‘Tween Convections And Combis

So maybe you roast, and you bake. And sometimes when you’re roasting, you wish you could find a way to retain more moisture. Or you’re baking, and you want some extra crusting. And while you’re wishing, what the heck: Wish for some extra speed too.

You could go uptown and get a combination oven-steamer. Combis are extremely versatile, and they can do what you want, and maybe cut cook times in combi mode by as much as a third compared to convection-only. But a combi might be overkill. If you’re like most combi buyers, you won’t often use its combi mode, and maybe you already have your steaming needs covered.  

For a lot of operators, something somewhere between convection and combi would be a good balance, with humidity, but still relatively simple, and maybe splitting the difference between convection and combi in both yield and cooking speed. That is where the relatively new category of electric and gas hybrid convection ovens with humidity control comes in.

Small Category, Big Differences

The key word there is control. Oven manufacturers have offered one form or another of humidity in their ovens for a long time, but it generally was short on control. Open pans and/or mist injection helped some, but the precision just wasn’t available until recent years, when electronics opened up a new era. Now you can run in convection-only mode or dial in specific temperature-and-humidity settings. Or set multi-step processes that vary humidity through the cycle.

In the past five years or so, a handful of these hybrid ovens has entered the market one by one. Each differs in the details, and in some cases the differences are significant, and the details will steer your choices.

First, consider capacity, partly because that’s the easy part: Most brands give you a choice of half- and full-sizers, in single and double-stack configurations. Half-size units hold five or six 18″ x 26″ sheet pans, depending on brand, or twice as many 12″ x 20″ steam pans.  Full-size units raise those numbers to about 10 and 20, respectively. Some makers even give you a choice of a standard depth or an optional deeper one. So you’ve got some thinking to do as far as size is concerned.

And keep in mind these units involve water. Most use a humidity or moisture generator, and these are generally side-mounted, so figure some extra width compared to a convection oven. One of these hybrids doesn’t need extra width, however, and yet another doesn’t have a generator anyway, using a spritz system instead.

Controls Run The Gamut

As for controls, they all include thermostats, but other than that, they vary widely. Some ovens run to about 500 degrees F; others run upwards of 550 degrees F. Some offer a cook-and-hold setting. Most offer programmable functions for recipe and moisture production, but watch this closely—some offer pretty basic programming, and some go way beyond. One, for example, offers a small number of menu items and two-step cooking cycles, while another offers 99 programmed items with up to six cycles for each one. Again, the sensitivity of your menu will dictate which way you lean.

Same goes for humidity control. Some models offer more humidity settings than others, which may be a factor depending on how much fine-tuning your menu would demand.

Fan speed’s another thing to consider. Most hybrids offer multi-speed fans, but multi can mean a basic one-speed plus pulse setting, or a two-speed, or three-speed, or it can mean a four-speed that’s also reversible. How much baking will you do? Is even browning without turning product going to be crucial? Note, too, that some models offer a pulse-fan setting as part of a cook-and-hold program.

Those are probably the biggest differences to consider, along with local support systems and so on, but there are a couple other items to think about too.

What about the doors? Hybrids come in single- and split-door versions. How’s your space? Do you have room to swing a longer door, or would a tandem setup be an advantage?

How do you want to cook? By timer, or by probe? Some makers offer the probe as standard, some as options, and on one spec sheet we didn’t see it mentioned at all.

And one more thing: One of the manufacturers offers self cleaning with multiple program choices. Again, depending on your menu—and your price range—that may or may not be a nice feature.

The main thing is to ask plenty of questions. Water consumption and energy usage are worth looking into, also. And keep an eye open for new models coming to market. Hybrids, like the rest of foodservice, offer you a lot of choices.

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