A Buyer’s Guide to Steamer Specification

With ventless options, water- and energy-saving features, and holding capabilities, today’s steamers keep pace with operators’ demands.

Steamer Selects 5 (1)
Steamer types include boiler-based, boilerless and connectionless. Some units can be stacked for those steaming larger capacities of product, with options for up to 24 pans. Courtesy of Vulcan.

Like an express locomotive, steamers can keep a kitchen steadily chugging along, delivering in-demand sides, like vegetables and rice, or main dishes, like duck, lobster or crab legs.

And, while staff sets the steaming process in motion, the controls are typically simple and outcome, predictable. Anyone seeking moist and nutrient-rich menu items just may find the steamer to be an essential station in their operation.

“Especially for things you have to turn around really quick, steamers make a lot of sense,” says one manufacturer.

Makers say the equipment is suitable for both a la carte and batch cooking, with at least one growing chain relying solely on steamers to prep chicken—which, once shredded, makes up its core menu item. K-12 schools and nursing homes also remain hot clientele for the quick-cooking units, several of which have holding capabilities, adding convenience amid day-to-day demand fluctuations.

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Some steamers have holding capabilities, letting staff unload product as needed. Courtesy of AccuTemp.

Know Your Options

Steamers can rely on gas or electric connections, and generate steam either within the cooking cavity (aka boilerless or connectionless) or in a separate reservoir (boiler-based), with atmospheric steam generators often enclosed within the footprint of the oven. Some boiler-based models also depend on external pressure boilers; this piece will not cover this type.

Some manufacturers we interviewed say connectionless models, which don’t have drain or water connections, have a popularity edge, and at least one company says its sales tip in favor of the electric versions, which typically don’t have to go under a hood. “It did gain more momentum during and after COVID due to supply chain issues,” they say. “We definitely saw it intensify because hood costs were just skyrocketing.”

Still, boilerless units (which can be plumbed) and boiler-based models have benefits, too.

To navigate your steamer search, makers recommend the following considerations:

Pricing Book updated imagery (1)

Once you know what you’re steaming—seafood items are among popular products—consider throughput to help determine steamer type. Courtesy of Cleveland.

What’s cookin’? The ideal steamer size and type depends on your menu. As for size, capacities generally range from countertop, three-pan units to double-stacked options with up to 24 pans. To narrow type, consider volume. Someone doing a la carte cooking, for example, would want a boiler-based unit, which can keep up with all-day use, whereas boilerless or connectionless units are best for batch cooking. “Boilerless steamers don’t have the recovery to keep up,” one maker explains. “You have to go with the steam generator in higher-volume places, so that when you open and close that door, you get instant recovery.” Further, since the water is outside the cooking cavity with a boiler-based unit, there’s less concern of flavor transfer which can occur with some items that drip, like shellfish. Though throughput still needs to be considered, one maker’s boilerless units have a drain that remains open while cooking to keep water clean, sending starches into a catch pan. “A lot of boilerless units have a closed drain, so it has nowhere to go but back in the water, so you do get that foaming effect, the flavor transfer, cross contamination, that kind of thing,” they say. Boiler-based units also may be best for heavy loads of frozen vegetables, makers say. And, while steamers won’t brown items, some operators choose to steam something like pork or duck, then finish it in a braising pan for “the best of both worlds.”

What labor model makes sense? One key difference with connectionless units is they require manual water handling. “You just fill it up at the beginning of service, top it off as needed and then manually drain it afterward,” one maker explains. “It’s simple, but that does require a little bit more minding by the operator.” On the maintenance side, staff can readily see and clean buildup, using white vinegar or chemicals. On boiler-based units, meanwhile, scale is out of sight. Boiler-based units also typically require water filtration systems, so routine filter changes mark another task—one some say gets forgotten. Since cleanliness is key to a steamer’s operation, some units have indicator lights to keep it on track. Finally, for cooking, at least one maker touts its simplistic controls (an on-and-off button and a 60-minute timer) as being user-friendly, while others have added connectivity and smart controls.

Groen SmartSteam Pro, Boilerless, 10 Pan

Touch screens, featured on select models, can display cleaning prompts, pan timers and more. Courtesy of Groen.

What hookups do I need? Adequate voltage and placement for the unit mark two top determinations. Boiler-based units depend on the right water pressure, proper drain line material and sloping—details an installer will want to closely check. At least one maker offers an extended warranty for those who undergo its free startup, which includes an installation inspection. Water quality also is important. Another company offers a free water quality test pre-purchase, helping an operator determine what kind of filter they may need. “A lot of people don’t do that, and they should; they should understand their water,” they say.

Does efficiency matter to me? Connectionless steamers tend to be more efficient from both water and power perspectives, but also have light-duty performance. However, those who need a heavy-duty steamer may gawk at the differences in water use. Since steam is continually pumped into the cavity of a boiler-based unit, then tempered by cold water before draining, the gallons add up. One maker has an add-on option for its electric, boiler-based units which cuts water use to about 8-6/10 gallons per hour on a five-pan model. “We added a sensor and a controller for this technology … which gives [an operator] 90% water savings and a 50% energy savings, and they get that energy savings because we’re not continually tempering that additional water down,” they say, noting such units also are Energy Star certified. Yet another maker says its connected and connectionless boilerless units (also Energy Star rated) use less than 1½ gallons of water per hour. Certified steamers, says Energy Star, use an average of 3 gallons of water per hour, as compared to 40 gallons of water per hour for standard models. Annually, Energy Star certified units save roughly 162,000 gallons of water, 11,500 kWh of energy and $1,000 in utility costs. California Energy Wise serves as another source for comparing data; visit caenergywise.com/calculators and click on steam cookers, then choose electric or natural gas.

Debuting Soon

Coming down the line, one maker says its touch screen will debut at The NAFEM Show 2025. The addition, which will be available as an add-on at the time of purchase across the portfolio, will allow for recipe storage, individual pan cook (and hold) times and service diagnostics.


But Can’t My Combi Steam?

Technically, combis can steam, but manufacturers we spoke with stand by steamers’ abilities to better perform their namesake task exceptionally and consistently in a “pure steam environment.” Combis, meanwhile, will still have some dry heat, even in steam mode, they say.

In addition to combis, some operators try to use microwaves (some of which can take full-sized pans) or high-speed ovens to steam. “It doesn’t work as well because you’re not really creating steam; you’re actually creating steam with the moisture in the food, so it tends to be a little bit tougher and dry out a little bit more as well,” they add.

Manufacturers say some schools will specify both combis and steamers, as steamers may have a dedicated, batch use (like vegetables), while combis can make quick work of in-demand items like chicken nuggets, etc.


Starting Block

Step into your steamer search with a quick overview of five makers’ newest models, all of which are electric.

 

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