Built for speed

17 June 2004
Built for speed

Rapid heating of food has traditionally been associated with microwave ovens, and microwave energy remains the fastest dry heat system for most foods. Microwave manufacturers make great claims for their ovens' ability to cook food, but for 99% of professional kitchens it is a means of reheating, not primary cooking.

Combination microwave ovens promise the ultimate in versatility: fast cooking with microwaves coupled with crisping and browning from grill elements or convection heat
The association between microwave ovens and frozen food is one reason that manufacturers are starting to shy away from the M word when describing cooking systems that use microwaves in combination with other energy sources. The combination microwave oven has been around for many years, but the selling language to caterers is changing. Rather than "combination microwave oven", expect to see descriptions such as "rapid cook system". Microwave suppliers are gently airbrushing the word out of brochure material to put distance between the capabilities of a standard microwave oven and the full cooking ability of a combination microwave oven. Pratap Gadhvi, managing director of Valera, which sells Sanyo microwave ovens in the UK, says microwaves remain a key component for most kitchens, but the image of them just being for food regeneration can work against the complete cooking performance of the combination microwave. "When we talk to caterers about combination microwaves, many immediately get a mind-set of frozen food and mediocre quality," says Gadhvi. "Talk to the same caterer about a flexible, rapid cooking system that can cook from fresh as well as a normal oven but in a fraction of the time - then the interest rises." The M word is also conspicuously absent from one of the most high-profile of combination microwaves, the US-built Turbochef. Whitbread had an exclusive import arrangement into the UK when the machine was first launched, but it is now available to all through distributors ServEquip. The Turbochef bombards food with microwaves to do the cooking while forcing hot air into the oven cavity to crisp and brown. Turbochef ovens are multi-programmable - essential for deskilled kitchens. An example of their performance is a raw beef Wellington cooked in 150 seconds or a rack of lamb in 200 seconds. The oven is priced at the high end of combination microwaves, but ServEquip commercial manager Tony Aram says performance is beyond many other combination microwaves, and the Turbochef has a big advantage with an internal filtering system that removes cooking smells, so the oven does not have to be vented. An innovative advance in the integration of microwave with other cooking technologies has been made by Dutch company Leventi, which has put microwave power in the same oven cavity as steam and convection. This makes the Leventi Booster about a third faster in cooking times than a conventional combi-oven. As an example, a 2.5kg joint of beef will cook in 12 minutes. John Harvey, national key accounts manager with Valera, importers of Leventi, says that what sets it apart from other combination microwave ovens is its capacity: the biggest model has five gastronorm grids, meaning up to 100 portions of food can be cooked or regenerated at one time. Although Harvey uses the word microwave for simplicity of explanation, he says the Leventi technology is similar, but different, in that Leventi ovens can take metal containers without the problems normally associated with metal in microwave ovens. We've got the power Power ratings for microwaves are creeping ever higher, but there are limitations. It is simple science to make a microwave oven that belts out thousands of watts of heat, but the effect is to damage the structure of the food, so it heats unevenly and can collapse. High-wattage microwave ovens loaded with a full gastronorm of food rather than individual portions can cope because the microwave energy is spread through a large volume of food. Commercial microwave ovens rated at more than 3kW are now available. Combination microwave ovens are made with much lower power ratings than microwave-only ovens, because they use more than one heat source. A combination microwave oven with a microwave rating of 900-1,200W is actually very powerful. The future
Regeneration programs will be available to download into the memory of Maestrowave's new Combi-Chef V
Rapid cooking systems are receiving a huge amount of research and development investment from the men in white coats. There are two reasons for this. The main one is that time equates to labour costs and diners waiting to be served. In the informal dining sector, the faster customers are served, the sooner they will vacate the table for new customers. Speed of cooking and service also directly impacts on kitchen and front-of-house labour costs. The second reason is that in the chain restaurant sector, where consistency across the chain is important and the use of frozen product is increasing, to have a programmable oven in a deskilled kitchen is an attractive buying proposition. Ray Hall, managing director of RH Hall, which distributes the Maestrowave range of combination microwave ovens, says more sophisticated programming is what all the leading manufacturers are looking at. "We have put a microchip in the Combi-Chef V that has the option of taking new programs through either an internet or laptop computer download. "We are in talks with the major frozen food suppliers into chain restaurants to develop a regeneration recipe book for our machines. The plan is that as a new frozen food product comes out, the regeneration time will go into our recipe database. When a restaurant with a Maestrowave takes on a new product, the regeneration program will be put on the oven memory chip." Hall says the company hopes to have this facility in place by the end of the year. The likely programming route will be for group restaurant operations managers to visit a unit, plug a laptop into the oven and load the new cooking program into its microchip memory. Microwaves are not the only form of rapid cooking technology. A grill with top and bottom-mounted quartz-halogen lamps instead of electric or gas radiants creates intense visible light to penetrate food with heat. This type of oven works particularly well with pizzas, which are thin and need as much heat on the base for crispness as on the top for melting cheese. The best-known of this type of oven is the US-made FlashBake, which now incorporates microwave energy for even faster cooking times. The 50% multiplier
The Turbochef combination microwave has a built-in filtering system that does away with the need for external ventilation
While a normal oven will cook one jacket potato in the same time as 50, a different rule applies for microwaves. It is the 50% multiplier rule. If one jacket potato takes six minutes in a combination microwave, then two will take 50% longer: nine minutes. And so on… This multiplier is why the practical way for restaurants to produce a lot of jacket potatoes is to pre-bake them in a conventional oven, then regenerate individually in a combination microwave, which will reheat the centre and crisp the outside. Contacts Maestrowave 01442 875578 ServEquip 020 8686 8855 Valera 01708 869593
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