Commercial Panini Grill Buying Guide
People love their sandwiches, even more so when cheese is involved and grilled. So crispy! So melty! So gooey!
The panini sandwich – panini is Italian for “little breads” - is a big step up from the mundane grilled cheese sandwich: it’s a grown-up, Mediterranean version. Just imagine for a moment thinly-sliced prosciutto, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, gently pressed between two pieces of crusty ciabatta bread with a few drops of olive oil and then grilled. You get the idea? What’s more, they don’t take up much space and they’re quick and they’re easy to operate.
Paninis got their start in Italy but gained notoriety in the 1980s when the well-heeled youth of Milan took a fancy to them. It didn’t take long for the phenomenon to invade these shores. The concept was simple and compelling: great meat, cheese and fresh vegetables, served hot between two pieces of great bread.
What is a Panini Grill?
Panini sandwiches are cooked on, you guessed it, a panini grill. A panini grill consists of top and bottom, ridged or smooth, heating plates that press and grill in one operation. Panini grills are also called panini presses, sandwich presses and less eloquently panini or sandwich makers.
Although panini grills got their start as dedicated grilled sandwich makers, it soon became clear that not only can they grill sandwiches quickly and attractively, they can also grill burgers, fish, steaks and chicken breasts. Why stop there? Bacon, peaches, pineapples have all been successfully tried, as has pretty much any food item that requires an extra crisp finish.
Where can you use a Panini Grill?
Commercial panini makers are a boon, especially for establishments that don’t have a full kitchen, like bars, cafes, sandwich shops or clubs. It just sits on a countertop and doesn’t require special ventilation. They’re also easy to operate: simply preheat the grill to the desired temperature, place the food on the plate and close the lid.
All you need is a power outlet and a foot or two of counter space. Check to see if you have a place for one: sizes range around 12” by 12” for single units and 17” by 10” for double units.
What to consider when buying a panini grill
If there’s anything that distinguishes one panini grill from another, it’s the type of plates you choose. There are three choices: smooth, grooved or combination of the two. Which one you choose will affect the all-important visual appeal of the food.
Grooved or Ribbed Plates
Panini grills vary in size and configurations. Size typically refers to the grilling area. Single or double refers the number of lids that work independently.
As the name implies, these units have a single cooking area and one lid. The overall cooking area can range in size from 14" to 21" or more but the entire unit will be at the same temperature.
A double unit – two grills, independently controlled, side by side - gives you the flexibility to cook two different types of food simultaneously, perhaps one side grilling while the other griddles the food. You can cook on just one side when it’s not busy to save energy costs.
You will need extra counter space, but the added capacity and versatility would come in useful for higher volumes and a more varied menu.
Cast iron plates are by far the most popular choice. They take around ten minutes to heat up, but once they’re up to temp they retain the heat like nothing else, a very useful attribute in a busy operation. Cast iron is durable and can take a lot of punishment. Once properly seasoned cast iron plates become virtually non-stick. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to season them. You may need to re-season cast iron grill plates after several heavy cleanings.
Aluminum, on the other hand, is light and inexpensive. As it heats up and cools down quickly so you can turn it off when not in use, saving electricity. Turn it back on and it’s ready for use in seconds. A good choice for lower-volume operations.
Being easy to clean with just a light wipe, non-stick plates are undeniably labour-saving and convenient. These are more popular in domestic models or for low volumes – the non-stick surface may have trouble standing up to the heavy-duty treatment the plates are going to get in a busy commercial kitchen.
Panini grills typically heat up to a maximum of around 570°F (300°C), hot in other words, so it’s vital that the handle is well insulated for easy and safe use.
It’s also a good idea to check the height of the handle when it’s in the full “up” position. Is it easily reachable? If not you may have to re-position the unit, or choose a different model.
Panini lids aren’t hinged like book covers, instead they have what are called “floating hinges” which enables the top plate to stay parallel to the bottom plate when opening or closing the grill. With this feature, the food between the plates receives equal pressure and is evenly cooked. Some units have a further elaboration: the hinges are adjustable to allow for varying food thicknesses, up to around 3-inches.
By the way, the combined weight of the handle, the lid and the top plate is such that you don’t have exert any pressure on the handle while the grill does its job. Just gently close the lid and walk away.
Panini grill controls are refreshingly simple. There’s an on/off button and a temperature control dial which ranges from around 120F (50C) to 570°F (300°C) and that’s it. There’s also a light to indicate that the plates are up to temperature and ready to grill.
In addition to these basic controls – and often a lot higher up the price range - more advanced models have programable timers and USB ports to input pre-programmed recipes. No doubt Bluetooth capability won’t be far behind.
Give the plates a quick wipe down after each operation. At the end of the day, or whenever necessary, panini grills will need regular cleaning, and not only for food-safety reasons. Food build-up, melted cheese in particular, is going to reduce heat-transfer efficiency and this will affect timing. While the grill is still warm give the plates a good scrub with warm, soapy water.
The grease tray or drip tray needs to be removed, emptied, cleaned and replaced regularly. Even during a service depending on volume.
Why your foodservice business should have a panini grill
Panini grills are highly versatile pieces of equipment for any type of operation.
If you don’t have a dedicated kitchen area but still want to offer a varied menu, this may be the answer - and no pots and pans to clean into the bargain! You don’t need a chef or a cooking range or an oven - or the ventilation system these things require. Your final choice will depend, of course, on your predicted volume and budget.
Written by Charles Bruce-Thompson