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Steam’s role in the commercial kitchen is growing – for good reason

The role of the commercial food steamer in the commercial kitchen is growing.

These days steam has become more than just a prop in climactic scenes in horror movies. The commercial food steamer is following suit by breaking out of its traditional roles. More and more chefs are discovering the advantages of cooking everything from the common, like vegetables and seafood, to the less-typical, like steaks and bread, in liquid water’s gassy brother.

For the home chef, cooking with steam can be as simple as setting a metal colander over boiling water in a covered pot. The process takes some more specialized equipment, like a dedicated commercial food steamer, when it comes to restaurant food steamers that cook in larger batches – like in school cafeterias and restaurants – but KaTom strives to make buying those supplies as easy as, well, boiling water.

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How a commercial food steamer works

The health benefits of using a commercial food steamer

Cooking correctly using a commercial food steamer

The foods that can be cooked in a commercial food steamer

Accessories for your commercial kitchen steamer

It’s getting hot in here: How a commercial food steamer works

The amazing thing about cooking in a commercial kitchen steamer from KaTom – well, one of the amazing things – is that it’s completely different than you likely expect it to be. You might assume that if you stick food in a steamy environment, it’s going to emerge soggy and dripping wet.

Steaming is a great alternative to boiling or broiling for everything from vegetables to meats.

That’s not actually the case, though. The atmosphere of the cooking compartment in a commercial food steamer is more of a dry wet (yes, we know it’s an oxymoron), with that “dry-wet” particularly pronounced in boiler-based units. The steam is a vehicle for spreading an even heat throughout the unit, with that warmth released immediately after contact with the food.

Still, there are some benefits from the moisture of the steam. Because it’s cooking in a steamy environment, your food isn’t going to lose its natural moisture, though fats will simply melt off. In fact, if you put a product like poultry into one of these units, you may even notice it plumping as it cooks.

After it passes its heat on, the steam then is either collected by a condensate drain, like in boiler-based models, or is partially recaptured, as in our boilerless units.

KaTom also offers pressurized steam cookers, those units with submarine-like doors that lock and cook food in record time.

From childhood we learn that water’s maximum temperature is 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celsius. Above those temperatures, water moves from liquid to gas form, a.k.a. steam. Like water, steam can only get up to 212/100 degrees, meaning it provides consistent and predictable heating, with the one exception being when it’s, to quote Freddie Mercury, under pressure.

Keeping steam in a pressurized container, like in a commercial food steamer, allows for it to be heated even beyond that maximum. The higher the pressure that’s allowed to build up in a restaurant food steamer, the higher the temperature of the water vapor, which, unlike most humans, gets excited when it’s under pressure and starts running around like crazy, working up more heat.

KaTom’s selection of commercial steamers offers units in both countertop and floor models.

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Advantages of steam: The health benefits of using a commercial food steamer

Floor model steamers are perfect for high-volume kitchens.

We’ve all heard that cooking can sap vegetables of some of those vital nutrients that make stomaching healthy things like spinach and lima beans worth it. While that’s true to some extent, the good news is steaming can help retain more of the vitamins found in those greens, oranges, yellows and reds. Because it doesn’t involve throwing out the nutrients with the bathwater, so to speak, like boiling does, steam is a better option for cooking vegetables than boiling.

Recent studies have also indicated other beneficial elements in foods are actually made more readily usable by the body or are enhanced through cooking. For instance, lycopene, beta-carotene and quercetin, all of which have been found to promote health and fight disease are believed to be more effective after cooking, as cited in this story from the Food & Wine Magazine website.

The health benefits don’t end there, though. Using a commercial food steamer doesn’t require the use of fats like oils or butter in the cooking process. That cuts out a lot of the unhealthy stuff that can take away from the healthy nature of the vegetables.

“But you’re also taking away a couple of the chief flavor elements,” you may be thinking.

While it’s true you’re losing the taste from the fats, steaming gives you the chance to replace it with others. Commercial kitchen steamers offer the opportunity for spices to be added either before or after cooking.

For more on the benefits of steaming, see this article on the healthy living website LIVESTRONG.

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Some things to know before you steam:Cooking correctly using a commercial food steamer

In their first experiences with a steamer, many cooks assume they need to put a lid or other cover on whatever they’re cooking, based on years of experience with other methods of bringing heat to food. That’s actually counterproductive because in a steamer, it’s the steam itself that does the cooking, not the pan as in other methods. So the food should have the maximum exposure to the steam.

If you do make the mistake of covering your food, you’ll end up spending longer to cook it in a steamer than in another type of oven because the heat isn’t getting to the food and you'll probably overcook. However, if used correctly, a steamer can cut your cooking time by 25 to 35 percent over conventional or convection ovens.

Countertop steamers are great for commercial kitchens where space is tight.

It’s also nearly impossible to overcook something in a commercial food steamer when it's used properly. What do we mean by that? Something has to go really wrong, like the entire kitchen staff suddenly being beamed up by aliens, or you have to really try to ruin a meal in a steamer.

Unlike dry ovens, which can have areas of varying temperature throughout, steamers offer even heating that will keep food at a steady temperature. As long as you don’t set the thermostat too hot, you’re not going to come out with unintentionally blackened food. Beyond that, the moisture in the cooking keeps things from drying out.

So, even if the person keeping an eye on the food in the steamer gets a phone call and neglects to take it out for a while after it should have been pulled, it should still be the evenly-cooked and moist dish you expected.

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What can get steamed?: The foods that can be cooked in a commercial food steamer

It seems there’s a lot of confusion about what can cook in a commercial food steamer. In America, we’re used to using steam to cook a limited range of foods, with most applications involving seafood or vegetables. However, in much Asian cooking, the meats are steamed, while vegetables are always cooked on the stovetop. This only proves that a whole bunch of foods, from meats to vegetables to seafood and even bread, can get the benefits of a trip to the sauna. Long story short, you’ll probably end up needing either a bigger commercial food steamer or more than one when you know all the uses for such units in your commercial kitchen.

Bread

Walk into any bakery and you’re likely to see brown-domed loaves of bread that look like they’ve come out of some kind of perfect bread mold. The secret is simple steam, and the perfect tool is a commercial combination oven.

Looking to get that beautiful shiny golden brown loaf? Steam's the answer.

Most breads are made with some sort of leavening agent, such as yeast, that helps to give the end product that light, airy consistency. It’s that additive that makes the loaf rise in baking as gasses in it expand and the yeast, activated by the heat, gives its last bit of service.

During the crucial period in the first 5 to 10 minutes of baking, steam from a combination oven can help keep the outside of the dough from cooking much faster than the inner portion by keeping the forming crust moist. That helps the loaf develop that perfect crust and keeps if from splitting in unpredictable ways. Beyond that, it also leaves a bit of moisture on the surface that promotes the dissolution, then crystallization of sugars on the surface, which leaves a light sheen on the crust.

After this short time of steaming, humidity in a combination oven should be reduced for the remainder of the baking time. If no such unit is available, the loaf’s formative minutes can be spent in a commercial food steamer, with a move to a regular dry oven after the brief tropical stay.

Poultry

Steaming poultry reduces shrinkage and increases moistness of the final product. Finish it off in a convection oven for that beautiful color.

In the culinary world, there are few things worse than eating a dry piece of poultry. When it’s not cooked properly, chicken and turkey can become unpalatably dry and chewy in a way that can remind those you’re feeding of vaguely poultry-flavored gum.

All that can be avoided, though, with the help of a commercial food steamer. Since the air is moist in these units, unlike the dry heat of a conventional oven, the meat retains its natural moistness and tenderness. Further, it holds onto more of its flavor and nutrients, meaning it tastes better and is better for you.

Be forewarned: Whether you’re cooking beef or poultry, the meat is likely to come out looking different than you and those you’re serving might expect it to. That’s because steaming doesn’t add the coloring that other types of cooking can. To fix that, simply steam the meat to nearly done, then use a more traditional method, such as a grill or oven, to finish for a beautiful presentation and a moist meal.

Rice

Rice, though traditionally an Asian food, is growing in popularity across all cuisines in America. A commercial food steamer is one of the healthiest ways of cooking this cereal grain because it does not rely on the addition of fats and allows for better retention of the nutrients applied to certain rice products through the enriching process.

While rice can be cooked in a standard commercial food steamer, that task is more conveniently done in a rice cooker, which is designed for perfect cooking and leaves valuable space in a steamer free.

Seafood

Steam isn't just great for cooking lobster and crab, but can also create moist and flavorful fish.

The fresh catch that can be cooked in a commercial food steamer is essentially only limited by what can be hauled out of the water. Everything from crab legs to mussels to fish can be cooked in steam. One real advantage to the method is that some of the “super-fishy taste” that might turn some diners off to seafood can be reduced through steaming, which allows for some of the natural water to be replaced by steam.

There’s a trick to getting the most flavor when steaming fish. Much of the flavor to fish is lost in the process of gutting and fileting, both of which remove parts like the belly fat that go a long way to seasoning the catch. That’s why many restaurants serve whole fish, though this presentation can be a turn-off to squeamish customers and can present some who are unfamiliar with fish anatomy with the challenge of searching out tiny bones.

Steaks

For a healthier and more moist steak, try steaming steaks for most of the cooking process, then finish them on the grill.

Believe it or not, commercial food steamers are growing as a preferred method for preparing steaks, particularly larger cuts and those that must be cooked to well-done.

Using typical heating methods to get those results can take quite a while with high heat, which can leave the meat as tasty and edible as an old wallet. But steaming, at least for the early part of the cooking process, can keep the cut moist and tender, and leave it wet enough to receive seasoning before it moves on for further cooking. Throw it on the flat top to get that tasty sear or on the grill to achieve those attractive cross-hatches and you’re done!

Vegetables

As already mentioned, steaming vegetables can allow them to retain much of the natural flavor and nutrients that may be lost through other cooking methods like boiling or sautéing. Cooking fresh produce by steaming also leaves open valuable space on the cooktop.

Some of the nutrients in vegetables are actually made more accessible through steaming.

It is crucial, however, to be attentive when it comes to cooking vegetables in a commercial food steamer, as it is when cooking them through other methods. Too little time and the end result is little more than wet raw vegetables; too much and you’ll have mush.

Additionally, it’s important to set the practices you’re familiar with aside if you don’t frequently use steam to cook. What does that mean? Well, if you’re accustomed to putting broccoli in a pan, covering it with a lid and slipping it into an oven to cook, leave that behind when cooking with a commercial food steamer. Instead, put the vegetables into a perforated pan with no lid and let the evaporating water do the rest!

The good folks over at Food Network have a page on their website giving some helpful hints on steaming vegetables, as well as some other tips about steaming in general.

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Steaming accessories: Accessories for the food steamer in your commercial kitchen

In addition to selling the commercial food steamers your commercial kitchen needs, KaTom also offers the accessories that help them work at their best, from perforated steam pans to the cleaners that must be used regularly to keep them clean like Groen delimer/descaler and Alto Shaam citrus-based deliming product.

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