Countertop Cooking Equipment Buyers' Guide
Countertop cooking equipment allows you to fit more in a compact area, which can be helpful for small foodservice operations such as concession stands and mall kiosks. They can also be of use to restaurants that are just starting out, as they are generally more affordable than their full-size counterparts. Even busy kitchens can often make use of countertop cooking equipment, particularly specialty equipment that may not see enough use to warrant a larger investment.
Charbroilers have the ability to bring the tastes and textures made by an outdoor grill into the kitchen. They can be used for cooking everything from meat to seafood to vegetables, giving the food attractive grill marks and a popular charred flavor.
Countertop charbroilers can be as small as 12-inches or as large as 72-1/2 inches wide. The grate is constructed of either economical stainless steel or rugged, non-stick cast iron. It may be reversible or welded into the framework of the unit. Flat and slanted grates are available, as well as grates that are adjustable between the two. Flat grates work best for cooking single types of food, such as burgers or steaks, while slanted grates have the ability to keep some of the food farther from the heat source. For example, a slanted grate could allow you to cook a steak down near the heat, while vegetables roast on the higher portion of the grate.
The most important thing to keep in mind when purchasing a countertop charbroiler is the power source. Most charbroilers are powered by propane or natural gas, but there are also some electric models available if your countertop location is not convenient to a gas hookup.
Countertop ranges are a great way to heat dishes in a small kitchen, or create additional cooking space alongside a full-size range in a larger commercial kitchen. These can be as simple as a 10-1/2 inch model with one burner or as complex as a 48-inch model with 8 burners.
As with most cooking equipment, hot plates are powered by either electricity or gas. Electric hot plates will have coil burners, which are cheaper but less durable, or solid plate burners, which are durable and easy to clean. Gas countertop ranges will use cooking grates made of either stainless steel or cast iron. Stainless steel is easy to clean and lighter, but it does not retain its temperature as well as cast iron. Cast iron can hold close to its initial temperature even when cold pots are set on it, but its rough surface makes cleaning a little more difficult.
Steam kettles allow you to cook soups, stews, and sauces in large batches without taking up a burner on a range or hot plate. Countertop steam kettles are available in sizes as small as 5 gallons and as large as 12 gallons.
Steam kettles are heated by steam that fills the jacket, a hollow area that envelops the kettle. This method of heating provides even temperatures, allowing you to cook food with less supervision and without the risk of the food scorching or burning. The steam is either provided by an external boiler, an option usually only available to large commercial kitchens, or by heating factory-filled distilled water in the jacket. These self-contained steam kettles are more expensive, but can be used in any kitchen. The water in these is heated by a gas or electric boiler, so make sure the counter space you plan to install it in has access to the necessary power source.
Tilt skillets, also known as braising pans, are one of the most versatile pieces of equipment you can have in your kitchen. A tilting skillet can fry, braise, simmer, steam, and more. Countertop braising pans come in sizes from 10 gallons up to 16 gallons.
Braising pans are available in either gas or electric models. Electric models are more energy efficient, while gas models tend to heat up faster. Make sure that whichever power source you decide on is available to you where you will be installing your tilting skillet.
Countertop tilting skillets use lever handles to tilt for pouring food. The temperature controls may be solid-state or digital. Some braising pans have solid lids, while others have allowances made for venting, so keep these features and their benefits in mind when considering tilt skillets for purchase.
Griddles are another great countertop appliance to have in any kitchen. A griddle can cook a wide variety of foods, so it can be of use in everything from concession stands to high-volume commercial kitchens. Griddles start at just 12-inches wide, with models up to 72-inches wide available for countertop use.
Griddle plates can be made out of several different materials. Steel griddle plates are durable and easy to clean, but often discolor over time. Steel griddle plates can be chrome-plated, which makes food less likely to stick and distributes heat more evenly. Aluminum griddles are the most affordable, and heat up very quickly, but are not as durable as the other options. Cast iron griddles require seasoning and are best used when cooking the same foods repeatedly because they can transfer flavor between batches, but they are very durable and retain heat very well, so they are useful for high-volume output.
Countertop ovens provide a lot of cooking power in a footprint of only a few square feet. There are several different types of countertop oven available to fit the needs of any foodservice operation.
- Countertop convection ovens use fans to move hot air around inside the cavity, which allows them to cook food faster than a conventional radiant heat oven. These ovens can cook a variety of foods, including muffins, pastries, cakes, and casseroles.
- Conveyor ovens move the food through a heated chamber on a belt, using impingement, a type of convection that forces air rapidly in a series of jets, to heat food as it moves. These are often used for baking pizzas and toasting sandwiches, but can also be used for baking pastas, broiling steaks, and heating appetizers.
- Pizza ovens are available with single or multiple decks. Most are rated primarily for either frozen or fresh pizzas, but some are multi-purpose and can handle both. Many pizza ovens can also heat other foods, such as pretzels, chicken fingers, and sandwiches.
- High-speed ovens, also called rapid-cook ovens, often use two or more heating methods in order to cook food faster than a conventional oven can. They may use convection, impingement, radiant heat, and microwave heat in different combinations to cook food quickly without loss of quality.
Countertop steamers are available in high-volume and portion-sized models. The portion-sized models are intended to cook single or double portions of food and are generally intended for sandwiches. The high-volume countertop steamers offer capacities of three to six pans. There are also some specialty models that are intended for steaming batches of a specific food product, such as ears of corn or oysters.
As with most kitchen appliances, steamers can be powered by gas or electricity. The controls can be solid-state or digital, and some models allow you to pre-program cook times. How water is supplied to the unit is important to keep in mind; some units require manual filling, while others have a direct hookup to a water line. Some countertop steamers are also stackable, which can be helpful if you need greater output without a larger footprint in the future.
Countertop deep fryers are available with a wide variety of options so that you can find the perfect fit for your restaurant, no matter what you are cooking. Deep fryers are available heated by electricity, propane, or natural gas, and countertop models can hold anywhere from 6 to 87 pounds of oil.
There are three frypot styles available, each of which are suggested for a specific food type. Flat-bottom models are best for wet-battered food. Open-pot models feature a cold zone to capture crumbs and are best used for lightly-breaded frozen foods. For high-sediment foods such as breaded chicken, tube-type fryers are preferred, as they have a large cold zone to prevent burning the crumbs, which can add an unpleasant flavor to your food.
Tube-type fryers are only available in gas-powered units. Split pot fryers are an option you may wish to consider if you will be frying multiple types of food. They have two separate pots, so you can cook different food types without worrying about flavor transfer.
The specialty options available on some countertop deep fryers can make cooking food and maintaining the unit much easier. Basket lifts will automatically lift food out of the oil when it is done cooking, preventing food from burning in a busy kitchen. Programmable controls can save you time and make the fryer easy to operate with minimal training. On electric models, swing-up elements can make cleaning and maintenance go quickly and easily. There are also some ventless models available, which allow you flexibility in where you install them in your kitchen.
Specialty Countertop Equipment
There are quite a few pieces of countertop equipment that are intended for very specific purposes, usually only meant for preparing one type of food. While not all kitchens will need all of these, many specialty restaurants may need one or more of these units.
- Rice cookers are mainly used, as the name suggests, for cooking rice, but can also be used for grits, polenta, oatmeal, broth, and vegetables. Commercial rice cookers range in capacity from 10-cups to 110-cups, and can be powered by electricity or gas, though the gas models will usually need to be placed under a hood.
- Commercial toasters are available in several configurations, including conveyor toasters, vertical toasters, and the traditional pop-up toasters. Some feature extra-wide openings to accommodate bagels and thick slices of bread. Commercial toasters are often rated by how many slices they can toast per hour, with output ranging from 180 to 2,000 slices per hour.
- Restaurants that serve breakfast may need a waffle maker. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with round, square, oblong, and even mini-waffle grids available. Traditional waffle makers produce crispy waffles, while Belgian waffle makers have rotating grids to make waffles that are thick and fluffy. Single and double grids are available to meet the output needs of your foodservice operation.
- Crepes can be served for any meal, as they can be adapted to sweet or savory recipes, and many restaurants that serve them will benefit from a crepe maker. Also called crepe griddles, these feature a 12- to 16-inch cast iron, ceramic, or stainless steel round griddle, and often come with spatulas and spreaders to help spread and turn the thin batter. They are available in double or single griddles. Most crepe makers are electric, but some gas models are available.
- The panini press is a piece of countertop equipment that features two hot plates that warm and toast sandwiches. The plates can be solid or grooved to impart grill marks onto the food. Cast iron plates evenly distribute heat and are heavy, so they press the ingredients more than other materials. Stainless steel is lighter, but is affordable, durable, and easy to clean. Aluminum is the lightest, but because it is less dense, it heats up faster than the other cooking surfaces, and most have a non-stick coating to make cleaning easy. Be sure to consider the distance between the plates and how that will affect your menu items. Plates that are too close together may have trouble toasting thicker sandwiches, while plates that have too wide of a gap will have the same problem with thinner food items.