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Kiki Aranita
Cook
11.17.22

The Versatility of Combi Ovens

Editor Note:  Vulcan invited blogger, Kiki Aranita and her chef husband to the Vulcan Test Kitchen for a personalized combi oven training by our very own Chef Pete Schellenbach.

The Quality of Combi Cooking

We are caught off guard by the spinach. Bright green yet visibly wilted. I stab a few leaves with a fork and bite down. My eyes widen. It crunches? The spinach is clearly cooked, but the leaves have retained their cellular structure. The bite I took has well, bite.

My husband, Ari Miller, Chef and owner of Philadelphia’s award-winning BYOB Musi grabs a forkful of the spinach. He pauses. He takes a breath and turns to Chef Pete Schellenbach, Vulcan Equipment’s Culinary Specialist. “There’s no salt in this?”

Chef Pete smirks knowingly, “No salt. Cooked in the combi oven at 100% humidity, 185 degrees, for six minutes.”

Ari ruminates, “That’s a magic trick. I’m aware that magic doesn’t exist. There is science behind this spinach. But that doesn’t dampen the experience of eating it.”

The dishes at Musi are hyper-seasonal and vegetable-forward. Ari’s menus let fresh produce shine. He constantly must make sure he never overcooks any vegetable, whether it be a fava bean, a swathe of kale or spinach, and he dresses all these ever so lightly. He has never had spinach like this.

“I never even thought to get spinach to taste like that.” Ari pauses again, then attempts to explain this experience to himself. “I really know how to cook. This spinach only exists because of technology. There’s not some step I’m not taking to make spinach like this.”

How Does Steam Work in Cooking?

Chef Pete patiently walks us through the most practical, applicable, and intensive session of Steam Science 101, a course that has four tenets:

  1. “Steam is a dry gas. Most people think of it as wet, but it’s a dry gas and it behaves like a dry gas, which is why you don’t have flavor transfer when it comes to steam."
  2. “Remember that heat will always go to the coldest thing it can find. It functions like your muscles. There are no muscles that push, only ones that pull. Heat travels in the same way."
  3. “Steam cooks with energy and not temperature.”
  4. “Steam is incredibly powerful.” To evaporate boiling water into steam requires 970 BTUs.

Combination Oven:

THE MARRIAGE OF STEAM AND CONVECTION

Green vegetables contain chlorophyll, which makes them green, but chlorophyll spins apart at 212 degrees, the temperature at which boiling water becomes steam. “Plants are structurally rigid. Its cells have moisture in them, but in the combi oven I can use 180-degree steam to cook spinach, squash, shrimp,” says Chef Pete.

“And their cells don’t burst,” says Ari, nodding. “So the combi oven creates a sous vide environment for the spinach without the bag.”

Ari and I begin to grasp the concept of how the combi oven harnesses steam and can even adjust the temperature of steam to render the miracle that is our spinach.

Chef Pete continues, “Can I steam a turkey for Thanksgiving? Yes, of course. But it will look like Mr. Bigglesworth.” Graciously his unappetizing Austin Powers allusion avoided the steam spa scene as an alternative reference.

Steam cannot brown. There’s no Maillard reaction during steam cooking, which takes place at 240 degrees and above. This is where the convection capability of the combi oven comes in, which functions as hot, dry air moving around the product, drying the moisture that has been pushed to the edge and browning the food. Steam contains water vapor even though it is a dry gas and heat travels through water (even water vapor) much faster than dry air alone. This is why combi cooking is faster than regular convection cooking. The combi oven combines steam for speed, with convection for browning.

Maximizing Combi Cooking:

MULTI-STEP FOR HIGHER VOLUME OUTCOME

Chef Pete slices into an evenly cooked tri-tip and offers me a piece that is half an inch thick. I have a flashback to a wedding I attended recently. Imagine 150 plates of thickly cut beef, landing on tables in unison. Attempting to think through the logistics made me shudder.

“If I made this tri-tip in a traditional oven, I’m taking two well-done ends off each piece – that’s waste.” He gestures at the sides of the cut in front of us. There are no burnt end pieces. No piece is overly done, and every slice of the tri-tip could land on the table at a wedding, practically identical.

The tri-tip was programmed into the combi oven as such: it started at high-heat to sear the edges. The temperature of the oven was then lowered for a sous-vide effect. The result? Edge to edge coloration with virtually no shrink.

Food waste can occur at several handling points in a restaurant; receiving mistakes (like allowing frozen products to thaw before getting them into the freezer), processing mistakes (think mistakes when portioning), and cooking mistakes (simply overcooking products). The combi oven completely takes away these cooking mistakes by providing control to dial-in consistent operations. Furthermore, combis can cook at lower, more gentle temperatures and get the same results, and lower-temp cooking simply means less shrink. This means that the owner can simply buy less meat.

“And I can produce more food when no one is in the kitchen – so lower labor, too! Combi ovens in pure labor dollars will save between a half to one and a half people. Used super correctly one can save one and a half to two people. I don’t like the idea of technology displacing a job. But I love it when technology prevents situations like overtime,” says Chef Pete.

Combi ovens are clearly a must for executing large banquet-style meals (and programming each component accordingly), but smaller restaurants with limited space need not invest in equipment of the same capacity. The Minijet™ is a strong option for operations with limited space.  Not to mention that the Minijet™ has the option to use a vapor condensing hood that allows an operation to place a single or stacked unit wherever the most convenient, including front of house.

Efficiency and technology are areas where independent restaurants can learn from chain restaurants. Fast food is showing no signs of slowing down. Despite pandemic-related challenges, many chains are experiencing significant growth. The technology and versatility of the combi oven provide ways to keep the pace with them.

More Kitchen Equipment Savings

A potato that is fried at Musi burns through expensive, locally produced and expeller pressed sunflower oil. That oil is dissipating into the exhaust hood as it’s cooking the potato. But if we were to take that same potato, cook it in the combi to our desired crisp outside and creamy inside, we could then toss it lightly in that same high-end sunflower oil, achieving the same flavor. Less oil used, less oil wasted, and less money spent on oil. But the exact same perception from the customer, enjoying a properly cooked potato, seasoned with high quality oil.

We bite into perfectly cooked shrimp, which are thoroughly cooked but tender in the TCM Combi Oven. They pop as we bite down. I touch the door of the unit gingerly, expecting to be burnt. It’s barely warm. “That’s because all the energy it is producing is staying inside,” Chef Pete explains.

Then the food really starts coming.

A fried chicken sandwich. A pile of fries. Chicken tenders for a salad. A tower of fried, breaded eggplant.

The four heaping plates are laid out in front of us in under ten minutes, and that’s including the time it all took to assemble and plate. I timed it.

All the while, Chef Pete is chatting, “You have more control than deep frying. And of course, you use a lot less oil. I have a dip and flip method with this panko-ed chicken. One side is dipped in oil then flipped and the oil side is cooked up. The oil then migrates to the bottom of the chicken.”

It’s an efficient and novel method again that saves oil.

But what about pre-heating the oven before service? “It heats up so fast that when it’s not in use, it’s off. One degree a second starting from cold. 100 degrees per minute when it’s already been running.” The efficiency of the electric full size TCM-102E is ENERGY STAR® certified.

“Food is transient. It lives on in the minds of the people who experienced it,” says Chef Pete. And so, customer perceptions imprint the meal in their memories. My imprints with this meal? Speed. Efficiency. Deliciousness. Spinach that I can’t get out of my mind. French fries with the perfect amount of lingering oil.

“Food is ephemeral, but it’s a craft. You have a toolbox. It’s artistic but not art,” says Ari, his mind racing from experiencing this new tool.

Combi cooking is not only versatile in substituting for methods of cooking on other cooking equipment, but the quality and flavors were deliciously impressive.  

An hour later, the chicken tenders are still crispy.

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