Boiler-Based Steamers vs. Boilerless Steamers
Boilerless steamers either have a pan of water heated to produce steam or a mechanism that sprays water onto a hot metal surface that vaporizes it into steam. These produce a wetter steam, which regularly takes slightly longer to cook. Generally, these units aren't as good at high-volume, all-day production.
Boiler-based steamers have an enclosed pot inside the unit that heats water, with the resulting steam distributed throughout the cooking chamber. This type produces steam constantly, so these can keep up with high-volume demand. They also provide drier cooking, thanks to a drain that pulls moisture out of the unit after the steam releases its heat into the food.
Choosing Gas or Electricity to Power Your Steamer
Steam cookers are available in models that generate heat with gas, either LP or natural gas, and electricity, including voltages from 120 to 480. Gas steamers are preferred by some for their higher heat output capabilities, which can enable them to achieve cooking temperatures faster at startup and recover them more quickly after the door is opened. Gas is also the cheaper of the two utilities in many parts of the country.
In areas where that isn't true and where gas isn't available, electric steamers are the obvious choice. These are prized for their typically lower upfront costs and the fact they're more efficient than gas models. That's because the heating elements are submerged in the water, so heat transfer is nearly complete.
Both types of steamers are notably energy efficient, so much so that they're generally some of the highest-performing units of any restaurant equipment.
The Mineral Deposit Issue with Boiler-Based Steamers
Each region of the country has minerals in its water and it's important to know what those are in your area and at what concentrations they exist. That will tell you how often you need to clean it and what your solvent should target. You can gain that knowledge by testing the water or by checking with other operators to see if scaling has been a significant problem for them.
When the water is boiled to produce steam, most of these minerals will remain behind in the boiler, where these dried minerals form scale. As scale builds, it can act as insulation, preventing the water from coming into contact with the hot metal. In the most serious cases, it can alter the taste of the food and even render the unit inoperable.
While this can be an issue for both types of steamers, it's particularly problematic with boiler-based units because of the enclosed water pot, which is harder to access for cleaning. Treatment of the water by a filter can remove or modify minerals, but follow the manufacturer's recommendation for cartridge replacement frequency.
Connectionless Convection Steamers for Water and Energy Efficiency
As water and energy efficiency become more important, connectionless steamers are gaining attention. A connectionless steamer recycles water, with the steam condensing and falling as liquid back into the water pan to be boiled again. That reuse can cut water demand by as much as 90 percent compared to a boiler-based steamer. The connectionless steamer also reheats water that was recently steam, so it will require less heat to reach the boiling point again.
It's important to note the reservoir on these units should be cleaned daily or after foods that may transfer strong flavors to the next batch. The removable drain pan should also be cleaned after it's used to hold water removed from the reservoir. If that work is done while the water is still hot, it can be a treacherous task that requires multiple trips to a sink running with cold water. That labor sometimes prompts users to try to carry the water pan completely full, which can lead to serious burns when water sloshes or spills. Be sure to train staff to complete the job safely and consider opting for a unit with a hose connection or other method of making the work easier and safer.
If you purchase a connectionless and later find you want a connected system, whether for convenience or in order to meet growing demand, there are water and drain line kits available for many models. For help determining if that's the case for your unit, please give us a call.
Added Cost of Open Systems
If your steamer has a drain, this will create added costs. Additional cold water will be used in the condensate drain to cool the runoff before it goes into the sewers. The acceptable temperature varies based on local laws, but it's typically around 130-140 degrees F.
Deliming Commercial Kitchen Steamers
Manufacturers' recommendations and your local water conditions will dictate how frequently you need to descale your steamer. For some models, there will be a specific port to pour the descaler into, while others accept that cleaner in other ways. Pay particular attention to which valves and chambers should be left open or closed. Make sure the system is fully flushed with lots of clean water to remove chemical residue. Some complex systems have a single button that runs the cycle, allowing this critical task to go on when no one is around, like when the kitchen is closed.
Filtering Water Before It Enters the Steamer
Impurities in water alter the taste of food and can lead to scaling or corrosion on the steamer. Better filters provide better-tasting food, and reduce liming and corrosion. Investing in one may pay long-term dividends in protecting your commercial steamer and other equipment while saving water.
Using a reverse osmosis water purification system can be problematic for some steamers. Connected units that use a probe to determine water level rely on sensing electrical currents in the water. Reverse osmosis units remove this charge, which can cause the probe to malfunction, leading to the unit filling constantly and potentially flooding your kitchen.
Checking for Leaks and Inspecting Seals
Regularly inspect for leaks of either steam or water, as those will cause your system to work harder, drive up energy bills, and reduce efficiency. The extra strain can also significantly shorten the unit's useful life. Visually inspect the door gaskets and valves, and replace any that show cracks or wear.
Draining Your Connectionless Steamer
For connectionless steamers, you need to drain the water using the spigot at the bottom regularly. Standing water with food particles in it is unsanitary.
Pressure vs. Non-Pressure and Its Effect on Capacity
Pressure steamers can cook at higher temperatures than their atmospheric and convected kin, typically at about 230 degrees F. That enables them to handle more food at a time and can shave a few minutes off many recipes. They're great for sturdy foods like root vegetables.
Pressureless units are better at handling more delicate foods and can provide more versatility. That's because they can handle differently sized batches of multiple foods at a time, cooking each perfectly without scorching or transferring flavors.
Maintenance of New Commercial Kitchen Steamers
In the food chamber, make sure to wipe down all surfaces every day, as small particles of food can promote the growth of bacteria. It's particularly important that the drain cover, if the unit is equipped with one, be wiped down daily, since that's where those particles are most likely to gather. Ensure debris isn't pushed down the drain, as it can cause significant problems if it gets stuck inside the condensate system.