SPECIAL REPORT: Microwave makers fight for the right to remain a kitchen’s secret weapon

Sharp microwaves

Microwave technology has not changed a great deal in the last 50 years and a move towards combi oven cooking has completely transformed the way that dishes are produced. But there are so many ways to use a microwave that it would be hard to imagine a kitchen without one, as FEJ hears.

Microwaves might not ooze the sex appeal (if you can call it that) of some of their prime cooking counterparts, but there are plenty of kitchens out there that would be lost without one.

The essence of microwave technology hasn’t massively changed since its mainstream availability made it an automatic choice for every kitchen, but the specification and functionality of these devices is continuing to change as manufacturers endeavour to find ways of building more value into their designs.

This evolution is very much indicative of a global trend, notes John Marks, sales manager at Bradshaw, who cites a global shift to more compact and powerful units. His company distributes the renowned American brand Menumaster in the UK and he points to the MOC5241 model as an example of a unit that mirrors the way he believes the market is headed.

“It has a compact 9 litre cavity but a powerful 2100w from a 13amp socket enables quick boost heating and cooking of products,” he comments. “For example, a single portion of raw vegetables can be steamed in the MOC in less than 55 seconds, retaining more nutrients, colour and texture than traditional methods. We also see a continued demand for combination microwave cooking, offering the end-user good flexibility on a huge range of menu items.”

The constant development of technology and improvements in manufacturing techniques has generally resulted in the production of better-performing appliances, either due to the units containing more features or because of the broader availability of higher powered appliances across the industry.

“Because of the continual developments in technology, even kitchens with an element of fine dining are embracing the power, speed and consistency of the latest microwave technology,” insists Adam Hill, commercial product manager at Burco Commercial, which has just extended its microwave portfolio by introducing a new model to complement its existing 25 litre, 1000w offer.

Even kitchens with an element of fine dining are embracing the power, speed and consistency of the latest microwave technology”

“Following the popularity of the Burco 1000w microwave oven, we have recently launched an 1800w model,” confirms Hill. “Offering a significantly enhanced power output, designed to reduce cooking times and provide an even cook, the new microwave also features an impressive 34 litre capacity, LED digital display, programmable touch pad capable of storing in excess of 200 menu choices and, like the 1000w model, a 0-60 minute timer for added convenience.”

But while all-singing, all-dancing microwaves offer operators far greater flexibility than ever before, can they really main relevant in today’s kitchens? Let’s face it, commercial restaurant operators and chains have embraced methods such as induction, sous vide and solid fuel cooking in recent years, while combination ovens have transformed the game in terms of speed and volume. Where does all this leave the humble microwave?

According to Heather Beattie, Buffalo brand manager at Nisbets, commercial microwaves are still a “God-send” in the professional kitchen, with most units commonly used for reheating previously prepared meals. “This is great for regenerating both single and multi-portions, but it’s important to remember that there are many meals that can actually be cooked completely in a microwave. Any recipe that requires poaching, steaming or braising can be carried out in a microwave, making them an extremely versatile piece of equipment,” she points out.

Beattie insists that microwaves don’t leave an unwanted footprint on the kitchen either. “Commercial microwaves are fast, efficient and do not produce large quantities of steam, heat or odours, meaning they require little extraction and ventilation,” she says.

While you wouldn’t expect microwave manufacturers to say anything other than their product category isn’t under threat, Bradshaw’s Marks puts across a convincing case, arguing that there is no faster, greener or healthier way to cook in the kitchen.

“While there are new, innovative ways to cook in the kitchen, the microwave will always be there to complement other pieces of kitchen equipment. With the extensive range of units available from Menumaster today, you can have a very low energy, small footprint, high volume kitchen that doesn’t require extraction. The microwave is still the most energy efficient way to cook in the kitchen, only requiring energy when it is cooking, and the cooking times are far less than traditional methods.”

Samsung - DON'T USE ON OPENING SPREADRay Hall, managing director of RH Hall, which supplies Sharp and Maestrowave machines, insists that microwaves are considerably faster than conventional ovens and therefore deserve their reputation as a true workhorse of the kitchen.

“Their versatility also provides advantages and the leading brands are developing models with new features and functionality in response to customers looking for product innovation, so they can be easily operated from a de-skilled base,” he says. “Microwaves are very energy efficient too. In fact, when cooking vegetables they use three times less energy than that of a gas hob. Their footprint is also smaller than conventional ovens — great where space is at a premium.”

For those that are considering replenishing or upgrading their microwave fleet this year, what sort of best practice buying criteria should be followed? According to Bradshaw’s Marks, you can’t go wrong with the established brands that can demonstrate a proven track record.

“There is good reason why quality brands such as Menumaster offer better value than some of the newer brands we see on the market today: quality components and materials lead to longer product life, less downtime and greater efficiency compared to other brands,” he comments.

One exercise that all operators should do is assess how frequently the microwave is going to be used. There is no point buying a light duty unit suitable for 50 uses per day when the real requirement is actually 200-plus uses a day. Additionally, wattage is very important. Selecting an oven is vital, though operators should also avoid over-specifying. Too much speed, for instance, can destroy smaller portions of food or the delicate and sugary types of products.
Ultimately, says Hall, operators should be led by their menu.

“If the microwave is to be used mainly for simple reheating and defrosting of foods then a straightforward commercial microwave will suffice,” he remarks. “However, if you wish to reheat and cook food products then a combination microwave oven is well-advised. Items such as pastry will become soggy if reheated in an ordinary microwave whereas using a combination microwave, the crisp, golden brown and conventional finished result will be achieved in microwave time.”

Hill at Burco concedes that microwaves have traditionally been seen as something of a throwaway appliance. Their relatively low purchase price and heavy usage have led operators to go down the route of replacement rather than repair. But he hopes this scenario is changing: “With significant developments in power, design, technology and manufacturing techniques, this should no longer be the case, with those specifying appliances looking at consistency, reliability, longevity and, most importantly, the after-sales package available on a particular appliance.”

Microwaves for multiple sites

Iain Phillips, sales and marketing manager at Panasonic UK, gives his tips on what restaurant chains should be thinking about when procuring microwaves for multiple sites.

BOX-OUT 2 Panasonic“Take the time to review your business and what it is you actually want the microwave to do, what kitchen space is available and will it be your only microwave. If two microwaves are required in the same location, then ovens that stack and save on worktop space will be an advantage — not all microwaves are stackable. Most operators want a combination of speed, reliability, power usage, the quality of the cooked dish and the costs over the life of the oven. A cheap oven that breaks down frequently and loses custom is not cost-efficient in the longer term.”

Top restaurant chains take steps to avoid costly microwave repairs

A raft of the UK’s most successful restaurant chains are using a device created to make cleaning their microwaves easy and prevent them from burning out. The likes of Frankie & Benny’s, Chiquitos, Las Iguanas, Prezzo, TGI Fridays, Giraffe, Fuller’s, McMullen, The Orchid Group and Stonegate have all embraced the Microsave Cavity Protection System, which was invented by Regale Microwaves after it noticed a pattern of problems being reported with professional microwaves. BOX-OUT 1 Chains

This included ceiling plates burning, base plates cracking and grease penetrating the works because of the notorious difficulty in being able to clean microwaves thoroughly. Repairs like these are generally not covered by manufacturers’ warranties, leaving the owner to bear the cost. The cavity liner solves that issue, however, and can simply be removed from the microwave and cleaned in a pot wash or non-caustic dishwasher. The company has sold more than 10,000 units since launching the product.

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