Let’s talk a minute about convection steamers. We all know from using convection ovens that the benefit of the movement of air in the compartment is faster cooking with more even heat. With steamers it is even more important. Once upon a time, when we talked about steamers we meant pressure steamers. These monsters are what brought about the terms “hospital food” and “school food”, meaning poor quality. This is because when different products were cooked together at the same time they all came out tasting the same, and the texture was destroyed. Talk about mystery meat!!
The “atmospheric” steamer was invented in 1947, but the true “convection” steamer was not introduced until 1974. The steam market has multiplied by a factor of about 18 times since then. You may hear several definitions, from “convection” to “forced convection” to “natural convection” to “fan induced convection”. Whatever, the purpose is to move the steam around the compartment the most efficient way and cook the food with the greatest results.
What is the most important thing about the food? Taste you say? BAH! You eat with your eyes first. If it does not look good, you will not even try it. OK, so then you go for taste? Wrong again, rookie. If it looks good, you will take it. If it smells good, you will try it. If the texture is what you expected, THEN you rank the taste. Fourth on the list. Then comes temperature.
Convection steaming is the answer to all 5 of those important food features. The colors come out fantastic; the broccoli is bright green, the carrots are vibrant orange, the cauliflower is white and not washed out, the lobster never looked better.
As for aroma? You can mix and match products in the steamer and they all come out with their own proper aroma, with no aroma or flavor transfer. In a school, where they are cooking lots of a single product, that is not as important. But in a restaurant, where they are doing all batch cooking, that is paramount. They are never cooking more that a few portions at a time and have to use the whole compartment for various items.
It is very difficult to overcook in a steamer because it is cooking at 212°. The temperature where texture and nutrient value normally break down is around 220°. Therefore, you can always count on fresh results. Now, I learned the hard way when I moved to Nashville that “al dente” is not necessarily the way Southerners like their vegetables. OK. For southern style green beans, you probably need to stick with the stock pot or kettle. But for most items, you will not get better food quality than in a convection steamer. And meats? You can cook a 20 pound turkey, from thawed to done, in about 1 hour 45 minutes. It will be the moistest turkey you will ever eat. BEWARE! In a steamer the bird will not brown, because there is no oxygen in there. So, if you want it browned, you will have to either cook it in a combo steamer/oven, or steam it in the convection steamer and then finish it in a hot oven for browning. However, most of our customers are just going to slice it anyway, discarding the skin, so who needs the browning anyway?
There are lots of steamers on the market today. Due to that incredible expansion in the market the last 30 years, everyone is making a steamer. What you have to do is ask some questions. You cannot have too much information. In this case there are several key questions. What, how much, how many, how long? That is, how much are you cooking for how many people in what period of time. 300 meals over 18 hours demands a lot less than 300 meals in 2 hours. What products are to be cooked? If the customer is going to do meats, vegetables and starches in the unit vs. someone that is just using it for vegetables, you will have to consider that in the unit sizing.
Now, I mentioned about the many different styles. When do you use which type? There are numerous steamers for numerous applications. There are pressure steamers, of which there are only a few manufacturers; forced convection steamers, boilerless steamers, combination pressure/pressureless and connectionless steamers. What are the differences?
Some of what you hear is not exactly correct. Some companies talk about “boilerless” steamers. If you don’t boil water somehow, you will not get steam. So, you have to have some kind of boiler, regardless of what you call it. Let me explain why we use that term. The steamer as a whole is probably the most service oriented product in the kitchen, rivaled only by the dishmachine. And the reason is that in a steamer you are actually distilling water. When you boil the water the water becomes steam and cooks the food. But, the minerals that came into the boiler with the water stay behind and become a service nightmare. What we have done is to use open, accessible steam generators that are easy to inspect and easy to clean.
There are various sizes available, from counter top units that hold three 12” x 20” x 2 ½” deep pans, to double compartment, floor mounted units, that hold a total of twenty of the same pans. Some steamers also come with accompanying kettles.
What about connectionless steamers? In many cases the customer simply does not have the utilities available to hook up standard steamers. They may want to add a steamer but do not have a drain where they want to put the steamer. They may not have a water line. With connectionless, you manually add water before and during the cooking day and manually drain it at the end of the day. I find this a great unit for older schools where they do not want to chip up the floor to put in a new drain but drastically need more steam capacity.