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Finding the Right Commercial Steamer

Commercial steamers are becoming more and more popular in commercial kitchens, and as demands rise, so does the variety of commercial steamers on the market.  This influx of steamers has made shopping for the right steamer a bit of a cumbersome process.  But all is not lost; once made aware of the varieties of steamers on the market, and the most important factors of picking out the right one, the difficult process becomes a no-brainer.

Types Of Steamers

It is important to know the difference between each genre of steamer before shopping, as each has different features and cooks differently.  Here’s a brief look at the primary types of steamers on the market:

  • Flash Steamer – These countertop steamers are small and compact, and are intended to be used to heat food in a matter of moments.  Countertop flash steamers often utilize a steam pump or timer to start the steaming process.  Most food going in these steamers are prepared foods being brought up to temperature (things like vegetables, tortillas, hot dogs, or hot dog buns), or things that need heat to be finished like loaded baked potatoes.
  • Atmospheric / Injection Steamer – An injection steamer directly inputs steam into the steaming chamber at a consistent rate.  Though many have boilers to raise the water to proper temperature, many boilerless models have been hitting the market as of late.  These are the standard for commercial steaming, especially for large quantities of steamed food.  It should be noted that some larger steamers (of all varieties) may require an add-on steam boiler because they will be consuming large amounts of water.
  • Pressure Steamers – Harnessing the super-heated steaming abilities of a pressure cooker, low and high pressure steamers are able to raise steam temperatures significantly higher than traditional steam cooking.  These steamers have locking doors to hold in the pressure / steam, consume less water that atmospheric steamers, and can cook or defrost frozen foods while simultaneously cooking other items.
  • Convection Steamer – A convection steamer operates similarly to an atmospheric steamer, however there is one large difference: a fan.  A convection steamer, much like a convection oven, uses an internal fan to circulate air within the cooking chamber.  This air circulation help cook product more evenly, speeds up the cooking process, and reduces water consumption.  There are some high and low pressure steamer models that have fans as well.
  • Combi Ovens – Combi ovens are a combination convection oven and steamer, and can be used to cook like a convection steamer would.  They traditionally have adjustable humidity, and in combi mode can cook with full humidity at oven temperatures.  Combis can also be used without humidity to act as a convection oven as well.
  • Stovetop Steamers – The original way foods were steamed (and still are today, especially in Asian cuisine) is by placing food in a steaming tray over a kettle of boiling water.  These stovetop steamers are oft made of metal or bamboo, and cook food directly from the steam rising from the pot.  They usually have a significantly smaller capacity than most commercial steamers, and constantly require energy to keep the water boiling.

Tips For Shopping

There are some important things to bear in mind when shopping for a commercial steamer.

  • What Are You Cooking? – The product being cooked is important to examine when picking out a steamer.  For instance, for heating tortillas, it wouldn’t make much sense to get a triple deck pressure steamer when a countertop would serve the purpose much better.  This is especially important when cooking proteins.  Things like fish, dumplings, or even some small meat products can be cooked in a steamer, however, a combi oven is usually a better choice when dealing with larger cuts or higher volumes of meat; not only to preserve the final product (especially since larger cuts of meat tend to be more expensive), but also to expedite the cooking process.
  • How Much Are You Cooking? – Volume is incredibly important in deciding on what size steamer is adequate.  A flash steamer or a stovetop steamer may be sufficient for a small café or restaurant, how a large catering operation or banquet facility may have need of a large steamer or combi to keep up with the amount of food they cook.  Steamers come in sizes ranging from three pans to double and triple deck sizes, and combis start at small countertop sizes (or “mini’s”) and range up to roll-in sizes that can fit an entire baker’s rack inside (less the wheels). 
  • What Size Steamer Do You Need? – Steamers and combis come in a variety of different sizes.  Some of the smaller steamers can fit a full 12”x20” hotel pan, and there are even some combis and flash steamers that can only fit 1/2-2/3 size hotel pans.  Conversely, there are steamers and combis that are capable of holding full sheet pans (in some cases multiple) per shelf.  For this reason it is important to know how you will be doing most of your cooking.  For example, a medium volume catering operation that offers buffets may do well to get a steamer that accommodates hotel pans so cooked foods can be transferred directly to steam wells or chafers.
  • What Temperatures Will You Be Cooking At? – Steam is 212°F (the boiling point of water), so everything cooked in standard steamers (including flash steamers) will be cooked at that temperature.  Pressure steamers allow steam to be superheated to temperatures of up to around 250°F, and are often a good substitute for items that require extended cook times (such as sweetbreads or ox tails).  A combi oven has an extended temperature range, and can be used to cook foods at temperatures as low as 190°F (to preserve nutrients that would cook off), and as high as 500°F with 100% humidity.

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