By Heather Sperling
There are a lot of combination ("combi") ovens on the market, each of which seem to offer a slightly different permutation of the combi’s basic function; that is, to bake, to steam, and to do both at once. Talk to a chef familiar with the technology, and chances are you’ll find that they don’t just like it, they love it. But for the uninitiated, the sheer number of combi ovens on the market can be baffling, as can their various uses, techniques, and merits.
But when wielded properly, and fully understood, the combi oven has the potential to be the most versatile tool in kitchens today. And it’s appearing in an increasing number of kitchens, both large and small, as it makes the jump from hotel and catering operations (where it’s been found cooking prime ribs and trays of bread pudding for years) to smaller fine dining and upscale casual kitchens.
This jump is a timely one. The popularity of sous vide is growing exponentially, and so is its accessibility. Restaurant equipment manufacturers have responded by upping the ante on their products – playing a healthy round of “I can do anything you can do, better,” if you will.
And so the newest combi ovens can steam, poach, roast, brown, and hold, each to a specific, pre-set degree (and according to a number of our survey respondents, they can be used for large-batch sous vide cooking as well). Multiple functions are combined into one tool, the best versions of which can achieve extremely precise temperature control that even a thermal circulator can't rival.
As for complaints about the technology, the majority fall under the categories of cleaning, training, price, and space. Older models were not necessarily self-cleaning or compatible with standard detergent – thankfully this is starting to appear in newer models (and it's definitely something to look for when considering a purchase). Training is a necessity especially as the number of options, settings, and permutations of options and settings grows. (A word to producers: one third of the chefs surveyed requested on-site training.) Currently prices range from $5k for a basic model to $20k for the more advanced, with the largest topping off in the $40's. Sizes vary from 2 trays to 20.
We surveyed a group of 400 chefs, asking first if they utilized the technology in their kitchen and if so, how they used it, why they used it, and what they did and didn’t like. 33% said they used combi* and the rest of the results follow.
From the combi oven survey:
Does the combi oven get utilized all day or just for certain applications?
All day: 76%
Certain applications: 24%
And those applications are:
Low-Temp Cooking: 16%
High-Temp Cooking: 13%
Sous Vide: 7%
What are the benefits of using combi oven technology?
Time Saving: 21%
Improved Food Quality: 20%
Accelerated Cooking Time: 18%
Decreased Labor: 14%
In your own words:
What are the benefits of using combi ovens?
"Being able to use so many different techniques, and being able to cut payroll by letting the combi oven do the work for you.”
- Upscale casual restaurant, Boca Raton, FL
“Combi ovens provide chefs with more cooking technique options thereby providing newfound versatility to a chef’s culinary repertoire. A combi oven provides a wide gamut of culinary possibilities for a chef to choose from."
- Private experimental kitchen, Las Vegas, NV
“The ability to cook sous vide in large quantities.”
- Upscale casual restaurant, New York, NY
“It saves space because it is a multi-tasker, and it practically cleans itself. It’s a very efficient piece of equipment that can be used for everything.”
- Hotel, Austin, TX
“The combination of usage and ease.”
- Small fine dining restaurant, New York, NY
“The combi oven is such a versatile piece of equipment. If you know how to use it the options are really endless. In addition it makes for amazing reduction in costs. Using it for banquet production and reheats are incredible because of the moisture and temp controls. For a la carte sous vide it’s huge, as well as for production.”
- Fine dining restaurant, Dallas, TX
What do you like least about combi ovens?
“Maintenance – it does take increased awareness from the stewarding department to care for the machine – and being a union house they’re not always cognizant of its needs. Plus it’d be nice to get a better demo on ‘green’ cleaning the machine so that heavy chemicals are not necessary.”
- Fine dining restaurant, Chicago, IL
“Our particular model has a front drainage tray under the door that constantly fills with water. It is difficult to drain. There should be a built in drainage system. Also for applications where a consistent dry heat is required the combi oven is not very useful as it is too humid.”
- Hotel fine dining restaurant, Chicago, IL
“I’d like more direction for care and use.”
- Fine dining, New York, NY
And on a final, positive note, a quote from Djibouti to sum it all up:
“You can do everything in a combi oven if you know how to use it.”
- Executive Sous Chef from the Kempinski Djibouti Hotel, Djibouti
* Of the 67% that said they do not use combi ovens, 98% said they were interested in trying them.