Foodservice Equipment Reports

SPECIAL REPORT: Fryin’ Faster, Better, More Efficient

Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” TV show notwithstanding, America’s love affair with fried food isn’t likely to abate any time soon. Let’s face it, though we might not like being fat, we like eating it, or food fried in it. We’re genetically disposed that way.

Our ancestors chased down fat with spears because it meant energy, a storehouse of calories that helped them keep warm. Okay, so we don’t have to run a couple of miles to hunt french fries, but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate them as much as Thomas Jefferson did. After 200-plus years of putting fries on our list of favorite foods, we’re not about to abandon them—or fried foods in general—for muesli.

The one concession we have made in this new century (with a little legislative help—sometimes a good thing) is a switch to trans fat-free cooking oils and shortenings. Better for the collective us, but not for us in the foodservice industry.

Trans fat-free oil costs more to produce than the old (bad for us) hydrogenated oils and shortenings, and it breaks down more quickly at high temperatures. That’s added to the cost of fried foods, as has the rising cost of energy.

The good news is today’s fryers are even more efficient than the breakthrough models we told you about when we last wrote about the category in 2008. Manufacturers have focused on improvements in three primary areas: energy efficiency, oil conservation, and safety. The result is a slate of new models that are good for you and your customers.

Oil’s Well That Ends Well

With the price of frying oil and shortening rivaling that of the stuff being pumped out of the ground in the Middle East, it pays to optimize every drop.

There are a few things you probably already know about oil. It’s a cooking medium, but it also imparts flavor to whatever food you cook in it, so if it’s dirty or tastes “off,” your food quality will suffer. The cleaner your oil, the longer it will last; conversely, the dirtier it is, the faster it will break down. Heat is not oil’s friend, either, but used judiciously it can help prolong oil life, too. Here are a few of the innovations and observations manufacturers have developed to help save oil.

Use less. Seems like a no-brainer, but designing a fryer with a smaller vat isn’t that simple. A few manufacturers now offer models with 30-lb. vats that produce the equivalent of traditional 50-lb. fryers. What they’ve done, essentially, is eliminate the cold zone, the bottom area in a traditional fryer where food particles can settle away from the food and away from the heat, keeping them from carbonizing and breaking down your oil.

Advances in filtration have made it possible to eliminate cold zones. Fewer particles mean less need for a cold zone. Manufacturers have made filtration much simpler, building it right into the equipment. These systems typically have large drains to allow food particles out of the frying vat, and two-step operation—a lever that opens the drain and one that switches on the filter pump.

These new fryers also usually have electronic controls that monitor the number of cook cycles, and prompts that encourage filtering before oil breaks down. Oil in a fryer vat can be filtered in a few minutes, even while other fryers in a bank are still cooking. Oil stays cleaner longer, which means it fries more efficiently, gives you better product quality and requires changing less often.

Use more. It seems counterintuitive to suggest using more oil will help you conserve oil, but it can. Here’s how: Each time you cook foods in your fryer, the food absorbs some of the oil, reducing the amount of oil in your vat. Left unaddressed, the reduced volume in the vat gets contaminated with food particles and moisture more quickly, so it breaks down more quickly. You end up replacing your oil more frequently (or worse, putting out less than top-quality product).

To counter all that, several models now have an auto-fill feature. When the oil in the vat is depleted to a set level, fresh oil is pumped into the vat from an onboard jug-in-box (JIB). Continuously topping off with added fresh oil helps keep the entire vat less contaminated, extending the life of the oil in the vat and potentially reducing the frequency with which you filter the oil. In essence, a small amount of fresh oil can prevent or defer the degradation of a larger amount of oil.

Turn up the heat. Heat’s the enemy, right? Excessive heat, i.e., heat exceeding an oil’s smoke point, certainly is, and any high heat will eventually help break down oil or shortening. But on the flip side, quick recovery means product will spend less time in the vat, less time contaminating the oil. So the idea is more heat—but not too much heat—and quicker in-and-out.

Fryers with quicker recovery times typically have a couple of things going for them. First, they’re able to transfer a tremendous amount of heat to the oil or shortening in a small timeframe. Second, they’re not constantly lagging behind the demand for heat. Instead, they tend to be able to generate a higher average cooking temperature than run-of-the-mill fryers. Their temperature swings aren’t as great, and ultimately they cook food faster.

There are a couple ways manufacturers can accomplish the former. One is adding serious input power—Btus or kWs. But by itself that’s not an energy-efficient solution. What a couple of manufacturers have done is find ways to dramatically improve heat transfer, getting more of the input energy into the vat.

Open pot fryers, heated from below, use the bottom and/or walls of the fryer as heat exchangers, not optimal efficiency, but then again, a lot of these open designs these days have less oil to heat. Tube type fryers, on the other hand, run heat exchangers right through the oil in the vat much like the electric heating elements in an electric fryer. More transfer area, and/or better located.

If you send the hot gases straight through the tube, though, most of the heat still goes up the flue as exhaust. So what manufacturers have worked on is improving the heat transfer rate of the heat exchangers inside the tubes.

One manufacturer has created heat exchangers that force the hot gases to change direction multiple times, extracting more energy before they’re finally exhausted up the flue. Others have created a series of baffles inside their straight tubes, directing more heat to radiants inside the tubes.

Newer electronic controls also help fryers adjust to demands for heat more quickly, which raises the average cooking temperature during recovery. That means food cooks faster and absorbs less oil.

Recycle it. A radically new type of fryer—a mash-up of a salad spinner and fryer—helps conserve oil in another way. When the cooking cycle is over, the circular fry basket is raised out of the oil and spins in the hot air above it. Excess oil spins off the cooked product due to centrifugal force and drips back into the fry vat.

A Btu Saved Is A Btu Earned

Given all that, you already may have deduced that most of the oil-conserving improvements fryer manufacturers have made to new models also save you energy.

Use less oil. Even apart from improvements in engineering, the new generation of open pot fryers uses less oil, which means you need less energy to bring that oil up to temp. You’ll see at least a 10% savings in energy on most of the new open pot fryers.

Use more oil. Models with an auto-fill feature help keep your oil as contaminant-free as possible. Fresher, cleaner oil cooks faster and more efficiently, which helps save energy.

Turn up the heat. Faster recovery means faster cook time. That typically means you’re getting increased capacity from the same amount of energy. Models with better heat exchangers put more energy into the oil and recover more quickly, ultimately saving energy.

Recycle it. That new type of spinning fryer not only recycles excess oil, but also recycles some of the heat used to cook product. Since the fryer is closed (to keep oil from flying around the kitchen when the basket spins), it retains heat from the oil, the manufacturer says. Cook times are faster, and recovery time is faster, too, since less heat is lost as product cooks. And that—yep, you guessed it—saves energy, as much as 13%, according to the manufacturer. An added benefit, says the maker, is that product crisps even more in the moist convection heat, extending its holding time.

But manufacturers also have pulled other rabbits out of their hats in the past few years to improve efficiency, especially on gas fryers. Here are a couple more innovations.

Sit idly by. If your staff isn’t cooking, there’s no reason your fryers should be heating up your kitchen. Many models now have an idle mode so when your employees are idle, your fryers automatically shift into a lower gear, typically holding oil temperature at around 250ºF instead of 350ºF. Often, this feature gives you the option of how long you want your fryers to sit idle before they shift into energy conservation mode, say 20 mins.

Burn, baby, burn. Improved burner technology and design also has contributed to energy efficiency. One manufacturer touts its patented combination of burners and heat-transfer surfaces for its ability to recover quickly and cook at overall lower temperatures.

Another maker has a patented atmospheric burner that is up to 70% efficient without using complex power blowers, and the fryer is Energy Star qualified. A daily self-cleaning cycle keeps the burner operating at its most efficient, and the burner’s simpler design keeps service to a minimum.

Look, ma, no pilot. Many gas models now use electronic ignition, eliminating the need for a pilot light. Using less gas means lower energy costs.

One manufacturer, though, says that one of the downsides of electronic ignition systems is when used frequently they tend to wear out quickly, requiring (expensive) replacement. Using electronic ignition to light a burner also takes a little more time than lighting it with a pilot flame. So, on some models it uses a combination of the two. Electronic ignition lights a pilot flame when the unit is turned on for the first time of the day. From then on, every time the thermostat calls for more heat, the pilot lights the burners. When the unit is shut down for the day, the pilot is extinguished.

Safety First

While a lot of the changes made by the factories are designed to improve performance and/or reduce operating costs, the manufacturers also have worked on safety. Some of the energy and safety improvements, in fact, have gone hand in hand, one the logical and practical result of another.

Filter forays. In addition to making filtering easier, to encourage employees to filter more often, manufacturers have made it safer. While you can still purchase central and mobile filtering units, many fryer models now come with filtering systems built right in. Employees don’t have to hook up hoses or handle them when they’re hot.

As mentioned earlier, most systems are so simple, all employees have to do is open a drain valve and turn on a filter pump. That makes them safer, too. Employees never have to handle or move hot oil containers. Some of the filter systems include a feature that agitates the oil as it drains, essentially “washing” food particles down the drain so employees don’t have to wipe out fryer vats when they’re hot, either. And filtered hot oil is returned directly to the vat, so employees never have to touch it.

Down the drain, sound the alarm. To eliminate mistakes and ensure employee safety, one manufacturer offers models that sound an audible alarm if more than one drain valve is opened at a time. Drain valve and pump handles are recessed, too, preventing unplanned filtration.

Another manufacturer offers a drain valve interlock that prevents the ignition system from lighting the burners if oil in the fryer is being filtered.

Bring the heat—but not too much. Several models, both gas and electric, have a high temperature limit control with reset switch that trips when the unit gets too hot, so you don’t burn out elements or potentially start grease fires.

I’m melting. A common feature found on fryers now is a melt cycle for semi-solid shortening. The fryer will cycle on and off, slowly increasing temperature to about 180º F. Once the shortening liquefies, and the melt cycle ends, the fryer will bring it up to cooking temp. The cycle is automatic on most models that have the feature.

One manufacturer has included a melt cycle as part of its auto-fill feature. You can add semi-solid shortening to the unit; the melt cycle will liquefy it and add it to the hot oil in the vat as needed. That way, employees don’t run the risk of splashing hot oil by plopping shortening into the vat.

Take control. New digital electronic controllers give you the ability to customize and program cook cycles for each of your fried food items. All employees have to do is push a program button to cook fries, chicken strips, fish, etc.

Better yet, these controllers prompt employees when it’s time to filter oil and walk them through the process so they do it correctly and safely. The controllers also guide employees through other functions such as boil-outs to clean carbonized oil off the interior of the frying vat.

Beam me up, Scotty. Optional equipment like basket lifters makes frying safer for employees by automatically raising fry baskets when cook cycles are finished. That keeps employees away from fryers when baskets come out and product drains, minimizing the chances of hot oil splashing or dripping on employees and causing burns.

Another danger minimized by basket lifts is the potential to splash oil on the floor, making it dangerously slippery.

Keep a lid on it. The spinning fryer goes one better than models with standard basket lifts by spinning all the excess oil off the product while the unit’s lid is closed. When the cycle is complete and the lid unlocks, no oil can drip on employees or the floor.

Good For Customers, Too

All these new features help you control operating costs by conserving oil, saving energy or increasing employee productivity and reducing potential injury. But all these features are great for your customers, too:

Faster recovery and faster cooking. Products that cook faster absorb less oil. Customers get a two-fold benefit, a product that tastes better because the flavor isn’t masked by too much oil, and a product that’s healthier because it has less oil.

Fresher oil due to more frequent (and easier) filtering and auto-fill features. Again, you’ll see an improvement in product taste and quality because items will cook faster and will absorb fewer off flavors and odors. And foods will absorb less oil, making them healthier.

Just A Closing Thought       

Show your customers fried foods that taste better and are better for them, and you’ll increase sales. This new generation of fryers can help on both the operating-cost side and the revenue side, giving you a quick payback and more on your bottom line.

See our fryer gallery for some of the latest models.

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