Specifying an Energy-Efficient Steamer

Cooking with steam offers foodservice operators many benefits. For example, steam has six times the energy as boiling water and it transfers that energy instantaneously. And burning and scorching tends not to be an issue because steam never gets hot enough to caramelize the product. In addition, it is possible to cook multiple menu items in a steamer because steam does not transfer food flavors, it only enhances them.

Steamers also represent an opportunity for foodservice operators to sharpen their energy efficiency because these units tend to consume water, gas and electricity. While reducing costs in all three areas is important, water consumption can have the biggest impact on efficiency because the operator pays for it three times: to bring it into the building, to heat it and to dispose of it. So reducing consumption in any one of these areas can be significant.

Generally speaking, steamers come in two basic forms: a la carte and batch. In addition, some microwave ovens can be classified as steamers and many operators use them as such.

A la carte units tend to be known as connection steamers, meaning the steam is pumped into the cavity via an attached teapot-like generator. The food absorbs the steam heat and the condensate rolls down the sides of the cooking cavity to a drain. Before that condensate can be disposed of, the national plumbing code says it must be cooled to less than 140 degrees F, and this typically requires the introduction of tap water to lower the temperature. These units tend to consume 24 to 50 gallons of water per hour, the majority of which is used to cool the condensate and clean the system. While there is not an Energy Star category for a la carte steamers, there is some work being done to develop one. In the interim, foodservice equipment manufacturers continue to design and market steamers that use less water.

Water quality is a big factor with these units. Because boiling takes place in an enclosed environment, most systems require some type of water treatment and staff will need to regularly delime the generator.

Foodservice operators use a la carte steamers to simultaneously cook multiple products with various cook times. With a la carte units, staff can open and close the doors as needed without affecting the cook time too much as it typically takes the steamer 10 seconds to return to temperature. As the name implies, these units are typically used for on-demand cooking.

Batch steamers are known for having a high energy to cooking efficiency. When working with a batch steamer, foodservice operators put in product to cook for a period of time, without opening the door much. When that time expires, staff pull out the pans of food and start over again, if need be. Generally speaking, these are referred to as boilerless steamers and they typically use two gallons of water or less per hour. In these units, steam converts back to water and rolls down the sides. Once the water reaches the bottom of the unit it is turned back into steam. If staff opens the door during production it can take one of these units three to four minutes to recover the lost heat.

The most fundamental way to be energy efficient with a steamer is to address the foodservice provider's operational needs. In other words, the steamer needs to be able to cook menu items in a specific time frame and it needs to be easy for staff to operate and clean.

Where the operator plans to place the steamer will go a long way toward determining whether an a la carte or batch steamer is most appropriate. For example, if the unit is going in the production area, then a batch-type steamer is generally appropriate because staff are less likely to be opening and closing the doors while it is in use. If the unit will reside in a cook to serve area then an a la carte unit might be more appropriate as staff will cook individual items on demand and will most likely need to open and close the doors frequently throughout the day.

In addition, microwave ovens may be an energy efficient option for steaming product. This depends largely on the type and amount of product being steamed. It is important to make sure the microwave can help achieve the desired food quality without resulting in greater peak electricity charges.

Simply put, if the steamer is not operationally efficient, it is not energy efficient. Some steamers may be more energy efficient but these units must match the foodservice operator's need for capacity in order for it to truly lower resource consumption. If it takes two steamers to do the job that one was doing previously, the foodservice operation is not functioning in the most energy efficient manner.

As a result, foodservice operators and their supply chain partners need to be energy conscious to be energy efficient. That's because it is not the equipment that makes the operation energy efficient. Rather, it is the way the operation uses the equipment that determines whether the foodservice provider is energy efficient.