As consumers’ lifestyles continue to accelerate, they increasingly demand food in seconds rather than minutes. At the same time, foodservice kitchens are shrinking. In some cases, there’s no kitchen at all; operators are purveying more meals and snacks in places like c-stores, supermarket delis, airport concourses, and office-building and hospital lobbies. 

Ventless, countertop-sized fast-cook ovens, aka accelerated, high-speed or rapid-cook ovens, have empowered this new era of kitchen-less foodservice. First used widely in Starbucks and Subway, then increasingly in c-stores, they’re now used everywhere from neighborhood bars to hospitals to catering operations. Conventional restaurants with kitchens and exhaust hoods also find them handy, since they can set them up behind the front counter or in any odd corner in the back-ofhouse to handle customized and made-to-order fare with high throughput per linear inch of production space. 
There’s no standard definition of a fast-cook oven except that it uses multiple ways of heating to cut cooking time—some units are marketed as twice as fast as conventional ovens, others up to 15 times or more the speed of conventional baking. A food that cooks in a high-speed pizza conveyor oven in 3 or 4 minutes can emerge from a fast-cook oven in 1 to 1½ minutes. 

How Does It Work?

Typically, fast-cook ovens combine microwave cooking with convection, impingement and/or infrared heating. One company uses a patented technology that integrates hot air and infrared in a way that achieves rapid cooking with no microwave element. “The key to the lightning-fast speeds is in the balance of heating technologies,” says one product marketing manager. “Balanced systems ensure the most efficient delivery of technologies to gain the best culinary results.”  
Fast-cook ovens are really versatile and cook a wide assortment of foods to ideal doneness: microwaves penetrate into the surface to cook foods, while the convection, infrared and/or impingement heating can brown, crisp or caramelize the surface of foods in a way that regular microwave cooking can’t. While places like Subway may only use the units for toasting sub sandwiches, these ovens can handle “baking, grilling, roasting, steaming, air frying and retherming both fresh and sous-vide foods,” says a chef at one manufacturer. “They can cook grilled vegetables, salmon, scallops, flat breads, quick high-quality pizza, fast sandwiches.” Foods such as French fries and fried wings are eminently doable as long as operators use “ovenable” products that already have an oil coating. Baked goods, including cookies, also belong in fast-cook ovens (although they’re not recommended for delicate items like croissants). Fast-bake ovens also can produce items directly from a frozen state, with the microwave element defrosting the item before the other heating methods take over; obviously, items cooked from frozen will take a little longer. Multi-step cooking programs are typically preprogrammed and downloadable by USB port, so an untrained employee can produce the desired food at the touch of a button or screen icon.

The technology continues to advance. Manufacturers are developing fast-cook ovens that don’t use microwave technology since some restaurants have a “no microwaves” policy. Eliminating the microwave element also allows similar mixed-method fast-bake technology to be used in a conveyor oven as well as in an enclosed-cavity oven. 
Further down the road, new technology may substantially improve cooking results. “In the next three to five years, you’re going to have digital rapidcook ovens, referred to as RF cooking, that provide the ability to get feedback from the food item as you cook it so you can modify the setting almost in real time,” says the president of one oven company. However, he adds, these units are likely to be quite expensive at first (although expect substantial savings in reduced electrical needs). 

Ready To Choose?

Considering the purchase of one of these small but speedy appliances? Here are some questions to ask yourself and your dealer:

What foods do you plan to cook, and what speed and throughput do you need?

Will the staff be producing multiple foods at once or in short order, or are you planning to cook the same things over and over? Will you use the oven for baking? (If so, you’ll probably want a convection component rather than impingement, since the air flow of convection is much gentler.) You may not need a fast-bake oven at all. If employees are just steaming vegetables or producing simple egg sandwiches, a commercial microwave oven may be most appropriate. For other needs, a conveyor or combi oven might be best. 
What’s your perfect balance between oven capacity and compactness?

In some operations, counter space is extremely tight, so the smaller, the better. In other cases, high production needs or the capacity to fit a 16-in. pizza may dictate a larger cavity size. (See the Fast-Cook Oven Gallery for dimensions of models from seven suppliers.) Some ovens are stackable; a pair of stacked ovens might be the best solution if you need to cook multiple foods at the same time. If you expect to place ovens behind the front counter in view of customers, aesthetics may be important; for instance, some ovens are available in different color finishes. 
Do you have the right electrical outlets?

These ovens take a lot of juice, so electrical service must be 240V or 208V and 20, 30 or 50 amps. 
Is the unit UL listed for ventless operation?

While manufacturers market all fast-cook ovens today for ventless operation, not all have the UL seal. 
Is the unit easy, safe and comfortable for the employees who will be using it?

Are the icons easy to understand and use? How many programs and how many steps in the cooking process will the oven accommodate, and are they downloadable by USB? Is the exterior cool to the touch? Is the oven door configured for safe and easy loading and unloading of food? 
What culinary and service support does the manufacturer offer?

You’ll want support should you run into any issues. At least one manufacturer has a 24/7 service support call center. 

Originally written by Rita Negrete-Rousseau. Reprinted (and updated as needed) with permission of Foodservice Equipment Reports, FER Media LLC.

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