Foodservice Equipment Reports

FER REPORT: Perfect Toast

Something magical happens when you toast a piece of bread. Scientists can explain how heat first dries the bread then acts as a catalyst in two chemical reactions that brown and crisp it. (The first chemical response is the Maillard reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned bread its desirable flavor; the second is the caramelization that occurs when heat oxidizes the sugars.) The magic of these scientific processes is how they change the way bread looks, smells and tastes with its savory, golden brown color, enhanced aroma and flavor and a level of crispness suited to accept all kinds of delicious toppings.

Apply the right amount of heat for the right amount of time and—voila!—you achieve this bit of culinary magic without over- or under-browning the bread. And while you might find an almost infinite number of ways to toast bread, commercial toasters do the job quite nicely. Fortunately, picking the right one doesn’t take magic—just a little forethought.

Four types of toasters on the market make toast in one of two methods: in batches (batch bun or slot pop-up toasters) or continuously (conveyor or contact toasters). Each type of toaster has variations you’ll want to consider based on your needs. Look at volume and throughput first: How much toast do you need and in what period of time? 

Toaster capacity ranges from about 225 slices per hour for a medium-duty, four-slice slot toaster to more than 1,800 slices per hour for super-fast conveyor toasters and up to 2,200 buns per hour for a good contact toaster. But capacity is only half of the equation. A toaster that produces 250 slices per hour won’t cut it if that many orders are placed in half an hour. Likewise, in some situations, servers, or customers in a self-serve situation, may not want or be able to wait for two or three minutes for toast, in which case you’ll either need more toasters or faster ones.

The next thing to consider is the type of bread products you plan to toast. Different types of bread will toast at contrasting times and temperatures. Breads with higher sugar content will caramelize more quickly. Thickness also plays a part; for example, regular slices of sandwich bread may toast more quickly than thick slices because they dry more rapidly. Some toasters are designed for regular-sliced bread, and others are made for thicker products, like Texas toast or bagels. You also should consider that other products, such as bagels and buns, only need toasting on one side. 

Many toasters are designed with these differences in mind, so you can spec a toaster for bagels, for example, that will toast the quantity you need in the cycle timeframe you want. If you have more than one type of bread on your menu, you’ll obviously need a toaster that accommodates a variety of products or a couple of different pieces of equipment to handle separate products. Figure out how much real estate to devote to the toaster; many of the manufacturers make vertical and horizontal versions of conveyors and contact toasters, with the vertical versions taking up a little less space on the countertop.

Toaster Types 

Slot pop-up toasters. This is the style most of us are familiar with at home. Using the batch method, these toasters brown two or four slices at a time and typically take about 60 seconds or more per cycle depending on the kind of bread you’re toasting. They’re usually used in low volume operations or in self-serve situations, such as a hotel breakfast buffet, because they’re intuitive. 

Most pop-up toaster manufacturers offer models with regular and wide slots, and some models with wide slots only toast one side (for bagels, for example) and some offer the ability to switch between one-sided and two-sided toasting.

Make sure you specify a UL-approved commercial toaster to ensure it will last a long time and stand up to abuse in your kitchen. Manufacturers make heavier-duty models in 208V, 230V and 240V so they can increase the wattage and toasting speed. Be sure to check your electrical service before you specify, and remember that even if you have 240V service in the kitchen, you likely have only 115V/120V in the front of the house where a breakfast buffet might be set up. A commercial-quality pop-up toaster will run you about $150-$500. 

Contact toasters. A specialty piece of equipment, contact toasters are designed to toast buns for hamburgers and other sandwiches. Much like a vertical griddle, you drop the bun crown and heel in the top of the toaster, and the bun’s surface makes contact with a heated center platen as gravity pulls it down with a motor assist. Buns have a higher sugar content than many other breads, so the contact toaster does an excellent job of caramelizing the surface of the bun. The idea is to seal the bun so condiments or fat from a hamburger or some other grilled item won’t make the bun soggy. 

There are two types of contact toasters, one with a butter wheel that butters the buns before they come in contact with the platen and one without a butter wheel. The former produces toasted buns more like those you’d cook on your griddle. The latter uses a platen coated with Teflon or other non-stick coating, so the buns toast without any extra fat. Most models are designed for high-volume QSR operations, toasting anywhere from 720-2,200 buns per hour. Expect to pay up to $5,000 for a high-capacity contact toaster. 

Batch bagel/muffin toasters. A couple of manufacturers make batch toasters for muffins or bagels. Resembling small countertop electric broilers, these units usually have heating elements only on top. You place product on a tray that slides into the toasting compartment. Most fit about 12 bagel or muffin halves per batch. 

Conveyor toasters. Most foodservice operations find this type of toaster best suits their needs because they’re fast and versatile. You simply load slices of bread on the conveyor, and they’re delivered toasted within seconds. Capacity ranges from about 950-1,800 slices per hour. Expect to pay $1,200-$3,500 depending on the bells and whistles; some of the features to look for include: 

Power. The higher the voltage, the more wattage makers can pack into the toaster. A 120V, 15A unit can generate about 1,800W max. But go up to 240V, and you’ll see models with up to 4,850W.

Convection. Some models add convection to the toasting cavity to speed drying and browning. And newer models feature impingement—forced heated air directed at the product—giving you greater menu flexibility. 

Width/height. Typical width of the openings on conveyor toasters is 10 in., so you can put two slices side by side. A few models go up to 13 in. for larger bread products, and a new one has a width of just 5 in. for a single slice. Most models have 2-in.-high openings, but for bagels you might want one that has a 3-in.-high opening.

Dual conveyors. One of the latest innovations is models with two conveyor belts that allow you to toast two different types of products at the same time. 

Reversing conveyor. Also adding menu flexibility are models with reversing conveyors. To melt cheese on a product, for example, you place the product on the belt, the product is drawn into the toaster for a set period of time, then the belt reverses to deliver the product.

Energy savings. Most models now have an idle mode that either activates manually with a switch or automatically after a programmed amount of time. Idle mode reduces power to the toaster, with 50%-75% energy savings depending on the type of heating elements. Many models also have sensors that recognize when product is on the conveyor. The conveyor stops running when no product is on the belt. 

Heating elements. Depending on the model, you may have a choice of metal or quartz heating elements. Quartz elements heat faster but are more fragile and tend not to last as long as metal. One maker has a pass-through unit with ceramic heating elements on top that it says are more durable than quartz as well as metal elements on the bottom that stand up to dripping grease and crumbs.

Control. Units may let you set conveyor speed, temperature or both to control the toasting cycle. Some automatically set the conveyor speed by monitoring the cavity temperature. 

Programmability. Many models allow you to program toasting cycles for the bread products you feature on your menu, which provides consistency from store to store. Newer models can be programmed easily through a USB port, which also serves to download data for service techs when the units need maintenance.

If you’re still not sure what type of toaster to spec for your operation, call in some manufacturers’ reps and have them consult with you.

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