Benefits of a kitchen equipped with a combination oven are many. Victoria Burrows counts the many ways it comes to the rescues of a bust kitchen.

Today’s combination oven is one of the most versatile machines in the professional kitchen, helping chefs worldwide to keep up with the demands of daily output by multitasking and preprogramming, for everything from roasting chicken to steaming rice to baking bread.

German oven manufacturers Rational invented the technology in 1976, but the first combi-steamers required manual control and were tricky to use. Over the last 40 years, the kit has evolved from basic models with three cooking options – convection, steam and a combination of the two – to multi-programme ovens using the very latest technology.

The benefits of combi-ovens are significant. They allow chefs to cook with dry heat (without humidity), which allows for more intense firings, such as grilling, frying, dehydration and browning. They also enable cooking with mixed heat (with low humidity), which is ideal for roasting, cooking at low temperatures and braising. Combi-ovens also mean that chefs can cook with steam (with very high percentage of humidity) for all wet cooking, such as sous-vide, regeneration, and steam cooking.

“The main advantages of using a combi-oven, or trivalent oven, in a professional kitchen, pastry kitchen or bakery laboratory are versatility, energy saving, shorter cooking times, and the ability to do most of the kitchen’s cooking without requiring any kind of human supervision,” says Nicola Michelon, CEO at Italy-based oven manufacturer Unox. “Consequently, the chef gains more time and works in a safer and tidier space.”

Manufacturers say that combi-ovens are suitable for almost every catering operation, from Michelin-starred restaurants, who rely on them for their precision and reliability of outcome, to take-away outlets, who use them for speed and ease of operation plus consistency of results.

Hoteliers and chefs today have a wide variety of models to choose from, with differing levels of sophistication. Most manufacturers will offer manual and programmable options aiming to suit the needs of various types of operation, from big banquets that require a cook chill system to smaller kitchens that can make the best use of their oven’s multi-functionality.

Many chefs prefer to operate a combi-steamer manually so that they can be fully in control of the cooking process and because it is what they are more comfortable with. Investing in a more expensive, fully programmable combi-oven in this case may not make economic sense.

But for chefs trained in and comfortable with customisable ovens, technology is advancing.

“We have created an oven that knows how to cook every kind of food and that allows the chef to customise each cooking,” says Michelon. “Our intelligent oven interprets the settings, understands the desired result, recognises the amount of food, records changes in humidity and temperature, and offers automatic optimisation of the cooking process.”

Advances in oven technology are not only related to the act of cooking. Today, ovens are also digitally linked, allowing owners to collect data, process information and provide precise reports about the oven’s use.

“By far our biggest innovation is our Let’s Cook Cloud Solution that enables preventative maintenance possibilities and monitoring, as well as remote recipe distribution,” says Robert Wall, Business Development Manager of the Middle East/ Asia/ Australia Pacific at Danish combi-oven specialist HOUNÖ.

The Let’s Cook system provides operators with a real-time overview of all ovens across their outlet locations, via PC, iPad, tablet or smartphone.

“The user-friendly, Internet of Things solution delivers a number of operational, environmental and cost-saving benefits for the user,” says Wall. “Let’s Cook enables monitoring of oven performance and energy consumption, which can be used to assess and control energy costs. It may also be used to assess oven operation, facilitating preventative maintenance regimes to eliminate costly downtime.”

As each oven is connected and monitored, when there is a technical error, a service technician can diagnose the error prior to his visit, ensuring he has the right tools and spare parts with him on his first visit, increasing the first-fix rate.

The cloud-based system may also be used to distribute recipes and software from a central source, to all ovens within the organisation, simplifying workflow, reducing cost and preventing mistakes.

The distribution of new recipes and new software usually involves significant costs for restaurant chains. A technician must visit each oven to upload data from a USB key to the oven, which is expensive and time consuming.

“A major American-owned quick service restaurant chain with locations all over the world calculated that it costs them approximately US$250-US$300 per oven to update recipes and software. The more equipment you need to update, and the more often, the more expensive it gets. This makes it difficult to react quickly to market demands, since changing a menu comes with significant costs,” says Wall.

Instead, Let’s Cook allows a restaurant chain to distribute and update recipes directly from their headquarters to each connected oven.

“Our award-winning cloud ecosystem is designed based on industry input; Let’s Cook came to fruition in collaboration with large, international quick service restaurant chains, among others, who calculated how much their pain points cost them,” says Wall. “This is why the functions offered in Let’s Cook enables them to save money on many different aspects of operation.”