Commercial-grade panini presses are a fixture in cafes that offer hot sandwiches and quesadillas. Despite the name, panini presses, also referred to as sandwich presses or panini machines, can be used for heating up more than just the popular hot sandwiches.

istock 105490942In addition to cheese melting, this equipment can prepare meat, such as burgers, steaks, chicken breasts and pork chops. The flat griddle-type surface can also be used open for preparing small portions of grilled vegetables or other stir-fry items. Operators have even used machines with heavier platens as part of a microgriddle station in conjunction with a ventilation hood. It’s important to note that the thickness or density of the food will impact the cooking time. Whether referred to as a panini press, grill or maker, the construction of these units is basically the same. It’s comprised of two plates that have raised grills that are heated by electricity. While some types create heat, others function solely as a press while the food is cooked by another heating source.

With some manual panini presses, the cast-iron plates are held over and heated by a separate element during use while clamped around the food. The press is flipped halfway through the cooking process to heat the other plate after the first is heated through.

Electric panini grills are more commonly utilized in commercial applications, such as cafes. This equipment includes an electric heating source, making it more efficient and fast. The majority of this equipment is electric, either 1400 or 1800 watts, and runs on a standard 120-volt outlet. Units also are available that run on 220 volts as well. Infrared heat models are offered but not widely used.

Although this equipment is simple, durability can be an issue in high-volume operations. This is because the hinges and other moving parts tend to wear out over time. Operators also need to consider the platen angle since steeper designs may push sandwich contents out during the cooking process. What makes these units popular in cafe settings is that they are small and portable for versatile use. Operators can choose from standard and heavy-duty panini presses, which are available in single and double sizes. Widths vary from 10 to 12 inches, with depths of 8 to 10 inches. The most popular panini machine sizes are 10 by 10, 10 by 14 and 14 by 14, but smaller and larger units also are offered. Presses larger than 14 by 14 are not manual as the reach is then too long for users to open and close the top plate safely.

A choice of plate materials is offered, and it’s important to weigh the positives and negatives of each. For example, although aluminum is the most affordable platen type, heats up the quickest and transfers heat fast, this metal requires more energy to stay hot. Cast-iron platens take longer to heat up but retain heat longer and provide good consistency. Both types of surfaces can be either grooved, flat or a combination of both, depending on the cafe’s needs.

Because these units are basic in design, standard features are slim. These include a thermostat that monitors temperature, an on/off switch, and a brush and scraper for cleaning.

In terms of options and technology, some units have mechanical or electronic timers included, which allow operators to preset cooking times for different types of sandwiches. Although these devices monitor cooking time, these do not automatically adjust temperatures. This feature makes it easier to cook on high heat fast to sear product or prepare food at lower temperatures longer to melt or heat all the way through the item.

Panini presses with removable or Teflon platens are pricier but simplify cleaning. Some models provide adjustable spring tension for the platens to accommodate different sandwich or product thicknesses and also added pressure and heat. Higher-end models open and close automatically.

Cafes also may find a press with a free-floating top platen preferable. With this type, the top plate remains fixed, rigid and level with the sandwich, rather than set at an angle. With any panini press, the key to proper use is making sure the food product or sandwich is completely covered so it cooks evenly.

Operators should be aware of less common panini presses in the event these are preferable for their menu needs. For example, infrared technology incorporates coated glass surfaces and heats fast to quickly penetrate food. Microwave panini machines are another option. These have a bigger base and utilize a microwave generator for heating food quickly. Combination infrared and microwave models also are available.

Purchasing Considerations

First and foremost, cafe operators should ensure the panini machine’s wiring is well protected, as these units tend to get bumped and banged around. Wires that are compromised could lead to heating issues in the top of the clamshell.

Otherwise, this equipment is simple and provides operators with an inexpensive method to offer toasted or pressed sandwiches, such as paninis and Cuban sandwiches. Depending on the foods being prepared, cafes can benefit from flat or grooved surfaces. Traditional paninis and stuffed sandwiches are best prepared with the former, while items needing grill markings will require grooved plates.

The biggest benefits in utilizing a panini press are the small footprint for kitchens with limited space and the low cost. This equipment also is simple to use and only needs a 120-volt outlet to operate.

Be aware that panini machines are considered cooking equipment, so some municipalities may require a ventilation hood with use, although a grease hood won’t be needed. This equipment emits heat and should not be placed in a confined area. Also, if the food being cooked emits strong odors, the unit shouldn’t be placed too close to the front of house.

High-volume cafes and those with larger menus should consider a larger unit and/or one with two independent heating elements. This will ensure quick, uninterrupted service for patrons.

Recovery time can be an issue as the platens don’t get back up to temperature immediately following use in some instances, depending on the model and application. Larger panini presses that operate on 208 volts are an option for those requiring quicker recovery times for faster speed of service.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Although panini presses are pretty basic in construction and simple to use, cleaning and maintenance are important for a long service life.

In high-volume operations or with heavy use, these units will have an average service life of about three to four years. When a breakdown occurs, replacement, rather than repair, is typically warranted.

One of the biggest mistakes with care for this equipment is only cleaning the cooking surfaces, when the entire unit should be cleaned. The platens and/or Teflon sheets should be thoroughly cleaned on a daily basis. Some models allow these components to be removed for easy washing with soap and water over a sink.

To ensure the hinges remain operable, these should be wiped down as needed, typically weekly or monthly, depending on the cafe’s volume. The majority of these hinges don’t require lubrication. If sticking is an issue, operators can grease this using food-grade oil. Vegetable oil should never be used as this will harden and impact operation. The biggest problem with panini machines is at the hinge points, which become bent or broken due to abuse over time. To prevent this, the plates should not be slammed down roughly during use.

More sophisticated panini machines have error codes that indicate a problem. These should not be reset and ignored, or expensive repairs and/or a total breakdown could ensue.