Combis, the multi-purpose workhorses of the oven world, can be used to roast, steam or bake food. When used in combination, the various heating methods within each oven speed up the cooking process, maximising efficiency and saving time.

A combination oven can be a vital piece of kit in the baker’s and caterer’s armoury - and they now come with a wealth of technologically-advanced features. Over the past year, oven manufacturers have launched a host of additions to make baking easier, faster and more accurate. Merrychef - part of Enodis UK - is just one of the manufacturers making clever use of technology. It has launched a USB version of its MenuKey system. Previously the key, which plugs into the ovens and allows recipes and programmes to be downloaded, had to be posted back to Merrychef for updating with new recipes. However, the new version of the key plugs into a USB port on any computer, allowing operators to upload new recipes immediately.

Merrychef’s managing director Graham Veal says: "We believe this is the oven of the future and are constantly working on technological advances on this and the rest of our portfolio to ensure we continue to provide the best solution for our clients."

The company has also launched an interactive customer care package, to be distributed with all new ovens. The package, available on CD-Rom, includes operating, maintenance and spare parts information, along with details of service contract options and a link to register warranty on line. Merrychef’s aftermarket director Colin Lacey says: "The CD-Rom includes everything our customers need to know to ensure optimum performance from their oven. Available in one easy reference, quick-start guide, customers can learn from the experiences of current service customers."

Meanwhile, Merrychef’s 402S combines three heat technologies in a compact unit to deliver "top-quality cooked foods at speeds up to 15 times faster than a conventional oven". A built-in catalytic converter eliminates the need for a ventilation hood so the oven can operate in "virtually any environment" says Merrychef.

Specialised for bakers

The designers of Lainox combi ovens, launched last year, have also been busy. The range boasts features including a multi-speed auto-reverse fan to ensure even airflow across the products and a patented fast-dry system along with a humidifier in manual or automatic versions. Lainox brand development manager Graham Russell says bakers will be most interested in the company’s specialised baking oven, which has been modified to fit 600 x 400mm trays rather than standard Gastronorm sizes, which are better suited to the catering industry. The ovens come in a range of sizes, with Russell saying the most popular are six- and 10-rack.

The latest version of Rational’s SelfCooking Center is also designed to save bakery retailers time. It includes a new mode for baking, designed for products as varied as biscuits, cookies, pizza and quiches. It even includes an option for proving dough. Alongside the baking mode, which includes seven baking processes, the centre has eight other modes, each with a variety of baking and cooking processes built in. The finishing mode includes a process for baking-off products and offers a choice of browning levels. Bakers have a range of models from which to select, from six-grid counter-top units to high-volume 40-grid models, in gas and electric versions.

Rational says the SelfCooking Centers are suitable for baking and bake-off applications in high street outlets and for in-store bakeries. They are also "very useful in craft bakeries, where their ability to prove and then bake-off in one single cabinet makes them versatile".

Rational also offers gas and electric combi steamers with two specification levels to choose from: the Opus SelfCooking Center and the Opus CombiMaster. And all sizes of operation are catered for, as there are no fewer than 24 size variations to pick from.

Lincat also offers a bakery package to fit its combi ovens. Marketing director Nick MacDonald says bakers will benefit from the higher capacity and evenness of cooking that combi ovens offer. Businesses that also offer deli goods and pies will find the versatility of a combi useful and they also eliminate the need for a separate proving machine, as they have a setting for that purpose, saving valuable space in the kitchen. Bakers branching into areas such as meat pies or deli will also find a combi invaluable as it can roast, bake, grill or steam.

When less is more

While bakery retailers now have a world of gadgetry to pick from, not every supplier is convinced that more means better when it comes to technology. Newscan has broken from the pack, launching an Italian combi oven range called Sogeco at Hotelympia in January this year. Bakers prefer simplicity, according to Newscan’s managing director John Partridge. "It’s a high-quality machine that does not have the complexity of some of the brand-leading ovens," he says. "We’re coming at it from a slightly different angle."

"Real bakers" don’t want everything done for them by the oven, Partridge says. "They have a shrewd idea about temperature, time and humidity... they can set the basic parameters for themselves. Sogeco ovens are simple ovens in terms of the controls."

They are sold through a dealer network, and there is also a local support network for maintenance and repairs. The smallest oven in the range costs £3,000, and this goes up to £20,000. And smaller operators who are simply looking for an oven that can quickly reheat pre-prepared goods can pick from a range of microwave combination ovens such as those offered by RH Hall.

"If you wish to reheat and cook food products then a microwave convection oven is well-advised. Items such as pastry will become soggy if reheated in a plain microwave whereas using a combination microwave convection oven, the crisp golden brown and conventional finished result will be achieved in microwave speed," says the firm.

Whether you are a craft baker or run a café, are a gadget freak or prefer something a bit more hands-on, there is bound to be a combi to make your products tastier and your business more efficient.


=== Tips ===

== Combi ovens: decide before you buy ==

l What products will you be cooking in your combi?

l Think about your market - will your product mix change over the next few years?

l What sort of volumes will you be dealing in?

l What is your budget?

l How much space do you have?

l Are you a gadget fan or do you prefer more hands-on baking?