Working in a school kitchen environment can be a uniquely rewarding experience due to the opportunity to directly impact the health and well-being of K-12 students. At the same time, there’s no getting around the fact it can often include its stressors as well.
Students have got to be served – on time – regardless of staff shortages, time constraints, equipment failures, or any number of other challenges that might attempt to get in the way of achieving that primary goal. Given the challenges faced by most school staff on a daily basis, just getting the students served on time may seem to be the ONLY achievable goal, with the desire to serve foods that truly meet your standards sometimes having to take a back seat.
But what if there were a kitchen tool that can help to alleviate some of the stressors that get in the way, while at the same time helping to ensure that the foods you offer to your students are the healthiest and most appealing they can possibly be? The fact is, there is such a tool, and you may even have it in your kitchen right now.
The Combi Oven has been in existence in some form for almost 50 years now. And just like the automobile, it has evolved from a very basic original version back in 1973 to the extraordinarily capable version we see today. Utilizing steam and hot air, either individually or in combination, these units can enhance food quality even when used in the most basic of ways. Utilizing the combination of steam and hot air, for example, they can provide roasted chicken with crispy brown skin and succulent internal meat, moist hamburger patties and sausage patties (rather than the dried-out versions we see from convection ovens), and pizza that features just the right amount of color on the cheese without over-browning.
While all of that is certainly a giant leap forward from standard convection ovens, there are so many more really cool things that the right combi oven can do to make life measurably easier and more convenient for your kitchen staff, while helping to ensure the very best food quality and consistency for your students. Listed below are just a few of those things:
1) Sensing and automatically adjusting to the specific cooking load. Combi ovens that are truly intelligent have the ability to sense and adapt to what they are cooking in order to ensure a consistent final result. Let’s say you’ve forgotten to move the frozen chicken tenders from the walk-in freezer to the cooler a day ahead of time in order to slacken them for cooking. Now you’re facing having to figure out an entirely new time and temperature profile in order to have them fully cooked when the students come through. Combi ovens with auto-sensing can adapt to this frozen product, much like a GPS system in your car can help you get around traffic jams. By sensing the size, temperature and moisture of the load, it can automatically adjust time and temp while at the same time removing excess moisture to allow the chicken tenders to brown and crisp as desired.
2) Cooking foods exactly the same, every time, with the push of a single button. What’s really neat is being able to have the above-mentioned auto-sensing and auto-adjusting built into a named cooking program. Imagine having the ability to roast an entire load of chicken pieces so that the internal meat is amazingly juicy and the skin is nicely browned and crisped – all by simply pushing a button that says “CHICKEN”. And imagine getting the same consistent result every single time you press that one button – regardless of the size of the load, the temp of the chicken going in, or even if there are sometimes ice crystals in the chicken at the time it’s loaded. That’s what programmability can do for you.
3) Delivering outstandingly even browning and baking. Even the very best convection ovens can be limited in this area due to the fact that the fan blows consistently in a given direction and there is the possibility of the air settling into an uneven baking and cooking pattern. The result is the need to constantly turn pans in order to get products to cook as evenly as possible, resulting in lots of extra food handling. But an auto-reversing fan, which changes direction periodically, can eliminate this problem altogether. Sheet cakes, cookies, biscuits, cornbread and more turn out with perfectly even results, without the need to turn pans.
Additionally, active dehumidification can remove from the cooking cavity the excess moisture that can often inhibit proper browning. This is a terrific feature that can help ensure that French fries, fish patties, grilled cheese sandwiches, and other such items brown perfectly with the desired firm texture.
4) Reducing daytime workloads by cooking overnight. Combi ovens with overnight cooking capability are able to cook various foods and hold them at safe temperatures for up to 24 hours after cooking. This allows the staff to load roasts, turkey rolls and more before leaving school for the day, returning the next morning to perfectly-cooked and safely-held food. The combi has worked all night while the staff were sleeping, and it’s ready to take on another full day of work upon their return.
Many school kitchen personnel love to cook their beef logs overnight in the combi. They simply load the beef logs into steam table pans, insert the probe into one of the logs, close the door and press the “BEEF LOGS” program. The unit then cooks the beef to the perfect end temperature and holds it safely until the next morning. All the staff needs to do is cut open the wrappers, drain off the liquid, and crumble the beef for use in tacos, spaghetti sauce, chili or other recipes. And they never have to handle any raw meat in the process.
5) Automatically cooking foods starting early in the AM. Similar to the overnight cooking capability mentioned above, the automatic pre-start feature eliminates the need for staff to report to work extra-early in order to begin cooking certain food items. A primary example of this benefit in schools is cooking grits, a southern staple that many students love but that can take an hour or more to cook properly. Grits can be loaded into the combi at the end of the work day, and the combi will automatically turn itself on at the designated time early the following morning in order to begin the cooking cycle. This way, when the kitchen staff arrives the following morning they will already have fully-cooked grits, ready to be stirred and served. Other shelf-stable foods such as rice and potatoes can also be cooked in this way in order to free the combi up for other uses during the workday.
6) Tracking cook times individually as foods cook. One feature that allows the user to automatically track the cook times of each food item is called Intelligent Level Control. As each food item in the cooking cavity completes cooking, an audio alert is given and a light flashes to let the staff know which shelf just completed its cook time. Let’s say we have several different items steaming in the combi at the same time, but each requires a different cook time as follows:
• Rice (30 minutes)
• Broccoli (8 minutes)
• Corn on the Cob (15 minutes)
• Hard Boiled Eggs (10 minutes)
With intelligent level control, there’s no need for the staff to try to keep up with cook times on their own. The combi will alert them as each shelf has completed cooking when its time expires, relieving the staff of unnecessary stress and uncertainly. The combi even adjusts the cook time upward if the door has been opened long enough for the unit to lose temperature, again helping to insure a consistent result every time.
7) Cooking pasta dishes in their sauce using RAW pasta. You read that right. Whether it’s mac and cheese or another favorite pasta dish, it is possible to mix the raw pasta in the sauce and cook the entire dish together without cooking the pasta first. Imagine – no steaming of the pasta or cooking it in a steam kettle prior to mixing it with the sauce. The Pasta In Sauce function makes it all possible and oh so easy on the cooking staff.
8) Cleaning itself automatically. Even with all the neat ways that a combi can cook, this may be the very favorite feature of most school kitchen staffs with whom we speak. By simply inserting a few cleaning tablets into the unit and selecting the desired cleaning level, kitchen cleaning personnel can then simply walk out the door for the day. The next morning, they’ll return to a combi that has been thoroughly cleaned, sanitized and dried out for the following workday. Oh, and as an extra bonus, the Care Control feature will have also descaled the steam generator of the unit, eliminating the potential for problems and the expense of routine descaling. Making the cleaning process both simple and automatic means that cleaning this equipment is more likely to get done correctly and on a regular basis, thereby protecting the school’s investment.
All of the above features are designed to greatly enhance food quality and consistency, while at the same time making the day-to-day experience for school kitchen staff more manageable -- and a lot more enjoyable. And every one of these features comes STANDARD on every Rational SelfCookingCenter.
Want to learn more? Schedule a free foodservice equipment demonstration with a Rational SelfCookingCenter geared specifically to K-12 concerns.