A year ago, at the National Housewares Show in Chicago, a French consultant for an international appliance company gave me a clue to his secret research project when he said: "The growing trend in Europe is healthy cooking with the steam-oven method. Watch for it."
Not long after that I received an impressive 15-minute videotape featuring highly advanced institutional equipment from Blodgett Oven Co. Inc. of Burlington, Vt., which opened my eyes to this new wave of cooking. (I also saw the product later while attending the 1987 National Restaurant Assn. Show at the Los Angeles Convention Center.) The Rational combination oven/steamer ($6,000 to $30,000), which is imported by Blodgett, combines the hot air of a convection oven and the circulating system of a pressure-less steam boiler.
According to Kenneth Goodwin, the company's national product manager, the concept isn't really new. "Rational of West Germany invented the combination oven/steamer about 10 years ago; then Blodgett introduced it to the U.S. two years ago," he said. "It equates to the tilting skillet (another piece of restaurant equipment) and is gaining a lot of acceptance with gourmet chefs like Andre Soltner, owner of Lutece restaurant in New York."
Offering savings in time, space and energy, the multirack chamber can cook several trays of different foods simultaneously with no taste transfer. It offers three cooking modes. One mode steams vegetables, eggs and/or seafood. A turn of a switch converts it to the convection mode for pies, cakes or chicken. The most exciting feature is the combi-mode, which combines hot air and steam to produce hard-crusted breads and beautiful, moist roasts with minimal shrinkage.
Hard on the heels of the institutional products are the compact combination oven/steamers for the home kitchen. Tefal, a French-based appliance manufacturer, calls its entry the Flavourfast High Speed Oven ($230). Euro-styled in sleek white with a porcelain interior, it bakes, broils and roasts in half the time of a conventional oven. You can cook a seven-pound whole turkey in it in 75 minutes compared to 135 minutes in a conventional oven. An added function is steaming, which is convenient but falls short in speed when compared to regular cooking methods.
As with the Rational, however, the Flavourfast's combination cooking capability is its key selling point. Here's how it works: Radiant heat is provided from the oven's top and bottom heating elements. A steam generator, heated by the bottom element, provides superheated steam, a fast and even conductor. The radiant heat and steam combination is responsible for shorter cooking times as well as the crisp outside texture and moist interior of foods. And when natural juices are preserved, foods retain more flavor.
One owner raved about her "absolutely fantastic meat loaf" that she does in 35 minutes with potatoes around it. She added that her children liked her breaded chicken, which comes out crisp on the outside yet so tender and juicy inside that the bone can be pulled out easily.
When using the steam or high-speed setting, the water reservoir at the bottom is filled to the maximum level. Although almost any heat-proof utensil can be used, the Tefal oven comes with a baking sheet and a roasting pan with rack.
It is not surprising that the Japanese would be one of the first to produce a home steam oven. For centuries, Asians have well understood the benefits of steaming as a healthier way of cooking, locking in nutrients and concentrating flavors. The Prosteam Steam Toaster Oven ($189) from Iwatani & Co. combines steaming with broiling, baking and toasting.
Made in Japan, the 16-pound appliance looks like an ordinary toaster oven with a stainless steel lining and a removable glass door. The only giveaway is the plastic cassette on top of the oven. For steaming, this cassette is filled with tap water and placed in a slot. A full container lasts about 35 minutes. For toasting or broiling, the Pro-steam temperature can go up to 720 degrees. There are four settings--high, medium, low and steam, as well as a 60-minute timer and an adjustable rack.
According to Akemi Yoshida, assistant sales manager for Iwatani, the Prosteam has been popular with Asians for heating sake as well as steaming dim-sum or restoring freshness to breads and other store-bought delicacies or TV dinners. Other uses include cooking chicken, fish, roasting beef, boiling eggs, thawing foods, making custard puddings.
The Tefal Flavourfast Oven is available at Bullock's, Montana Mercantile and Martinel's. The Prosteam is available at Yaohan Market (Los Angeles) and Fujiden USA (Los Angeles).
For more information about the Rational Combi-Oven/Steamer, write to Kenneth B. Goodwin, Combi-Oven Steamer Division, Blodgett Oven Co. Inc., P. O. Box 4489, Burlington, Vt . 05401-0044.