The success story of the combi-steam cooker
In 20 years, V-ZUG's Combi-Steamer has revolutionized and left a lasting mark on home cooking. How those behind this success made the right strategic decision and, above all, how we here in Zug learned how to master steam and make it our company's fuel.
In 1998, a small innovative group at V-ZUG started thinking about how steam technology could enhance the household appliance manufacturer's range. The team of former project manager Erwin Bucher and hardware developer Jürg Gisler established that, although there were some steamers for large-scale kitchens and compact pressure cookers for home use on the market, their numbers were small and they were not very user-friendly.
One of their first landmark decisions, recounts Erwin Bucher more than twenty years later, was to focus on an unpressurized steamer and discount a high-pressure system. "We wanted an appliance that was more versatile and in which the steam function could be ideally combined with the conventional heating modes of an oven," says Bucher, who influenced the development of the steamer in 1998 in his role as kitchen projects manager.
The pioneers thought the only downside of an unpressurized steamer and a standard pressure steamer was their speed. High-pressure steamers are faster, but less accurate and more awkward to use. "With hindsight we backed the right horse, even though we often had to explain the benefits of our technology to begin with," says Peter Kurmann.
Currently Product Manager for Switzerland, Kurmann has been at V-ZUG for 31 years and has closely followed the Combi-Steamer's meteoric rise. In 2001, the first Combi-Steam SL reached the market, heralding a "new dimension in cooking and baking". The launch brochure says: "Thanks to its sophisticated combination of controlled steam, genuine hot air and intelligent ZUG technology, the Combi-Steam SL makes it possible to achieve optimum cooking and baking results rapidly, simply and safely."
For around ten years, the unique V-ZUG Combi-Steamer occupied a special position on the market. According to Peter Kurmann, the main reason for that was the patented external steam generator (ESS), which was developed in Zug. The technology ensures that only as much steam as is needed is fed into the fully sealed oven. The controlled supply of steam, amongst other things, forms the basis for the innovating heating mode 'hot air with steaming'. Practical issues were important for the developers, such as the fact that the uncluttered oven can be simply wiped clean with a cloth, which is another good argument in favour of the Combi-Steamer.
Its suitability for everyday use and clever combination of different heating methods quickly made the Combi-Steamer popular. The professional baking function, for example, was a minor kitchen sensation. When used to bake bread, it initially adds steam to help the dough rise well. This is followed by a phase of dry heat, and finally some additional steam is used to ensure that baked goods such as plaited loaves have a crispy, golden-brown crust.
Peter Kurmann, who had direct contact with customers for many years at trade fairs such as Olma and Swissbau, knows that practical examples are always the best advertisement for a product that is intended to make life in the kitchen easier and more pleasant. "For example, gourmets are still impressed today with the fact that you can fill a hollowed-out pepperoni sausage with uncooked rice and some stock and, after a while, remove it from the Combi-Steamer perfectly cooked."
Kurmann explains that hot steam has the outstanding physical property of always condensing where it's coldest first and distributing heat evenly. So it's also possible to cook different types of vegetables on a baking tray at the same time in a Combi-Steamer, without the carrots ending up half raw while the broccoli has become mushy.
Early on, it became clear to the Zug steam strategists that a functional, innovative appliance alone was not enough. With the in-house development of recipes, the opportunities offered by the Combi-Steamer were therefore regularly explored and made tangibly perceptible for interested and discerning customers. Another pioneering achievement in this regard is therefore the move to team up with top chefs. 2006 saw the start of an intensive dialogue with Stefan Meier, the head chef at the "Rathauskeller" in Zug, and in 2009 Andreas Caminada, who had just been appointed "Chef of the Year", was hired to help provide a fresh new look full of hope for the future for V-ZUG, which was founded in 1913, and its innovative technology.
Teaming up with top chefs subsequently became a key element in promoting V-ZUG's steam technology. Over the years, Tanja Grandits, Franck Giovannini, Walter Klose and Silvio Germann became ambassadors for the brand in Switzerland. Transferring expertise from top chefs to private households became a further strategic approach. With Anton Schmaus and Jan Hartwig in Germany, Ryan Clift in Singapore, Vicky Lau in Hong Kong and Brent Savage in Australia, a whole string of top chefs in international markets worked with V-ZUG appliances. This ensured not only a high public profile but also a growing body of expertise, which in turn flowed into the constant refinement of the Combi-Steamer.
In 2011, for example, the vacuisine method was introduced. This involves vacuum-sealing food and cooking it in the Combi-Steamer at controlled temperatures of less than 100°C. V-ZUG was the first manufacturer to succeed in controlling steam at precise temperatures – something that is vital in the sous-vide method with which professional chefs were already familiar. "We were constantly driven on by the question of what could be done using steam," says product manager Peter Kurmann with regard to the relentless desire for innovation.
Over the years, steam has virtually become a core competency, and is literally what fuels the company: steam anti-crease in washing machines, SteamFinish in dishwashers and refreshing garments in the RefreshButler – tiny heated water droplets now ensure amazing results in a wide variety of V-ZUG appliances. Twenty years ago, this steam revolution introduced the first Combi-Steamer which, with the Excellence Line that was launched in 2021, marks the highest point yet of an impressive development. "A flagship product" is how Peter Kurmann describes the story of the Combi-Steamer, which is still advancing the company's development today thanks to its unique technological features and charisma.
As the project manager, more than 20 years ago Erwin Bucher was involved in developing the first combi-steam cooker by V-ZUG. He tells us how the idea came about and how his team had to learn to manage water as a medium.
Erwin Bucher, back in 1998, what provided the impetus for V-ZUG developing a steam cooker?
Steam cookers were something we kept on thinking about, and there were already a few on the market for both household and professional use. So we started some market research, and it took us a good year to get a clear picture of things.
What was the decisive moment?
We had to make a fundamental decision between a steam cooker that worked at normal pressure, or a high-pressure appliance, because the development paths were totally different. The latter functions like a pressure cooker, and such appliances were already available for home kitchens, but their use is limited and they tend to be seen more as extras in the kitchen. What we were aiming for, by contrast, was an appliance that would be simpler and more versatile, and which would have different heating options that could be combined. So we decided on a steam cooker that worked at normal pressure.
What technical challenges were you confronted with?
Ovens are open systems which breathe, but with the steam cooker we needed to create a system that was completely sealed up, like a mussel. Other new challenges that we'd had no experience of up to then were the temperature probe, the shaft for the convection fan, the water inflow and the leftover water. We also had to learn how to manage water as a medium for cooking.
What were your objectives in developing the steam cooker?
We wanted to create a new incentive, encouraging people to choose a V-ZUG appliance because it had completely new functions and uses. Alongside the technical development, a pivotal moment came when we decided to use the functions of steam creatively to develop new cooking processes.
Were there any key moments on this journey?
A key development was the climate sensor, which was invented at V-ZUG. It ensures that the system only contains as much steam as is required at that moment. This saves energy and avoids steam emissions in the kitchen. We noted that competitor appliances constantly emitted steam, and for a variety of different reasons we didn't want that.
Once you'd overcome the technical challenges, was the next thing to ensure the new combi-steam cookers could be used to the full?
At the start there was a huge demand and need for recipes, but we were technicians and developers, so we were a bit stumped. We soon realized we needed to contact top chefs in order to incentivize customers to use this new system. Stefan Meier from "Rathauskeller" in Zug was particularly helpful. After a short time the market became very interested in the potential of steam cooking, and nowadays when you're designing a kitchen the question of whether or not to incorporate a steam cooker is an obvious one to ask.
With hindsight, to what extent did the V-ZUG employees involved in the development project play a pioneering role?
At V-ZUG we were the ones who really brought the combi-steam cooker into its own, and it was precisely the versatility our appliances offered that made them so successful. We also worked on the practical benefits of the appliances from very early on.
Once the combi-steam cooker had been successfully launched: what happened next, what was the plan?
Our objective for the next generation of appliances was to improve the quality, make the system even more robust, and at the same time reduce the manufacturing costs. The development of the Vacuisine method of vacuum-sealing the food in a bag before cooking it constituted a significant improvement in quality and opened up a whole new range of options for us.
The sous-vide method was already used in top restaurants. How were you able to adapt this cooking method for the combi-steam cooker?
We worked with various top chefs like Stefan Meier, Tanja Grandits, Philippe Rochat and Andreas Caminada to develop and perfect Vacuisine recipes, and we did lots of in-house testing to get it absolutely right. It was an interesting time.
The Vacuisine system requires the temperature of the steam to be accurate down to the degree. Did that pose a technical challenge?
Our appliances were already accurate to five degrees, so we needed to make them adjustable in one-degree increments, and we were the first to offer that. But the Vacuisine method itself wasn't such an issue, we were initially surprised at how consistently it functioned.
The development of steam cookers and steam technology created a new core competency at V-ZUG. What knock-on effects did that have?
Working on the combi-steam cookers and getting to grips with the medium of steam really showed us its potential. Nowadays we use the technology for developments like the steam anti-crease function in our washing machines or faster drying processes in our dishwashers.
So you've learnt to manage steam. What's next?
We do have a kitchens project underway, but I'm afraid I can't tell you about it just yet ...
Erwin Bucher, 61, is head of the ESP department at V-ZUG which provides various other departments with services such as cost analyses, laboratory testing, norm and standard checks, etc. He has a university of applied sciences (HTL, Höhere Technische Lehranstalt) degree in electrical engineering, has worked at V-ZUG for 25 years and as project manager for kitchen projects was co-responsible in 1998 for developing the first V-ZUG combi-steam cooker.
From the first strategic decision to its modern appearance today – in twenty years, V-ZUG's Combi-Steamer has revolutionized and had a lasting impact on home cooking.
1998 – The decision
"Project Steamer" begins at V-ZUG, with the crucial question being: low-pressure or high-pressure technology?
2000 – Worldwide innovation
The CombiSteam SL, a worldwide innovation, is introduced in the "Zuger Rötel" under the heading "The new dimension in cooking and baking".
2001 – New era
The Combi-Steam V-ZUG is launched onto the market – the "advent of a new era in cooking and baking, made possible by steaming at 40°C to 100°C".
2005 – Refinement
V-ZUG's refined Combi-Steam SL and Steam S enter the market with a re-engineered design.
2006 – Cooking with the pro
Head chef Stefan Meier becomes the ambassador for the Combi-Steamer and helps to make "modern cooking" popular. More and more recipes and examples of use emerge.
2007 – GourmetSteam milestone
Another world first is introduced in the form of the GourmetSteam programme, which automatically ensures perfect results. The guarantee of success becomes a trademark.
2009 – Next generation
The FutureLine creates a new design language, steam technology is now used in the Combair-Steam and the trailblazing automatic programmes GourmetSteam and Soft Roasting are introduced. Andreas Caminada becomes "chef of the year" and ambassador for V-ZUG's Combi-Steamer.
2010 – New standard
With the new 45 line as a European standard, an important step is taken: the Combi-Steam XSL's oven becomes 45 percent larger, and technological progress enables a new aesthetic.
2011 – Temperature of haute cuisine
Combi-Steamers increasingly become an expression of a modern, healthy lifestyle. In their cookery book "Haute Goûture", top chefs Tanja Grandits, Andreas Caminada, Stefan Meier and Philippe Rochat present vacuisine recipes, as the sous-vide technique is known at V-ZUG.
2015 – Onwards and upwards
A new line of appliances with a central adjusting knob and the Combi-Steam MSLQ world first are introduced – the appliance that can do everything: baking, steaming and microwaving.
2019 – Young faces
With Markus Arnold, Fabian Fuchs, Silvio Germann and Marcel Skibba, a new generation of talented young top chefs join the V-ZUG team of ambassadors.
2021 – Naturally seamless
The Combi-Steamer celebrates its 20th anniversary. With the Excellence Line, the style-defining CircleSlider control is introduced, and new highly aesthetic front designs enable V-ZUG appliances to be integrated naturally and seamlessly into modern kitchen surroundings.
V-ZUG customer advisor Ruth Pfäffli tells us about happy steam cooker customers and how crème caramel is still a hit even after 20 years.
Ruth Pfäffli, can you remember the first time you set eyes on a combi-steam cooker?
Yes, I remember really well how we all felt like we were looking at this totally amazing appliance, although when you compare the ones from 20 years ago with the current generation of combi-steam cookers, the old ones didn't offer nearly as many options.
Did you have to learn how to cook all over again with the the combi-steam cooker?
Cooking with steam wasn't a new thing in itself, but what really surprised me was how much more flavoursome vegetables were when cooked in the steam cooker rather than on the hob, for example.
What impressed you most back then?
The first thing I tried out was soft roasting, and I still think it's wonderful today – as do many of our customers. You just sear the meat you're cooking, such as roast beef, insert the temperature sensor, choose the appropriate programme and in around two to four and a half hours it's done at exactly the right time with precisely the core temperature you chose, down to the degree.
When you meet up with customers, what's important?
If someone has never owned a combi-steam cooker before, then I want to show them that it's almost a waste to only use it for steaming vegetables. For me it's really important to show how versatile these appliances are. To illustrate, it's a big advantage to be able to prepare several things simultaneously for which you'd otherwise need three or four pans. For example I can cook rice, potatoes, vegetables and fish, all stacked up in the same appliance, which makes everyday life much easier.
What do you use the combi-steam cooker for yourself?
At the moment I'm making beef brisket using the Vacuisine method. The brisket has been marinated and vacuum sealed, and it's currently steam cooking for 24 hours at 62°C. Tomorrow I'll finish the meat off on the barbecue.
Are there any classics which delight customers again and again?
Crème caramel is still a hit, even after 20 years. Before the first steam cookers existed you had to cook it in the oven in a bain-marie, you had to get the temperature exactly right and you could never be sure of success. Nowadays it takes just 25 minutes in the steam-cooker. And we make it ourselves, we don't use a mix (she laughs)!
You been in the job for 17 years, so I imagine you know what customers want?
Someone who cooks for their family every day wants recipes that are as easy as possible: stuffed peppers or pasta bakes which don't require the pasta to be cooked separately are definitely a plus. But there are also plenty of amateur chefs who want to know all about the Vacuisine method and fully exploit all the options the cooking methods offer. Happily I'm able to advise each customer individually and consider their needs.
What's special about your job?
The nice thing is that people are always happy when I turn up. They've already got the appliance, I'm not selling them anything, I'm just there to focus completely on their questions and aspirations. And when I see that after 20 years someone has replaced their original combi-steam cooker with a new appliance, that makes me really proud.
Ruth Päffli, 63, is a trained chef and has been a customer advisor at V-ZUG for 17 years. She visits customers at home and explains how to use and maintain combi-steam cookers, and runs cookery courses in various ZUGORAMAs.
There are lots of preconceptions about using steam cookers and combi-steam cookers, but they can easily be cleared up.
1. Steamed vegetables are bland, everything tastes the same.
Steam cookers are a great help in the kitchen and really reduce your workload, but at the end of the day, how the food tastes is down to the user. However, for delicate vegetables with bright colours all you need is a little butter, olive oil, some nice pepper or some fleur de sel – and they'll taste amazing.
2. If you can cook then you don't need a steam cooker.
Lots of things that don't need to be watched as they cook can be prepared more easily, quickly and appetizingly in the steamer than in on the hob.
3. You can't bake bread in the steam cooker.
Not all doughs are the same and the success of bread-making is dependent on many factors, but everything from plaited loaves to sourdough rolls will cook perfectly in the combi-steam cooker.
4. Meat tastes better when you pan-fry it.
The "soft roasting" option guarantees great cooking results with meat and ensures it has the right core temperature at the desired time.
5. It's hard to clean.
On a day-to-day basis all you need is a cloth to wipe the steam cooker dry, and for more intensive cleaning the new Excellence Line appliances actually have a specific cleaning programme.
6. A steam cooker's only useful for preparing vegetables.
The combi-steam cooker has a huge range of uses because it has lots of operating modes that can also be combined.
7. If you're cooking for one a steam cooker isn't worthwhile.
Steam cookers are in fact particularly worthwhile for people who live alone because they allow you to cook a wide variety of dishes with little effort.
8. If you've already got an oven then you don't need a steam cooker as well.
The combination of steam and heat in the steam cooker lets you achieve unique results, for example getting the crust of your bread really crisp, and you can also use automatic regeneration to gently reheat food so it doesn't dry out.
9. A pressure cooker is much quicker.
You have to watch a pressure cooker quite a lot, whereas a steam cooker does everything automatically.
10. I don't need a special appliance just for steam cooking.
Steam is an extremely versatile medium that can be used for more than just cooking: you can use a steam cooker to sterilize and preserve fruit and vegetables, extract the juice from berries and quinces or warm up cherry stone heat bags and Oshibori towels – steam cookers can do far more than just steam cooking.
Recipe books have been around for hundreds of years, often passed down through the generations. Not only do they tell us about the ingredients needed for a dish, but they provide instructions, from the chopping to the tasting, on how to prepare the food. In an age dominated by platforms such as YouTube, recipe books appear to be losing popularity. But is this really the case? We asked Roberto Kopp, International Demonstrator at the Gourmet Academy. He also explained why it’s worth taking a look at the new recipe book from V-ZUG.
Roberto Kopp, how have recipe books generally changed in recent years?
«Even now, after 20 years, I couldn’t part with my combi-steam cooker»
The very first combi-steam cooker from V-ZUG was launched exactly 20 years ago. And since day one, this Combi-Steam SL has been found in the kitchen of Ignaz Schneble, where it is used almost every day. The charming Zug native shared his favourite recipes for the combi-steam cooker and told us why he cannot live without this appliance.
It’s a cold, grey October day as we make our way to meet with a very special V-ZUG customer. Delighted to finally be out of the cold, we are greeted with a warm smile at the door of Ignaz Schneble. His apartment, located just outside the city of Zug, is welcoming and lovingly decorated. The many pictures, photos, souvenirs and maps immediately reveal his great passion: Alaska and Western Canada. We’ll find out more about this later on in the visit.
Because the real reason for our visit can be found in the kitchen. Ignaz Schneble owns one of the very first combi-steam cookers from V-ZUG. “Around 20 years ago, we decided to renovate,” he explains. The kitchen was given a complete make-over. While on the lookout for new appliances, Ignaz and his wife came across the newly launched Combi-Steam SL from V-ZUG at the Zuger Messe. “We were very impressed by everything it was able to do.” Since then, it has been in use almost every day. Ignaz, who comes from Eastern Switzerland, enjoys cooking with fresh ingredients, often also for friends and family. “One of my favourite dishes is a nice piece of lamb with corn on the cob. Both are perfect for the steamer,” explains the skilled machine designer. Another speciality of Schneble is his homemade ‘Mandelgipfel’ (almond croissants) “à la Igi”, which he also prepares in the steamer. “I love them with plenty of filling. So, around two years ago, I started baking the ‘Gipfeli’ in the steamer.” ‘Igi’s Hörnlipfanne’ is on the menu today, a pasta dish eaten almost on a weekly basis. “The combi-steam cooker is very practical, as I can use it to cook plenty of dishes for one. The fact that it has lasted so long is testament to the quality of the steamer. I could never part with it now. And should it ever stop working, I’ll be buying a new one in a flash,” he says, smiling.
Homesick for Canada
After lining the pasta dish with baking paper, he covers the base with slices of cheese and cooked Hörnli pasta. Topped with grated mixed cheese and fried onions, the dish is cooked in the steamer at 180 degrees for 20 minutes. While preparing a salad using ingredients from his own garden plot, we begin to find out more about his great passion. In 1968, Ignaz Schneble emigrated to Vancouver. He first job required him to fly to the Yukon territory. Nothing came of this, however, so he stayed in Vancouver where is met his future wife who was there working as an au-pair. The two returned to Switzerland to marry. At the start of the 1970s, they moved from Ignaz Schneble’s home town of Diessenhofen to Zug. “We were both very much missing Canada. It was only in 1988 that we managed to make the trip to Vancouver, our second home.” Since 1995, they then travelled from Vancouver every two years to explore British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon and Alaska in a camper van. “I know this part of the world so well by now, I even advise a travel agency in this region and accompany tourist groups who want to explore,” he tells us. The summer of 2018 was the last time Schneble and his wife Rosy were together in Yukon and Alaska, before Rosy passed away that same year. This coming summer Ignaz is hoping to make the trip to Canada again in memory of his wife. “The first three weeks will be spent travelling around Yukon and Alaska with the camper van, then on to visit old friends in Vancouver,” he tells us.
An experienced tour guide, Ignaz kept us entertained with his fascinating stories, before we were interrupted by the ping of the timer on the combi-steam cooker. ‘Igi’s Pfännli’ was ready! Garnished with salad, the final touches were made to the Hörnli pasta dish. “All we need now is a glass of red wine,” he says with a smile. And he was right. Bon Appetit, Ignaz!