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Tips for Managing Humidity in Your Commercial Kitchen or Bakery

If you think humidity takes its toll on you, think about the havoc it can wreak in a commercial kitchen or bakery. And there, it’s not just a problem during the summer or in warmer climates.

Too much relative humidity in a hot and damp kitchen environment creates conditions that foster the growth of mold, bacteria and mildew; rot rubber gaskets; and prompt slips and falls. National Floor Safety Institute research found that almost 3 million food service employees are injured in slip-and-fall accidents, usually in kitchen and food-preparation areas.

Adding insult to injury, too much moist air also causes some foods to spoil faster and makes baking an absolute nightmare. “There have been occasions where it has been too humid, resulting in meringues falling, chocolate seizing up and blooming, and buttercream breaking down,” says Tariq Hanna, chef and co-owner of Sucre, A Sweet Boutique, in New Orleans.

Sources of Humidity

Too much humidity results from two main factors, according to the American Industrial Hygiene Association:

  • Temperature: Warm air is moister than cold, and kitchens are naturally hot environments so there’s already more moisture in the air. When that hot air comes into contact with cool air—from opening the walk-in cooler or even opening the back door on a cold day—condensation occurs. That’s what can lead to mold and slips.
  • Ventilation: Improper ventilation increases relative humidity because warmer, moister air collects. Choose hoods and ventilation systems that provide enough exhaust and make-up air (the cooler, dryer air that replaces the hotter, moister air), and keep HVAC elements clean and functioning to manage kitchen humidity.

Fighting Humidity in Commercial Kitchens

Bakers and candy-makers are particularly interested in controlling humidity. “Baking and confections are very susceptible to humidity as they are very formulaic scientific art forms,” Hanna explains. But managing indoor air quality is critical for any commercial kitchen.

Experts recommend separate HVAC units for the back of house and front of house. Even at DZ Restaurants’ four eateries in the Saratoga Springs, NY, area, open-design kitchens have their own systems.

“The air-conditioned kitchens with proper ventilation systems and the open-air environment keeps our kitchen staff comfortable in what can quickly become a sweltering environment,” says Bill Gathen, the restaurant group’s director of marketing. “This helps maintain their energy through long nights behind a hot stove. The temperate kitchen also greatly decreases the risk of food spoilage. It’s not necessarily the humidity that poses the greatest risk, but the lack of fresh air in a kitchen. Proper ventilation, exhaust hoods and fans, and a strategic plan for HVAC and make-up air are all critical elements in designing an effective kitchen.”

Talk to your local health department, as well as restaurant consultants and commercial HVAC experts to understand the best solution for your particular kitchen design. As a general rule, however, a commercial kitchen or bakery should strive for relative humidity of around 60 percent.

Another tip: check gaskets on all equipment. If you see signs of rot, replace them quickly; if you discover mold or other residue, give them a thorough cleaning immediately. “We regularly inspect and clean the gaskets and ovens to allow a better seal,” Hanna notes. “We also check the baffles in the oven to ensure the vents open to release moisture from the chamber.”

Occasionally, though, no matter how effective your HVAC system is, there’s just too much moisture in the air for some delicate cooking techniques.

“Sometimes one of the best evasive maneuvers is simply not doing anything—as in, stop working,” Hanna says. “A wise man once told me, ‘we are pastry chefs, not magicians!’ We have the ability to manipulate many things, but sometimes we have an inability to control nature. At that point, take a break until it gets better.”

Carrboro, NC-based Margot Carmichael Lester grew up in a gourmet grocery and parlayed that into a career writing about food, drinks and business for a variety of outlets, including in-flight magazines, consumer titles and Web sites. She has owned her own business, The Word Factory, for two decades. A devotee of dining at the bar, she favors sparkling wines and anything with bacon.