Commercial microwave ovens are held to higher testing standards than the residential types because they function more frequently and in harsher kitchen environments. These units also adhere to UL and NSF safety standards that are recognized by health inspectors and insurance companies, allowing operators to avoid liability claims and inspection violations when installing a commercial microwave oven. Microwaves are typically one of the most underspecified pieces of equipment in commercial kitchens due to the stigma of being considered a tool for only reheating.
A number of operators prefer microwaves, since these offer a small exterior footprint resulting in more economic use of kitchen space. These ovens also don’t require the installation of vent hoods or drain lines. Microwaves are safer to use than other cooking equipment, since the exterior is not hot to the touch. Another benefit is that this equipment uses very little energy, since no preheating is required and heating times are typically quick. This is also an economical method of production. By some estimates, the cost of running a microwave is less than $1 a day.
Despite being simplistic in nature, microwaves can perform a variety of tasks that no other equipment in the kitchen can accomplish. Depending on the application and menu, foodservice operators can use microwave ovens to reheat or retherm foods that were previously cooked as part of a cook-chill system and boost heat on foods from holding cabinets, such as burgers or cook fresh foods. The only limitation of a microwave is the inability to brown foods; however, high speed combination ovens have the ability to quickly brown and heat foods due to multiple cooking capabilities that utilize convection and infrared radiant elements.
Microwave ovens come in a variety of sizes. The cubic food cooking capacity has a direct correlation to the oven’s chassis size and wattage. For example, a larger unit may have a 1.6 cubic foot capacity cavity and accommodate full-size hotel pans, operating at 3,500 watts.
Higher wattage equals faster cooking. For instance, a food item that cooks in a 1,000 watt microwave oven at 4 minutes and 3 seconds will cook in a 2,200 watt oven in only 1 minute and 50 seconds.
Microwaves are classified as light duty, heavy duty and specialty. Light-duty types typically use between 1,000 and 1,200 watts, making them suitable for use in vending applications, office coffee service and waitress stations. Operations that plan to use these ovens more than 50 times a day should consider a heavy-duty model, which uses more than 1,200 watts.
Typically, commercial microwaves feature a stainless steel cabinet and cavity. Some value line models may include a painted cavity. A microwave oven’s components reside in the cabinet and controls are either on a side and/or top escutcheon, depending on the complexity of programming required. Operators can choose from units that have dial or one-touch operation. Most commercial microwaves are programmable.
One standard feature is stage cooking, or the ability to control how much microwave energy permeates the food during different stages of a cook cycle. For example, this would allow an operator to defrost, cook and hold food with one cook cycle. The user only has to press one keypad rather than monitor the food or constantly change the power level.
Also standard are sensors that automatically adjust power output and cooking based on how much power is being inputted. For example, some outlets may input 208 volts while others input 240 volts. The automatic voltage sensor will determine voltage input and adjust the microwave’s operation accordingly.
Most options for microwaves pertain to programming preferences, such as end of cycle signals or how the operator is notified when a cook cycle is done. This is usually some type of a beeping sound.
USB programming is not readily available on most commercial microwaves, but a few models can save programs to a flash drive. This is more commonly seen on high-speed combination ovens.
As mentioned above, in addition to traditional commercial microwaves, operators can specify high-speed combination ovens also known as microwave-assisted cooking. These ovens combine microwave energy with traditional cooking energies like convection and infrared heat.
There are also specialty microwaves that accommodate hotel pans and can act as a steamer.
When purchasing a microwave, operators need to determine how many times they will use it each day, the unit’s primary application and what foods it will prepare, the necessary space requirements and the unit’s electrical needs.
Most every home has a microwave oven, but some foodservice operators have been slow to accept this time-saving technology. Consultant Karen Malody, owner/principal at Culinary Options, Santa Fe, N.M., discusses some misconceptions about microwave ovens and some of this equipment’s real benefits.
FE&S: Are the capabilities of microwaves underrated in commercial foodservice?
KM: It is my thought that many operators still negate the features and benefits that having a microwave on the line can offer. This skepticism on the part of some professional foodservice people is puzzling; it seems like a throwback to an old way of thinking that somehow microwaves are dangerous or do something terrible to food.
FE&S: Do these ovens have limitations in terms of volume?
KM: I have seen microwaves work splendidly in large operations feeding 600 to 800 people per night, often with just 2 to 3 microwaves on the line, as well as in the smallest mom-and-pop locations that have no ventilation. They can save the day for those folks.
FE&S: What are the main benefits in incorporating this equipment on the line?
KM: Microwaves can really free up stations that are nearly overloaded by offering quick-heat solutions, whether fully heating the product or just starting the heating process. Because microwave heat works from the inside of the product outward, this is especially helpful with dense products that would normally take 15 to 25 minutes in an oven and often burn on the outside before the center is sufficiently heated.
FE&S: Are there specific operations in which microwave use should be considered?
KM: Operations with non-vented spaces and operators who can afford the newer microwave-convection technology [are prime candidates for microwave use]. This provides opportunities for menu and daypart expansion.
FE&S: What are the biggest misconceptions about microwaves?
KM: Operators don't fully understand what a microwave can do. They are really quite brilliant pieces of equipment. Also, it often pays to purchase microwaves with the most power, given that most operators are attempting to get food to the customer as fast as possible. These units can take the place of other pieces of equipment. For example, soup can be heated to order in microwaves, thus preventing small operators from having to purchase soup warmers.
Although microwaves are one of the most low-maintenance pieces of equipment in commercial kitchens, operators can take certain steps to prolong these ovens’ service life. Here, Josh Taylor, service director at American Kitchen Machinery and Repair, Philadelphia, Pa., provides insight into the care of this equipment.
Keeping microwaves clean is important. Wipe down units throughout the day. Also, vents have intake filters that operators need to clean and change quarterly.