COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Big Bear Stores here has found that using combination oven/steamers keeps its in-store production of prepared foods both more efficient and consistent.
The 77-unit chain's Executive Chef Brian Nunzio Merlo told SN that he uses combination oven/steamers to make most of the entrees, side dishes and desserts he prepares at Big Bear's two fresh-format stores.
Trendy fare such as roasted elephant garlic and pecan-crusted chicken breast share the menu with home-style meatloaf and other comfort foods at Big Bear.
"We do them all in the combination ovens. These ovens produce super-heated steam, which reduces the shrinkage of meat and poultry as it cooks. And we use some steam when we bake, which makes pastries more flaky and the crust of breads more golden brown," Merlo said. Another benefit is that different foods can be cooked at the same time in the ovens without a transfer of flavors from one to the other, he added.
Big Bear jumped full force into the home meal replacement arena last spring, with the opening of two new 75,000-square-foot, fresh-format stores that took the chain in a new direction.
The emphasis in the new stores is on fresh foods and prepared meal components, a departure from the chain's traditional stores, which have a strong focus on nonfood items, he said.
The chain hired a team of chefs when it opened the new stores, and the chefs have since come to rely on the combination oven/steamers to keep up with the growing volume of foods they prepare in-store each day, Merlo said.
He said his stores are even hard-cooking eggs in the combi oven/steamers.
"It's a great way to cook eggs. You can set the whole cardboard carton of a dozen eggs on the shelf and program the oven for full steam. It takes 12 and a half minutes for perfect eggs that are easy to peel," Merlo said.
Big Bear uses hard-cooked eggs in egg salad, potato salad, in artichoke and egg sandwiches, and a number of other menu items.
Merlo praised the versatility of the combi oven/steamer concept, which makes it easy to use the equipment for menu items ranging from roasts to steamed vegetables to desserts. The program in Big Bear stores includes a video and menu and recipe guide.
Big Bear's Merlo said the guide is particularly valuable to him because its suggestions for cooking times and settings for steam for various foods are right on the button.
"It's very accurate. If you follow the guide, you turn out a top-quality product every time," he said.
Merlo said he was first introduced to the concept of using a combi oven/steamer for a large variety of menu items last year at a meeting of the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation.