THE Quarterly Product Knowledge Guide: Conveyor Ovens

When the pizza industry was new, traditional deck ovens were the standard. However, during busy periods, these ovens weren’t keeping up with the demand as cooking times could take from 16 to 18 minutes per pie. With the advent of national delivery-based chains came the creation of conveyor ovens, which facilitate faster production.

iStock-95825938Conveyor ovens, which use a belt to transport foods through a cooking cavity, cook product by blowing hot air from top and bottom heat sources. Gas and electric versions are available in countertop and floor models.

Conveyor ovens often run continuously, and operators can use them for multiple tasks in the kitchen. This equipment also will stand up to heavy use. While operators typically use countertop conveyor ovens for toasting bread, buns, rolls and bagels, floor units are more versatile. Known for producing pizza and sandwiches, floor units can also prepare Mexican foods, such as burritos, nachos and quesadillas.

Schools employ conveyor ovens to produce a variety of lunch items, including hamburger patties, grilled cheese, seafood, fries, cookies and brownies.

Floor units are also suitable for warming applications with Italian food, like spaghetti. In addition, operators can use conveyor ovens in processing tasks for par baking pizza crust. These units are not recommended for cooking fatty items as they are not designed to handle large amounts of grease.

This equipment generally comes in four size ranges. Small or countertop models have belt widths between 16 inches and 20 inches with oven or chamber lengths between 16 inches and 28 inches. For operations with less volume and minimal floor space, countertop pizza ovens can accommodate one, two or three pizzas at a time, depending on the model. Volume for these smaller models averages between 250 and 600 bread slices per hour, also depending on the model. Operators can also opt to double stack these units for increased capacity.

Medium-size ovens generally have belt widths from 18 inches to 26 inches and a chamber length from 20 inches to 36 inches. Large conveyor units have a belt size between 24 inches and 32 inches with a chamber length between 36 inches and 40 inches. Extra-large models are available with belt widths between 32 inches and 38 inches and chamber lengths that range from 55 inches to 70 inches for high-volume production. Split or stacked belts provide more versatility and can help simplify a kitchen’s layout.

Smaller and medium-size ovens generally have more presets, where users can change settings. Larger ovens, which are pizza-specific, don’t typically offer a similar feature.

The general protocol with conveyor ovens is operators turn on conveyor ovens in the morning and off at night with food put on and taken off the conveyor belt as needed. It’s a “set it and forget it” type of cooking process.

Some of the earlier conveyor oven models took 7 to 10 minutes to bake, but with today’s improved airflow and updated technology, food can cook in as little as 3 to 5 minutes.

At a more sophisticated level, there are three different types of conveyor ovens: forced air, infrared and gas flame. Forced-air technology accelerates the rate of heat transfer and reduces pizza baking times between 10 percent and 30 percent. These units also offer quieter operation. Ovens are available that combine air impingement with high-intensity infrared heating elements for faster cooking.

While older conveyor ovens were built using cold-rolled steel frames, today’s units feature heavy-duty stainless steel exteriors and components. Digital push-button controls on some units allow operators to set time, temperature and belt speed. Dial controls are also available. Analog controls provide a plus-or-minus-1-degree variance, while standby modes help increase energy usage by up to 20 percent.

Half-pass windows, or doors located on the front of some oven models, allow operators to place food that requires shorter cooking times on the conveyor belt during operation. This helps maintain food quality by reducing the amount of time the menu item spends on the conveyor and in direct contact with heating sources. Other popular options include stands, take-off shelves and customized panels.

Unfortunately, conveyor ovens are not designed to be energy efficient since these units allow heat to escape at both ends. However, recent design modifications and technology updates have made these units more environmentally friendly. Ovens with stand-by modes use less energy during production lags. In addition, some larger units feature modulating gas valves that offer increased energy efficiency.