extra heat containment and equipment longevity.

Most models feature perforated water lines to flush water across the range top for cooling, with a built-in trough for drainage. One newly debuted model has a burner system designed so it can operate completely water-free, meaning it only requires water for cleaning—a great water cost savings.

Wok-range size is determined by the width required to accommodate the number and diameter of woks you need, allowing a 6-in. space between each. Cantonese-style cooking—used for bulk production of items, such as fried rice or noodles—involve large, double-handled woks atop ring burners. Mandarin-style cooking is for small, fast orders, where chefs jockey smaller, long-handled woks overjet burners. Most wok ranges offer knee-kick handles for hands-free heat adjustments.

PLANCHAS: Sear To Perfection

By Janice Cha, Contributing Editor

Planchas, with super-hot surfaces and gutters on three or all four sides, allow chefs to perform fast-paced culinary miracles without pots or pans. Planchas maximize cookline efficiency and throughput by providing chefs with a large cooking surface (standard sizes are 18- to 36-in. wide, with every inch usable) and, importantly, super high temps.

A 36-in.-wide, three-burner plancha uses, on average, about 105,000 Btu to achieve temperatures of up to 800°F (but chefs commonly cook items in the 500°F to 600°F range)—with space for multiple orders. For comparison, a classic griddle’s temp range is 200°F to 450°F. Planchas are known for their ability to sear and crisp to perfection, caramelizing without overcooking centers. Planchas are customizable: One forward-thinking, Los Angeles-based gourmet burger shop has spec’d 60-in.-wide planchas for its units.

“Since the heat’s always ready, chefs never need to wait for sauté pans to heat up—they sear proteins directly, instantly on the plancha,” says one maker’s rep.

The characteristics that set planchas apart from griddles are their heat range, heat patterns and gutters.

Plancha burners (in Europe, most units are electric; in the United States, most are gas) can be circular, known as French style, or looped-bar-shaped, known as Spanish style. With French-style burners, the center is the hottest and temps gradually decrease to the edges, so you can sear and move items off to the edges for finishing. Alternatively, you can spec Spanish-style units with zoned (cooler to hottest) or edge-to-edge uniform heat—which you choose depends on your menu and expected volume.

Authentic planchas have gutters on at least three sides, so you can scrape them clean from any direction without flavoring nearby foods. Some planchas feature round tops, enabling chefs to move around.

Larger planchas with multiple, independently controlled burners (you
can spec controls for every 18-in. of surface width) let chefs work with an array of heat patterns—they can turn one burner off, set one on medium and one on high for an even temperature gradient.

Planchas come with chrome or carbon-steel tops. Chrome-topped planchas are easy to clean, naturally non-stick and do not transfer flavor between dishes, but they’re pricier than steel. Steel surfaces stand up to abuse and some chefs say give food flavor, but they radiate more heat.

Masterpiece OVENS

By Allison Rendezes, Contributing Editor

Hearth ovens are one of the world’s oldest cooking vessels. But in the past few decades, the specialty equipment has become wildly successful in the U.S. foodservice industry. Luxury hotels, casinos, resorts, universities and restaurant chains look for an excuse to include a hearth oven on a project, reports one manufacturer. And with good reason. The kitchen workhorses make stellar focal points and cook food with unmatched flavor and color in minutes.

Hearth ovens (also called wood-fired, stone hearth, pizza or brick ovens) are heating chambers with flat floors and dome-shaped ceilings. Manufacturers construct the chambers using ceramic, stone, brick, tile or a combination of materials. They also can create façades for the ovens using tile, brick, stucco, stone or metal.

Several leading manufacturers recommend single-cast floors and domes made from stone (rather than brick or tile) because they retain heat more efficiently and are more predictable, requiring less skill from the end user.

Hearth ovens add a thrilling theater element to any dining room or installation. Instead of pushing a button, chefs must build a relationship with the open flame, the chamber and the food cooking inside. The fire not only provides aesthetic appeal but also heats the dome, which radiates the heat back down to the floor, cooking the food.

Hearth oven fueling options are wood, gas, a wood/ gas combination or coal. At least one manufacturer offers a few electric models for the international markets. Wood-fired ovens are more traditional; some operators swear they produce the best-tasting food. The gas-fired models are easier to control, and you don’t have buy or store wood or clean out the charred remnants. The wood/gas models combine wood flavor with gas efficiency. Some operators choose the coal-fired versions because they appreciate the history of hearth ovens in North America and the thermal efficiency that coal provides, comments one manufacturer. But some operators find them more labor intensive.

One of the biggest misconceptions about hearth ovens is that they only cook pizzas. Not so. The ovens bake, roast, sauté and sear a variety of menu items. And they cook food fast. Unlike a traditional oven, hearth ovens use a combination of reflective heat, convection and conductive heat. Floor temperatures run 550°F to 650°F, and air temperatures reach 700°F to 800°F. One manufacturer sells a coal-burning oven that heats up to 1,000°F.

Baking surfaces range in size from 3 ft. in diameter (cooking 25 12-in. pizzas per hour) to 7 ft. in diameter (cooking 192 12-in. pizzas per hour).

Oven exteriors are available in round, rectangular or custom shapes. At least one company sells a countertop model. Extra doors and viewing windows are optional.

Hearth ovens are sold either fully assembled or in multiple pieces, which crews put together onsite. Work with the manufacturer to determine how the oven will ship and how it will fit into your installation.


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