Compared to larger, heavier and more complicated kitchen equipment, microwave ovens may seem like a simple one-size-fits-all add-on to the equipment list, but don’t be fooled: these useful tools come in different power levels, programming options and dimensions.  Choosing the right one requires some strategic thinking.

Commercial microwaves typically fall into one of three categories: light, medium or heavy duty.  Each level has advantages for specific uses.  Wattages increase with each size; the higher the wattage, the faster food cooks.  Which one is right for you?  The answers to two questions are your guide: What is it being used for and how many times a day is it being used? 

Light-duty models are best suited for up to 50 uses per day. Typical applications include breakrooms where employees reheat meals as well as breakfast bars and wait stations where staff warms muffins, rolls and beverages.  Average wattage is 1,000 for these units.

Medium-duty microwaves step up to as many as 200 uses per day.  Wattages range from 1,100 to 2,000, depending on the manufacturer.  Applications include c-stores and coffee shops that reheat sandwiches, burritos, prepackaged foods and beverages.

Wattages for heavy-duty microwaves range from 2,000 to more than 3,000 and withstand more than 200 uses per day.  Kitchens that steam vegetables and seafood, defrost frozen entrées and prepare sauces rely on heavy-duty units day in and day out.

Higher Wattage = Faster Cook Times
Wattage is directly related to cooking times; the higher the wattage, the faster your food comes out ready to serve.  An item that might take four minutes to cook in a 1,000W microwave takes less than two minutes in a 2,200W unit.  Not only does this let you knock out servings faster, it also improves the quality of the food; vegetables, for example, maintain their texture and color better with shorter cook times.  Microwave ovens are a great alternative to tabletop steamers for this reason.

Upping the wattage simply to shorten the cook time, however, has drawbacks.  Microwaves, which heat food by exciting the water, fat and sugar molecules within, typically penetrate food up to approximately a half-inch from the surface, says one manufacturer.  On full power, thick items cook faster on the outside while the inside remains cooler, providing an unevenly cooked product.  This is particularly unwelcome when defrosting items like frozen chicken breasts.

Adjustable power levels alleviate this issue. At full power, an oven sends 100% power to the food without interruption.  Setting the unit at 30%, though, puts the machine’s magnetron (the component that generates microwaves) through a timed series of 30% on, 70% off cycles.  Those off times allow the heat from the food’s surface to transfer to the center of the food, warming the interior without overcooking the outer portions. One manufacturer offers units with as many as 11 available power levels.

Push-Button Or Dial Controls?
Microwave controls come in two varieties: dial and touchpad.  Dial controls, available mainly on light-duty models, simply let users turn the dial to the desired cook time and supply full power for the duration.  These units are perfect for employee breakrooms.  One manufacturer also points to their popularity in long-term healthcare facilities where they offer operational simplicity to residents.

Touchpad models give you more precise control over cooking time and power levels.  This control translates into consistency, an essential quality for chain operations.  Consider the example given by one microwave oven maker: After cooking a 40-qt.  Stock pot of rice, employees in a fast-casual kitchen use a scale and plastic bags to make several hundred 3-oz.  Portions and store them in an undercounter cooler.  As a veal chop comes off the grill, they throw a bag into the microwave, cook it for 43 seconds and put it on a plate with the chop.  The rice is exactly the same every time.  In this hypothetical example, 43 seconds results in rice at 165°F.  Using a dial control is less exact and may result in cooking for 45 seconds and coming out hotter or 41 seconds and coming out cooler.  Multiple-location operations count on touchpad controls to deliver the same results in every kitchen.

Touchpad models often are programmable, too.  At least one manufacturer offers heavy-duty models that hold up to 100 programs that are entered through an app available on the maker’s website.  With one touch, for example, the oven defrosts and cooks an item, defrosting at 30% for one minute, holding for 15 seconds, cooking for 20 seconds at full power then finishing for 10 seconds at 70% power.  Having that many programs available lets you plug in not only the regular menu items but seasonal dishes you call up when that time of year rolls around again.

Look for more programmable microwave ovens in the future with LCD screens.  Using supplied pictures or your own, a simple graphic such as a bowl of rice removes the language component and helps reduce training time.

Other Considerations
Along with usage levels, wattages and user controls, there are a few more points to consider when researching microwaves.  For example, make sure your electrical system can handle the load.  Is the model you need a 208V/240V unit or a 120V model?  Make sure your outlet fits the plug and delivers the power.

Check that your microwavable containers fit the useable interior dimensions of the microwave; if they don’t, figure the cost of ordering new ones into your budget.  The interior for one maker’s unit measures 11¾-in.W x 11¾-in.D x 8-in.H while another unit is 141/8-in.W x 16-in.D x 8¾-in.H. Look at exterior dimensions as well. Will the unit fit your limited counter space or the depth of a wall shelf?  Some microwaves are stackable; that can save space.

If all you need is a light-duty microwave, don’t install a residential unit.  Commercial units are built more durably and are made with higher quality materials and earn approval from health inspectors and insurance regulators. Should there be a fire and inspectors find you used a residential microwave oven, your insurance claim may be denied.


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