Patrick White 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Ovens Turn up the Heat When it comes to ovens, old-fashioned and high-tech come together in school kitchens. Considering that there are "a thousand ways to skin a cat," there must be nearly that many ways to cook a school meal. In the old days of one-room schoolhouses, lunches were heated on the tops of wood or coal stoves. Flash forward a century, and a wide range of cooking devices have made their way to school kitchens-from grills and griddles to kettles and microwaves. Today, über-high-tech combiovens represent the latest level of cooking wizardry used by school nutrition professionals. But does that mean that every other technology is now outdated? Not necessarily, say district directors who still rely on the simple effectiveness of "conventional" ovens or the baking power of convection ovens. Each type of oven comes with its own advantages and costs-it's matching those to your operation's needs that is the key. Colquitt County (Ga.) Schools "We do still have some of the oldie-goldies," jokes Nutrition Director Monika Griner of the "old-fashioned" ovens that the district employs to cook school meals. "We have conventional ovens in a couple of locations, and we rely on tilting skillets and kettles and standard warmers," she adds. The standard ovens are used mostly for baking biscuits, rolls and similar items. "You really just can't beat that good old dry heating element when it comes to baking," Griner explains. All that said, Colquitt County's school nutrition operation is making an effort to incorporate more modern combi ovens in all of the schools, Griner accedes. "Any time we update, renovate or equip a new school, we immediately put in combi ovens, because they are so functional and produce some of the best food products," she attests. Colquitt purchases Rational combi ovens, which Griner says "are excellent pieces of equipment-you could really almost run your entire kitchen with one or two combi ovens, depending on the size of the operation." Griner especially likes the shortened cook times that are a hallmark of combi ovens. "Time is of the essence. When you're producing over 11,000 meals a day, time is critical," she notes. Conversely, she also lauds the slow-cooking attributes of her versatile combis. "We've found that we can leave them locked in place overnight. For example, when we do a large beef or pork roast, if we leave the combis locked overnight, when [the kitchen staff] comes in in the morning, the meat is just delicious," says Griner. "That's something you definitely could not do with a standard oven." While a combi is much higher-tech than a standard oven, that technology does not necessarily mean complicated operating procedures for staff, Griner affirms. "We take a laptop and upload the [cooking] information into the control panel. [The combis are] very user-friendly. Oftentimes, the oven will flash a picture on the screen of what you're trying to cook-you just select the picture and it does the rest." Nonetheless, the added convenience of these technological wonders comes with increased complexity in terms of repairs and maintenance. And since this equipment has become so indispensable to the school meals operation, outside groups or caterers using the school kitchen are prohibited from using the combi ovens-or even going near them, says Griner. "They are not your typical 350° ovens." Colquitt County's child nutrition department is fortunate to have an on-staff technician trained in the maintenance and repair of the combi ovens. "That's something that I would highly recommend to anyone who's looking to introduce new high-tech equipment into their program," notes Griner. "If there's any way you can figure out how to afford an on-staff repair person, it's so helpful, because equipment is ever changing and you really have to keep up with it." School nutrition directors shopping for new styles of ovens for their districts should visit Neighboring programs to see oven options in use and learn about hidden costs, advises Griner. For example, she says, when it comes to combi ovens, there are filters that need to be changed, and replacement parts can be more expensive than those for standard ovens. "The size of ovens is also important to consider-if you don't have as much space, there are smaller models available," she states. "Getting a smaller combi oven will be less expensive; if you then pair it with a convection oven, you're good to go." Brownsville (Texas) Independent School District (ISD) This district's school nutrition department has purchased a few combi ovens in recent years, but it primarily relies on convection ovens at its site operations, states Administrator for Food and Nutrition Services Terry Mendez, SNS. "We use the convection ovens for heating up pizza and nuggets and making baked chicken-pretty much everything that we don't put in a steamer," she explains. "In some cases, we use them for preparing mashed potatoes in a pan or [prepping] dehydrated refried beans or baking breads. It's a good all-around type of oven." The school nutrition operation purchases both Vulcan and Blodgett convection ovens, cites Mark Mullendore, the district's assistant administrator for operations (as well as a certified foodservice consultant and registered dietitian), who handles many of the equipment purchases. The operation tends to go back and forth between those brands based on price, features and experience. According to Mullendore, recent Vulcan models have shown to perform and hold very well. "They're awesome ovens," he praises. But Mullendore is a big fan of combi ovens and hopes to see more of them in Brownsville ISD kitchens. "If I have a choice between equipping a kitchen with a convection oven or a combi, I'd go with a combi," he asserts. And, "From what we've seen, the combis actually require less maintenance," he notes of models from Henny Penny and Rational. He does note that, depending on local water quality, a reverse osmosis (RO) system may need to be hooked up in the water line before the water gets to the oven, which can be a "nuisance," as it requires some extra cleaning and maintenance. According to Mullendore, the schools that have the combis prefer to use them to cook certain items that they used to prepare in the convection ovens-especially tater tots and French fries, because they come out more like a fried product. Even some baked items have been switched over to the newer technology. "We make dinner rolls that are second-to-none in the combis," Mullendore insists. Of course, for all school nutrition operations, cost is a critical consideration, and in that area, convection ovens hold a distinct advantage. A single-compartment combi oven might cost $17,000 to $18,000, while a double-stack convection oven might only cost $10,000, Mullendore concedes. In part for that reason, "Every time we build a new school, even if we put in combis, we also put in convection ovens," says Terry Mendez. "Both have their places." Fairfield City (Ohio) School District David Foster serves as director of Fairfield City's child nutrition program, but that's just one of the many hats he wears in the district, as its support services director. One common thread that runs through the different areas he manages is the importance of controlling costs. So, when it comes to the best bang for the buck, a good old-fashioned conventional oven is tough to beat, says Foster. "We still use conventional ovens. We use them to bake French fries, chicken poppers and foods like that," he explains. "We use them especially at the high school, because most of the sales there are a la carte" and include such items. The child nutrition program employs combi ovens at all of its elementary schools and the middle school. "Combis are a heck of a lot more expensive. And it's not like anybody is just giving schools money these days!" Foster states. "Our program is self-sufficient, and I'm just being fiscally responsible if I buy conventional ovens. They don't perform exactly the same as a combi oven, but on the other hand, they meet our needs for what we're doing." Fairfield City Schools went "fry-free" this year, and as part of that transition, Foster purchased six Vulcan ovens to replace the fryers in the high school. "We've got 2,500 students in our high school, so we've got to be able to prepare a lot of food there," he explains. As part of the transition away from Fryers, Foster turned to the oven manufacturer for assistance. "As part of our spec, we put in that whoever won the bid would be required to come here and work with our cooks to determine cook times and settings" for the specific foods served in the school, he notes. Combi ovens, for districts that can afford them, are great pieces of equipment, Foster acknowledges. "But we've found that they're more expensive to maintain," he adds, pointing out that with water and steam running through combi ovens, parts can get clogged and more things can go wrong. No matter what style of oven a district is using, Foster is emphatic that a preventive maintenance plan should be followed. "It's like your car," he notes. "If you don't change the oil in your car, you're going to need to buy a new engine. It's like that with ovens or walk-ins or any other large piece of equipment. You need to do the preventive maintenance to keep it working." Foster says his experience at Fairfield City Schools shows that even if both are well-maintained, conventional ovens will outlast combi ovens and provide more years of service. That's another advantage the older technology ovens offer, he adds. "I think that conventional ovens do still get a lot of use in school nutrition programs, because of the same issue we ran into here: Cost." "Combi ovens are good, especially for districts that have 'permanent improvement funds' that can be used for equipment purchases that last longer than five years," Foster notes. "In those cases, a combi might be a better fit. But for us, and our needs and our financial situation, conventional ovens work great." Patrick White is a freelance writer in Middlesex, Vt., and a former assistant editor of this publication. Of course, for all school nutrition operations, cost is a critical consideration, and in that area, convection ovens hold a distinct advantage. A single-compartment combi oven might cost $17,000 to $18,000, while a doublestack convection oven might only cost $10,000.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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