How fast is fast? When you have a line of very hungry customers, “now” sometimes isn’t fast enough.

At least three potential challenges can stand in the way of fresh food fast: a location that can’t accommodate ventilation over the cooking equipment; a staff not trained to cook (and a lack of budget to hire a staff that can), and not having time to cook items while customers wait.

As real estate gets pricier and harder to find, kitchens need to get smaller even as menus need to expand. Operators, too, are looking for ways to expand business by setting up shop in nontraditional yet high-traffic venues not necessarily equipped for foodservices such as airport concourses, hotel lobbies, mall kiosks, street stands, front bars and more. But many of those locations don’t have space for much cooking equipment, and often can’t accommodate Type I ventilation hoods required for most traditional equipment. Which means using self-contained or ventless equipment.

Add to a lack of real estate the rising cost of labor. As the minimum wage rises across the country, from around $9/hr. to $15/hr. in many places, the cost to hire more skilled cooks at even higher hourly wages starts to get prohibitive. Today, it makes sense to use equipment and technology that turns out consistent product, but that’s simple enough to operate that minimum-wage employees can cook well with it, consistently and fast.

One category of equipment that answers all of these challenges is an accelerated or fast-cook oven that combines more than one source of cooking heat: convection, radiant heat, impingement and in some cases, microwaves. And while these ovens have been around for some time now, the latest iterations—many of which have come out in the past year, if not the past month—are faster than traditional ovens and finish foods of all kinds better than ever.

How Fast?

You’ll see a lot of figures thrown out there relating to speed. Manufacturers of fast-cook ovens might claim their products cook three times as fast, five times as fast, even fifteen and twenty times as fast. But as fast as what?

Speed is relative. In most cases fast-cook-oven makers compare their products to a standard convection oven. So, if a menu item takes 20 minutes to cook in a convection oven, and a manufacturer says its speed oven is five times as fast, cook time for the same item in the speed oven should be four minutes or less. Here’s a more real-world comparison. A 12-in. fresh-dough pizza that typically takes six to nine minutes in a 550°F deck oven (or even convection oven) will take from 90 seconds to two and a half minutes in a speed oven.

Remember, this is just an example. Depending on the product, most menu items cook in 90 seconds or less. At those accelerated cook times, however, speed is still relative. For operational reasons, you may decide that two and a half minutes is too long for your customers to wait for a hot sandwich or some other menu item. Which means you’ll narrow your choices to ovens that can cook your menu faster—in, say, two minutes or less. (Editor’s Note: the new Vector oven bridges the category between regular convection ovens and fast-cook ovens, faster than the former, not as fast as the latter.)


Where Can I Drive It?

A fast-cook oven typically takes up less than two feet of counter space. And even better, it’s more like driving a Tesla—not only do you get phenomenal acceleration and speed but you get it without adding greenhouse gases to the environment. Almost all fast-cook ovens at this point are ventless, meaning they have built-in catalytic converters to handle any smoke and grease effluent resulting from cooking. Since they don’t have to operate under a Type I ventilation hood, you can put them anywhere.

Anywhere not only means whatever counter space you can find in your existing kitchens, but also in those nontraditional locations where you’d love to do business but for the inability to install a ventilation hood—multistory buildings where you can’t vent through the roof; open areas in malls, lobbies or food courts where venting isn’t possible; c-stores where there’s no room for a hood and the expense would be prohibitive.

Like a Tesla, a fast-cook oven will save you energy costs, too; because they cook food so rapidly, they use less energy in the process. And since they don’t require a hood, they also save on HVAC costs.

How’d They Do That?

Rather than using a single method of transferring heat to food, fast-cook ovens use a combination of technologies. But while a combi oven, for example, uses convection and steam to help speed cooking, fast-cook ovens typically use air impingement, forced convection or microwaves to reduce cook time and radiant heat or, again, some type of forced convection to brown foods.

Because fast-cook ovens don’t use moisture, manufacturers have found their own unique ways to cook food rapidly without drying it out or over-browning it. Since each individual cooking method has potential drawbacks, they’ve also found ways to combine technologies to overcome the cons.

Microwaves, for example, cook rapidly, but users have complained they cook unevenly. Since microwaves cook product from the outside in (as does any heat-transfer method), a product that is thicker in some spots than others could be undercooked on one end and overcooked on the other. Makers that use microwaves in their fast-cook ovens address the problem in a couple of ways.

First, they’ve better designed antennae in ovens that direct microwaves into the oven cavity to spread the energy more evenly. Next, older models often have a single magnetron (which produces the microwaves) in the top of the oven, which could result in uneven cooking and limit the types of pans you could use. Now, most models have a magnetron on each side of the oven that directs microwaves horizontally through the cavity for more even cooking and the ability to use metal pans.

First, they’ve better designed antennae in ovens that direct microwaves into the oven cavity to spread the energy more evenly. Next, older models often have a single magnetron (which produces the microwaves) in the top of the oven, which could result in uneven cooking and limit the types of pans you could use. Now, most models have a magnetron on each side of the oven that directs microwaves horizontally through the cavity for more even cooking and the ability to use metal pans.

Another drawback to microwave cooking is that microwaves won’t brown food or give food surfaces that nice crispy texture we all love. So, speed-oven manufacturers have added either forced convection, radiant heat, or both to speed cooking and provide the caramelization you’re looking for on finished menu items.

Radiant heat, or IR, by itself is a good way to transfer heat and cook food, but it can quickly overbrown foods. IR also needs an assist to keep up with fast-cook ovens. But forced convection and air impingement, because they move hot air, essentially compete with steady-on IR, making it ineffective unless used by itself after other cooking modes just to brown food.

One manufacturer says its new design recesses the IR elements inside forged steel hoods, protecting them from the disruption of air impingement. The benefit is that the two cooking modes work together; air impingement rapidly raises the internal temperature of the food, and the IR elements provide an assist by raising oven temperature to brown the product at the same time.

Alto-Shaam structured air technologyAir impingement also can be a tricky cooking method because the jets of hot air can quickly burn spots on food, which is why the technique was first featured on a conveyor oven; a conveyor moves products through those hot spots so it cooks evenly. But one manufacturer recently introduced an oven that only uses air impingement, making it as fast as a conveyor oven in a footprint less than half the size. It uses an oscillating rack to simulate a conveyor belt, constantly moving the product to cook it evenly.

Another maker designs its air impingement in such a way that it creates sheets of heated air that jet above and below the food, rapidly transferring heat and cooking food faster.

Self-Driving Ovens

Fast-cook ovens have been self-driving long before the concept was a gleam in Elon Musk’s eye, but controls in the past couple of years have grown increasingly sophisticated. Obviously, making these ovens as fast as possible is the point, so manufacturers take as much of the guesswork out of operating them as possible. They want your employees to load them, push one or two buttons, and unload perfectly cooked finished product. Fast and easy.

All makes are programmable, with most able to accommodate hundreds of programs. Most come with a number of presets and plenty of room to input additional menu items. Typically, all cooking techniques used by the oven can be independently controlled, and depending on the oven, you can program a cook cycle in three, four or up to six stages where it uses one or a combination of cooking methods to cook, brown, crisp, and/or finish the food item for the best result possible.

Manufacturers now pride themselves on the number of culinary staff and test kitchens they have on hand, which enable you to try equipment and test out recipes with your menu items. You also can work with manufacturers to preprogram models to your menu specs, so an oven is ready to use in-store right out of the crate.

Color touchscreens on most models make operation easy and intuitive for even first-time users. A USB port for downloading menu-item cooking instructions is an ante these days, and many models offer Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections in addition to a thumb-drive port so you can download recipes from a central location. Even better, models can upload maintenance alerts and self-diagnostics, telling you when it’s time to change air filters, service an oven, or how to troubleshoot problems.

One new model has two oven cavities for twice the throughput, and its touchscreen is split; employees can swipe the screen to reveal controls and status of either cavity. Another brand new oven adjusts from two to four cavities.

Accessorizing With Style

Options and accessories vary widely from model to model. Some only have a paddle or peel available for removing products from the oven. Others come with a range of accessories such as pizza stones, perforated baskets for items such as French fries, solid cook plates and baskets, cool-down pans, and additional racks. One model has a Panini press for sandwiches and others have a Panini grill plate to add grill marks to steaks, poultry or seafood.

Which options or accessories you need obviously depends on your menu. And the only way to really determine which combination of cooking methods and/or accessories will work best with your menu items is to test drive a number of models. Manufacturers are happy to show what their ovens can do with your menu, and that’s the best way to evaluate how different ovens will do the job.

None of these ovens are inexpensive—they range from about $6,000 to more than $12,000 depending on model and the bells and whistles—but all of them can save you money in energy costs, labor, and capital costs, too. Makes you think maybe you can afford that Tesla after all.

As originally printed in FER Magazine

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