CHICAGO -- You’ve seen it—or tasted it—before: The chicken tender that tastes just a touch too bitter, or the french fry that seems a bit too oily.
In all such cases, dirty, overused oil is the culprit. But what causes oil to become this way, other than simply neglecting to change it?
Surprisingly, there are as many moving parts to fryer and oil maintenance as there are parts on a newer-model fryer. Fryers today have more mechanisms meant to streamline training and labor, cut oil costs and enhance food quality. They even promise to improve workplace safety. But fryers also require consistent filtration, cleaning and maintenance to maximize performance, ensure a better end product and prevent total breakdowns.
Regular maintenance—aside from boosting profits through better food—can dramatically cut down on the cost of oil, one of the most expensive ingredients in any kitchen.
Frying works like this: Food is cooked in hot oil, which essentially dehydrates the surface through the release of bubbles, or pockets of water, that vaporize out of the food to crisp it up, says Bess Couture, marketing manager for Motion Technology Inc., Northborough, Mass., manufacturer of the ventless AutoFry system. Meanwhile, the sugars and proteins in the food begin to break down from the high heat, creating that golden-brown color and craveable flavor.
As more food is fried and the oil continuously heats and cools, fewer bubbles form, allowing the oil to seep further and further into the food. The result is more grease and less crispiness.
There are two types of gas or electric fryers: open fryers that require users to monitor the cooking process more closely as the food heats in the oil, and more automated, enclosed fryers that can cook food consistently at the press of a button. Some fryers are ventless; others (typically the open kinds) require overhead ventilation.
Pressure fryers, such as those manufactured by the Broaster Co., Beloit, Wis., cook product in canola oil in enclosed systems at low pressure, thereby allowing for higher temperatures and faster cooking times with less threat for dangerous boil-overs and limp, greasy food.
Fryers can have one of two filtration systems: a manual system that requires employees to physically drain the oil into a large bucket and run it through a screen or paper filter every day before emptying it back into the clean tank; and a more automated, built-in or added-on filtration system that will drain, filter and refill the oil, again with the press of a button or two.
At Rutter’s Farm Stores, based in York, Pa., Director of Food Service Ryan Krebs estimates his stores will save thousands in reduced oil costs with the introduction of enclosed fryers that have automatic filtration systems, considering there are two to four fryers at each of the 55 Rutter’s stores. The new models will be able to replace oil every five days vs. the two to three days his current fryers require.
“Frying is a very large part of our business. That’s why moving to this filtration system was a no-brainer,” Krebs says. At each store, Rutter’s offers 25 to 30 fried-food items, from appetizers such as mozzarella sticks, mac-and-cheese bites and egg rolls to main-meal foods including fried clam boats, bacon-wrapped hot dogs and barbecue short ribs. Fryers are even used to create funnel-cake fries for the dessert menu.
Manually filtering oil can be a dirty—and dangerous—job. One of the most common kitchen accidents is slipping due to oil spills related to frying, says Couture.
This was the case at Rutter’s before the switch to automatic filtering fryers. “What we did before was use a hand pump and crank system to pump the oil into a bucket that employees would have to wheel through the kitchen and out to the back door,” Krebs says. “We were requiring employees to lift and filter or dump 35-pound jugs of oil on a daily basis.” One can only imagine the reluctance of any c-store employee to want to perform this nightly ritual.
With the new system, the oil is pumped automatically through a hose system attached to the wall and running out to the back of the store. “Already, we’re seeing better longevity of the oil, as well as labor savings and cost savings from not having to buy so much oil,” he says.
For enclosed, ventless fryers such as those at Rutter’s, Couture of Motion Technology Inc. also recommends filtering oil daily and changing the oil completely at least once a week, depending on volume.
“If you don’t filter daily, you’re going to have crumbs and sediment left behind and the oil will break down, get dirty and not last as long,” Couture says.
Regularly filtering the oil can also allow c-stores to cook different types of food in the same fryer and even at the same time, as long as they have similar cook times. Rutter’s will cook mozzarella sticks and fries together, even seafood, chicken and funnel cake fries together if the oil is filtered, fresh and in good working order.
“If we heard from customers that their chicken fingers tasted a little sweet, we knew that the funnel-cake residue was getting into the other food and that the oil wasn’t being filtered,” Krebs says.
In addition to daily filtration, Rutter’s requires employees to test the oil to ensure freshness and identify signs it needs to be changed. The tests are performed by extracting a bit of oil from the fry pot using a dropper and holding it next to a comparison tube supplied by the manufacturer for changes in color. Darkness might indicate it’s time to change the oil.
Broaster Co.’s pressure fryers have a built-in filtering system that filters out food particles and other food-based contaminants in about five minutes. Cleaning of the entire unit consists of a surface wipe-down, cleaning of the cooking well with a special cleaner and a visual inspection.
A new generation of fryers has built-in smart technology to not only remind employees to filter daily, but also to test the oil and send out alerts that it’s time to change the oil, according to Linda Brugler, senior product manager for Frymaster, a division of Welbilt, New Port Richey, Fla. Newer technologies allow these types of fryers to measure particulates such as carbon and sediment, and to determine the quality of the oil—or lack thereof.
These models can also log data, such as the date of the last oil change, which c-stores can use to track how much oil they use. Smart fryers such as these also maintain oil temperature more consistently, heating up more gradually to prevent “shocking” the oil and causing it to break down even faster, Brugler says.
Other features include automatic top-off technology using a cooking probe that will add more oil during the cooking process as needed without requiring employees to manually add it. In addition to improved food quality, there’s a safety factor: It prevents employees from having to manually add cold oil to hot oil during cooking, which can lead to dangerous splatters that burn.
When it comes to frying, not all oils are equal. Canola and soybean oils have the highest smoke point, followed by cottonseed and blended cottonseed/canola oils, according to Couture. Choosing a higher-quality oil with a higher smoke point will help protect against faster oil breakdown and the resulting “seepage” that causes greasy results.
“As oil breaks down, it inherits the flavors of whatever you’re cooking,” says Krebs, who estimates Rutter’s goes through more than 200,000 gallons of oil a year. “Quality oil also recovers a lot easier during high-volume cooking.”
While cheaper oil is, well, cheaper, operators might end up dumping it sooner, which costs more over time, Krebs says. Another consideration is food types. The more fresh food that is fried, the more sediment that will occur and therefore the more filtration needed. Frozen food with excess ice left on the coating will also cause more breakdown because water and oil don’t mix, leading to dangerous boil-overs, says Couture.
During weekly oil changes, fryers should be cleaned out by either “boiling out” the fry pot with hot water and mild detergents, or wiping and cleaning with similar soaps, Brugler says. In newer models, parts including the basket, oil pot and food loading and dumping shoots can be run through a dishwasher. This helps remove grease and carbon buildup.
Above all else, the fry pot should be drained and scrubbed daily after filtration to remove damaging residuals, says Brugler. This is especially important for c-stores that fry a lot of fresh-breaded product, which can leave behind more sediment.
Changing out the filter paper from time to time also helps, especially if pumps are noticeably working harder.
Any delicate sensors and probes should be wiped clean daily to make sure they’re in tip-top shape. And air filter boxes that capture grease in ventless systems need to be changed, typically once a month, to prevent the fryers from blowing grease out of the unit, Brugler says. Couture recommends changing charcoal filters four times a year, and mesh filters twice a year.
Note any gaps in seals around fryer doors and baskets that might have come off their tracks, says Krebs, who has helped develop easy training videos for staff to be able to maintain the fryers themselves without as much need for service techs. A reduction in service calls is indeed possible, as long as daily filtration and regular oil changing takes place.
With regular attention and maintenance, fryers should last decades in the long run, and cut oil and labor costs in the short term.