Commercial Food Steamers Buyers' Guide

Choosing the Right Commercial Steamer for Your Kitchen

Steam is one of the quickest and most economical ways to cook food. Despite that, it hasn't been adopted more widely in part because many restaurant operators don’t really know how to use a steamer effectively in their kitchens.

It is a common misconception that only vegetables can be cooked with steam, but most food can actually stand up to steaming, and cooking with this method helps retain juices and key nutrients. Steamers also cook without altering the texture of food or causing excessive shrinkage like other methods can. With technology available from hulking pressure steamers to countertop sandwich steamers, there are very few food items that can’t be prepared using steam, and few foodservice operations that wouldn't benefit from one of these units.

Once you’ve made the commitment to put a commercial food steamer to work in your restaurant, you’ll need to keep several options in mind when choosing the type that will work best for you.

Sizing Your Commercial Steamer Based on Your Business' Volume

Steamers vary greatly in size, so to help you hone in on which one will be the best fit for your kitchen, you’ll need to consider how much food you'll want to cook with it. Typically, steamers are measured by whether they can hold full-size (12 inch x 20 inch) or half-size (10 inch x 12 inch) steam pans, and how many of each.

Full size, floor model restaurant steamers will hold between 6 and 16 full-size steam pans, while smaller, countertop steamers hold between 3 to 6 pans. Because every kitchen's menu is unique, only you can ultimately decide which size steamer is going to be right. To help you get an idea of which size steamer you might need, see the following chart of commonly-steamed items and how many pounds of each you can cook in a full-size 2-1/2 inch deep pan.

Product  Amount Per Pan  Average Cook Time
Fresh broccoli spears   6 lbs. 3 mins.
Frozen green beans   6 lbs. 8 mins.
Hard cooked eggs   3 dozen 14 mins.
Turkey Breasts   12 lbs. 8 mins.

For the best results, most foods should be steamed in perforated pans without lids to provide maximum surface area for the steam to reach. Solid, enclosed pans keep food away from steam, defeating the purpose of cooking with steam and potentially leaving you with a mushy product, as solid containers will just trap moisture.

Choosing between Convection and Pressure Steamers

The Power of a Pressure Steamer

Pressure steamers have well-sealed cabinets that undergo a rise in pressure when they're filled with steam. This increased pressure means that temperatures rise above the 212 degrees F that's associated with steam at atmospheric pressure, letting them cook faster. Typically, that means a temperature inside the cabinet of between 230 and 240 degrees F.

Pressure steamers are an excellent choice for preparing dense items, including everything from turkeys to potatoes and other root vegetables. That makes this type preferred by institutions and large-scale operations that will use a steamer heavily for those types of items. The downside is that more delicate items like peas and thinner cuts of meat can't hold up under the higher temperatures.

Many people are leery of pressure steamers because they've heard old stories of the equipment exploding and causing havoc. Despite these horror stories, steamers today have many safety features in place to regulate pressure, so they're perfectly safe to operate and carry no greater risk than any other type of kitchen equipment.

The Simple Elegance of the Convection Steamer

Convection steamers are ideal for steaming, poaching, thawing, stewing, reheating, and par-cooking. You can even prepare a hard-boiled egg topping in a steamer without the daunting task of having to peel a single egg simply by cracking your eggs into a sheet pan, steaming them, then cutting them into pieces. In other words, convection steamers can perform a number of tasks that their pressurized cousins can't.

Convection steamers are far more flexible and forgiving; it's nearly impossible to overcook most things in one. For those reasons, they are far more popular in commercial foodservice than the pressurized alternative.

Convection steamers cook at a steady 212 degrees F. Because steam is such an efficient means of transferring heat, even that lower temperature can get frozen vegetables cooked thoroughly in a matter of minutes. The 'convection' part of the name comes from the natural stirring motion that occurs as steam circulates throughout the cabinet, helping the food cook more quickly. Manufacturers often design their cabinets intentionally to enhance this circulation effect, while others may include fans. You may hear the latter method called 'forced-convection'.

The Versatile Sandwich Steamer

The pint-sized alternative to larger equipment we've described above is the sandwich steamer. Obviously, these countertop units are designed to steam sandwiches, but the more powerful ones can steam smaller portions of many of the foods you'd cook in a bigger steamer. They'll commonly accommodate half-size or two-thirds size pans, making them a great way to add the healthy options of steamed vegetables or seafood in small volumes to your menu without having to invest in more massive equipment.

The controls on sandwich steamers are a little different than what you'll find on the larger equipment. Often, they'll include an option to deliver individual pulses of steam. That option is designed for heating sandwiches and reconstituting foods that need a few seconds of exposure to heat. The alternative is the option to deliver continuous steam, an option you'll definitely need if you intend to use your sandwich steamer to do some cooking rather than just warming.

Steamer Installation Requirements: Things to Consider

Steamers are unique in the kitchen thanks to a couple of design and installation considerations that other types of equipment don't have. A big question to ask right off the bat is: where is the steam coming from? There are steamers that take steam from an external source, those that produce their own steam from incoming water, and those that create steam from a manually-filled reservoir.

Before we get into steam sources, a second component to keep in mind is the drain. Steam condenses as liquid water after its heat is transferred your food and that water has to go somewhere. More often than not that somewhere is into a waste water or condensate drain. You’ll need to check whether local regulations require that waste water be below 140 degrees F, as many areas mandate. If that's the case, you'll need a unit that adds cold water to the runoff to cool it down to safe temperatures as it exits the unit.

Cooking with Your Building's Boiler

Steamers that require an incoming steam line can get that steam from one of two external sources. If there is a boiler inside your building already, you may be able to connect it to your steamer, taking advantages of resources at your disposal and saving a great deal of energy. It is absolutely critical that the water from the boiler is clean because that water will be coming in direct contact with food inside your steamer. You should ask yourself if you'd drink a cup of water directly out of the boiler. If the answer is no, it shouldn't be used to cook with, either.

If the water from your building's boiler isn't potable, but you still want to take advantage of it, you can choose a steamer that runs the steam through a heat exchanger. This equipment contains coils that run through an internal reservoir that's filled with potable water from another source, transferring the heat to create fresh steam from that clean water.

Should You Opt for a Steam Generator?

Without a boiler in your building, you can still take advantage of direct steam if you purchase a steam generator to be used alongside your unit. These are stand-alone units that turn incoming water into steam, then pipe it to cooking equipment. This option is typically more beneficial for large operations that will operate multiple steamers or other steam-based equipment. If you opt for one, you can purchase significantly cheaper direct-steam cooking pieces rather than those with built-in boilers.

Steamers with Built-in Boilers

If you'd rather not deal with external steam-generating equipment, the alternative is to choose a steamer that generates its own steam. These models are available in two types: those that contain an enclosed boiler and boilerless units.

Boiler-based steamers take water from an incoming connection into an enclosed boiler and turn it into steam. This option requires that you're using clean, pure water for your steam. Even treated water will leave behind limescale, so it's critical that these units be cleaned and descaled regularly according to the manufacturer's guidelines. If that critical maintenance isn't performed, that limescale builds up and can spell disaster for components.

The other option is the boilerless steamer, so named because it doesn't contain a traditional enclosed boiler, but rather takes advantage of another heating method. That may be an open water reservoir in the bottom of the unit or a spritzer that splashes cold water on the hot metal inside the cabinet. This type of steamer can be easier to clean and service, although these models do tend to create a 'wetter' steam than other types. That means your products may not cook as fast or come out as crisp as they would if they were cooked in boiler-based or direct-steam equipment.

Connectionless Steamers

If the options covered so far seem impractical for your operation, consider a connectionless boiler. These must be manually filled and emptied each day with fresh water, upping your labor requirements, but they tend to be less expensive initially.

Either way, you’ll still want to make sure you have the best water quality possible, because these are still subject to the havoc that can be wreaked by limescale and other water impurities. A good water filter and proper regular descaling can help alleviate those problems.

Gas vs. Electricity: How Will You Power Your Steamer?

Steamers can come equipped to operate on either electric or gas power. Gas steamers heat more quickly, but may not be an option if natural gas lines are not available and you don’t have room for LP tanks. Electric models can be installed virtually anywhere - just make sure you have an outlet to dedicate to it. Some electric units also don't have to be placed under a hood—check your local codes for restrictions. If the question comes down to operating costs, the U.S. Energy Information Association has resources that can help you compare the costs of different energy sources.