Spec Check: Microwaves

Commercial microwaves can help foodservice operators increase speed of service and lower a facility's overhead due to the unit's low energy use. For operators that need to conserve space, particularly those with smaller footprints, microwaves can be a desirable piece of foodservice equipment.

Unlike residential microwaves, the design of the commercial units allow them to withstand heavy use. Microwaves tend to feature stainless steel construction and heavy-duty hinges able to handle hundreds of door openings and hours of continuous daily use.

Due to these units' small size and versatility, commercial microwaves are suitable for almost any type of foodservice operation that needs quick cooking, defrosting, self-steam and reheating.

Foodservice operators can choose from a number of commercial microwave types and sizes but to select the right unit it is important to understand how the culinary staff will use it. How will the microwave support the menu? Will staff use it to cook, reheat, steam or all of the above? What is the anticipated volume? Some restaurants may use microwaves intermittently, depending on the operation's rush periods, while these units may be a primary heating source for smaller operations with limited cooking capabilities.

Microwave cavity sizes vary from .8 to 1.56 cu. ft., so it's important to verify whether smaller single-portion or bulk reheating will be performed in the unit. By the same token, it is important to take into account the sizes of plates and containers that will be used in the oven.

In terms of controls, light-duty ovens typically offer a choice of push-button or dial controls, while the majority of heavy-duty models provide push-button operation.

Calculating the necessary heating time in relation to the volume of food being prepared in the microwave is necessary to determine the proper wattage and oven size.

The menu also will dictate whether a microwave that stores cooking programs or one that offers staged cooking is needed. While ovens with stored cooking program capabilities provide easier food preparation, stage cooking allows users to program specific cooking times and microwave power for specialized tasks.

One common mistake operators make is not taking the microwave's location into consideration in relation to other kitchen equipment. It is important to note that these ovens should not be placed on top of open burner stoves, by steamers, directly above heat lamps or next to fryers. The heat from other cooking equipment can cause overheating or malfunctions, as these electronic devices require cool air during operation.

Breaking Down Microwaves
There are generally four categories in which microwave heating is geared toward different applications. These include:

  • Light Duty: These entry-level commercial microwaves are best specified for low-volume operations where the ovens will be used less than 100 times a day. Offering 1000 watts of cooking power, these units offer cavity sizes ranging from .8 to 1 cu. ft. Applications best suited for these models include waitress stations and coffee service.
  • Heavy Duty: Geared for more high-volume operations, heavy-duty commercial microwaves generally start at 1200 watts and can go up as high as 2400 watts of power. These units are best used in operations with cycle counts of up to 1,000 times a day and cook cycles averaging between seven and nine seconds. Typically set up near cook lines, heavy-duty ovens are most often utilized in quick-service and family-style restaurants.
  • Microwave Steamers: Operators can use these units as a replacement or an alternative to traditional steamers. With a larger cavity size and wattages of 2100 and above, microwave steamers can accommodate full-size hotel pans. As a result, these ovens are often used in high-volume operations for steaming vegetables, rice, fish and other items.
  • Dual Technology Ovens: Although not technically a microwave, these ovens combine a combination of impingement, microwave and radiant heat to increase speed of service and help expand operators' menus. Microwave energy heats food, while air is heated by thermal energy. Radiant heat provides browning and crisping capabilities.

Microwave Maintenance
While microwaves require minimal maintenance, operators should take a few steps to ensure a long service life. Here are a few examples.

  • Regularly inspect and clean air intake filters to keep components cool and help evacuate odors.
  • Clean the oven interior with soap and water. Some units come with a clean filter reminder option.
  • Spills should be wiped up as they occur. Covering food that splatters during cooking will help keep oven cavities clean. Some units offer sealed ceramic bottoms that help prevent spills from leaking underneath the oven.

Rather than spraying cleaners directly onto components, which can compromise the oven's electronic system, spray rags or towels with solution to wipe the oven.

Once a month, check microwave performance by heating a cup of water up to a boil in a defined amount of time. For example, in a 1000-watt unit, boiling time is 2 minutes and 55 seconds. For a 2000-watt unit, this time is reduced to 1½ minutes. This field experiment ensures the oven and its heating elements are operating properly.

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