Combi Oven Buyers' Guide
Combi ovens have been in commercial kitchens for nearly 30 years, but have experienced a surge in popularity over the last decade. They combine the benefits of convection ovens with steam cooking and can be used as an oven, as a steamer, or with both methods at once. Steam convection ovens give the operator precision control over the temperature and humidity levels, which makes a wide variety of cooking options possible.
With a combi oven, you can use the same machine to steam, poach, roast, broil, bake, and rethermalize food – and you can cook foods in less time. For example, a steam oven set to 25 percent humidity, cooking in combination mode, can take just 35 minutes to finish a 3-1/2 pound chicken.1
Adding a combi-oven can expand your menu and increase your production, but will not have the same power as a full convection oven or full steamer and should not be used to completely replace the appliance you use most frequently. However, many chefs think the machine's numerous advantages make it worth the investment. If you agree, you'll need to figure out which combi oven will best meet your kitchen's needs.
Size and Capacity
When choosing any piece of commercial cooking equipment, you need to decide how much food you will need to cook at once. This will determine the capacity you need, but the size you need - either half-sized or full-sized - will most likely depend on what you have room for in your kitchen. Steam ovens are also available with single or double compartments; the double compartment models are essentially two units stacked on top of each other.
The smallest, more affordable options are half-sized with single compartments, which will generally hold 5 to 20 half-size pans. Many of these are designed to fit comfortably on a countertop. Larger, more expensive models might have one or two compartments and be able to hold as many as 40 half-size pans. Full-sized combi ovens are available as floor models and can be built to accommodate roll-in pan racks, which means you can cook large amounts of food in one batch.
Gas or Electric
Whether you purchase a gas or electric combi oven might be decided by what hookup is available in your kitchen. If you have the freedom to choose between the two, consider the difference between gas and electricity costs in your area, as this will impact your operation costs long-term. Electric models might be more affordable upfront, but could be more expensive to run every day.
You'll also need to consider where your combi oven will fit into your kitchen configuration. Because gas puts out more heat, a gas combi oven needs to be placed under a Type 1 hood. Whether or not an electric combi oven needs to be placed under a hood is largely dependent on local laws.
Boiler or Boilerless
The steam generators in these ovens are either boiler-based or boilerless. A boiler-based combi oven needs a continuous supply of water to cool condensed steam before disposing of it down the drain, which results in higher utility costs. 2 These versions can be more expensive, but are better for anyone planning to prepare vast quantities of steamed vegetables, doughy desserts, or cooked meats every day.
Boilerless combi ovens use a self-contained water and heat system and are generally less expensive to purchase and operate and come with fewer maintenance concerns. Because their water reservoirs are open and accessible, they're much easier to clean and delime than closed boilers and don't suffer as much from being exposed to hard water. However, many of these are equipped with a flash pan or spritzer, which aren't meant to provide heavy amounts of steam every day, and don't provide the same power or cooking volume as their boiler-based counterparts.
Manual or Programmable
As technology has improved, programmable combi ovens with a ton of time-saving features have been introduced into the market. The more customizable a steam oven is, the more expensive it will generally be, but it brings with it the value of greater consistency because it can be programmed with hundreds of recipes and associated settings, which lets a less skilled operator produce the same results as a highly-trained chef. Because it requires less hands-on attention, a programmable steam convection oven can cut down on labor costs.
If it's within the budget, a programmable version is an efficient choice for operators with busy commercial kitchens who don't want to sacrifice food quality, but kitchens with fewer staff members and a smaller demand might not need the bells and whistles that top-of-the-line models offer.
1. Hitting the Daily Double Chris Styler, Food Arts. Accessed October 2015.
1. WaterSense at Work: Best Management Practices for Commercial and Institutional Facilities EPA WaterSense. Accessed October 2015.