Although this equipment is simple, durability can be an issue in high-volume operations.
This is because the hinges and other moving parts tend to wear out over time. Operators also need to consider the platen angle since steeper designs may push sandwich contents out during the cooking process. What makes these units popular in cafe settings is that they are small and portable for versatile use. Operators can choose from standard and heavy-duty panini presses, which are available in single and double sizes. Widths vary from 10 to 12 inches, with depths of 8 to 10 inches. The most popular panini machine sizes are 10 by 10, 10 by 14 and 14 by 14, but smaller and larger units also are offered. Presses larger than 14 by 14 are not manual as the reach is then too long for users to open and close the top plate safely.
A choice of plate materials is offered, and it’s important to weigh the positives and negatives of each. For example, although aluminum is the most affordable platen type, heats up the quickest and transfers heat fast, this metal requires more energy to stay hot. Cast-iron platens take longer to heat up but retain heat longer and provide good consistency. Both types of surfaces can be either grooved, flat or a combination of both, depending on the cafe’s needs.
Because these units are basic in design, standard features are slim. These include a thermostat that monitors temperature, an on/off switch, and a brush and scraper for cleaning.
In terms of options and technology, some units have mechanical or electronic timers included, which allow operators to preset cooking times for different types of sandwiches. Although these devices monitor cooking time, these do not automatically adjust temperatures. This feature makes it easier to cook on high heat fast to sear product or prepare food at lower temperatures longer to melt or heat all the way through the item.
Panini presses with removable or Teflon platens are pricier but simplify cleaning. Some models provide adjustable spring tension for the platens to accommodate different sandwich or product thicknesses and also added pressure and heat. Higher-end models open and close automatically.
Cafes also may find a press with a free-floating top platen preferable. With this type, the top plate remains fixed, rigid and level with the sandwich, rather than set at an angle. With any panini press, the key to proper use is making sure the food product or sandwich is completely covered so it cooks evenly.
Operators should be aware of less common panini presses in the event these are preferable for their menu needs. For example, infrared technology incorporates coated glass surfaces and heats fast to quickly penetrate food. Microwave panini machines are another option. These have a bigger base and utilize a microwave generator for heating food quickly. Combination infrared and microwave models also are available.
First and foremost, cafe operators should ensure the panini machine’s wiring is well protected, as these units tend to get bumped and banged around. Wires that are compromised could lead to heating issues in the top of the clamshell.
Otherwise, this equipment is simple and provides operators with an inexpensive method to offer toasted or pressed sandwiches, such as paninis and Cuban sandwiches. Depending on the foods being prepared, cafes can benefit from flat or grooved surfaces. Traditional paninis and stuffed sandwiches are best prepared with the former, while items needing grill markings will require grooved plates.
The biggest benefits in utilizing a panini press are the small footprint for kitchens with limited space and the low cost. This equipment also is simple to use and only needs a 120-volt outlet to operate.
Be aware that panini machines are considered cooking equipment, so some municipalities may require a ventilation hood with use, although a grease hood won’t be needed. This equipment emits heat and should not be placed in a confined area. Also, if the food being cooked emits strong odors, the unit shouldn’t be placed too close to the front of house.
High-volume cafes and those with larger menus should consider a larger unit and/or one with two independent heating elements. This will ensure quick, uninterrupted service for patrons.
Recovery time can be an issue as the platens don’t get back up to temperature immediately following use in some instances, depending on the model and application. Larger panini presses that operate on 208 volts are an option for those requiring quicker recovery times for faster speed of service.