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FER REPORT: Oil That Glitters Is Gold

Apologies to The Bard, but if commodity prices had been as high when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice as they are now, instead of pyrite or gold the Prince of Morocco would have been talking oil. Cooking oil, that is. 

Oil’s an effective cooking medium, but unlike hot air or boiling water, oil also is a food that can impart flavor (good or bad) and nutrition (good or bad) to food. Chefs and customers love it because it adds crispness and crunch to the exterior of just about anything while keeping the inside moist and tender.

Frying is one of the three principal cooking methods in restaurants along with grilling and baking. A fryer is a ubiquitous piece of equipment in commercial kitchens. French fries alone are included in about one in seven restaurant meals, according to research company NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. From fish and chips to deep-fried ice cream, fried foods complement practically any menu, so odds are you’re doing a fair amount of frying in your operation.

Because oil can be so expensive—sometimes adding almost as much to food cost as the food ingredients themselves—managing your oil from purchase through use to disposal can pay big dividends in terms of both savings and food quality.

Management 101

Everyone knows that you have to filter frying oil if you want to extend its life and maintain consistent food quality and flavor. But managing your oil means much more. A good oil management program can help you decide what type of oil to buy, when to buy it, the quantities to buy, when to filter it and when to dispose of it.

There are new tools on the market that make it easier to store, move, filter, track and dispose of oil. They range in price and sophistication to fit the needs of every kind of operation, so you really have no excuse these days for not managing your oil usage. The three primary areas to consider are how you purchase and store oil; how you maximize the life of the oil you have on hand while maintaining food quality and consistency; and when and how you dispose of oil that’s reached the end of its useful fry life.

Most of you buy oil based on its flavor profile and price. Different oils, of course, have different properties such as smoke point, shelf life, and nutritional profile in addition to the flavor they will (or won’t) impart to food. In many cases, the foods you fry may be better served by one oil over another. 

For example, you might be using a relatively inexpensive blend because it’s stable and offers decent fry life. With a good oil management program, however, you might be able to switch to an oil with a higher smoke point that cooks faster with less oil absorption and better (or no) flavor transfer. Or you might be able to switch to high-oleic or low-linolenic acid oils, both of which offer more stability than standard oils and a healthier nutrition profile. The new oil might cost more upfront, but end up costing the same or less than your old oil with good management practices.

Managing your oil use also means knowing how much oil you’re using, not guessing, so you can plan your purchases. And depending on what kind of volume you have, that may enable you to take advantage of bulk buying.

Maximizing the life of your oil also has become easier with new filtering options that not only clean oil more efficiently, but in some cases make it almost a hands-free operation, reducing the chances of slips, falls and burns. 

Simple tests can tell you when your oil has outlived its usefulness, and the same systems that help you store and filter oil can help you dispose of it, too.

Finally, there are companies that can tie all these elements together with telemetry that monitors and reports each piece of the puzzle so you know at all times where your oil stocks sit. The systems provide the information to PCs or websites, and can alert you via e-mail or text on mobile devices when something isn’t right. More on these to follow. 

Options Galore

Let’s start with purchase and storage. Depending on volume, a lot of you purchase frying oil in 35-lb. boxes and keep them in a storeroom until you change the oil in your fryers.

If your volume warrants, however, you can probably get a price break by purchasing in bulk. You can store bulk oil in tanks inside or outside your units, and tanks can be any size from about 100 gal. to 300 gal. or more. 

Three ways to transport fresh oil from tanks include an oil caddy, a remote pumping station, and direct-plumbing. You might already have an oil caddy to transport used oil to your loading dock or discarded-oil tank, in which case, it’s your least expensive option.

Remote pumping stations typically are used in large venues such as arenas or hotels where exterior fresh-oil tanks aren’t located anywhere near the kitchens. These stations allow employees to pump oil from the exterior tank to an oil caddy for transport to the fryer bank.

Direct-plumbed systems offer hands-free transport, pumping oil directly from the storage tank to your fryer vats. While more expensive, it saves labor and reduces the risk of employee burns, slips and falls from hot, spilled oil. Direct-plumbed systems also have an added advantage of being able to monitor a fryer vat’s fill level to automatically add oil when needed. 

Another bulk option is a box and rack system. You purchase oil in standard 35-lb. containers. The rack system holds some unopened in storage. To feed the fryer vats, you uncap boxes, screw a hose coupler to the opening and place the boxes upside down in the top rack. The hose couplers connect to a line built into the edge of the rack, and oil can be pumped from the rack directly to the fryer vats or into an oil caddy for transport. By draining boxes upside down, the maker says you get every last drop, typically a 10% increase in yield. That adds up.

Keep It Clean

The next step in managing your oil is keeping it clean. Filtering it regularly will extend the life of your oil, saving you money. But even filtering oil often won’t do much good if employees aren’t trained to do it right. Work with your suppliers to find out which filtration media is right for your application, when you should polish (use filter powder to actively filter out protein and other contaminants) as well as filter your oil, and when and how to thoroughly clean or boil out your fryer vats instead of the cursory cleaning employees do when filtering oil (see accompanying story, All About Oil).

Here you get to play Goldilocks and choose which of three basic set-ups are best for your operation. Least expensive and most common is a mobile filtration unit that you wheel up to each fryer. Often these can double as oil caddies, giving you a way to transport either fresh oil from a tank or pumping station to a fryer, or used oil to a disposal tank or receptacle. 

This also is potentially the messiest of the three methods unless employees are careful. If you choose this route, be sure the unit you spec is up to the task. Some mobile filtration units don’t have very powerful pumps and can burn out when removing a lot of sediment through a very fine filter.

Standalone or inline filtration units are designed to be situated adjacent to the bank of fryers. Disadvantages of these units are that they take up space you may need for another piece of equipment, and they can’t simply be wheeled to a new location if you rearrange your cooking line. Another option are unit that filter from the top of the oil using suction to pull oil through (an accordion filter) instead of gravity. 

Many manufacturers now build filtration units into their fryers as a standard addition or as an option. This can be an advantage, especially if you decide to use a direct-plumbed fresh and waste oil system (more in a moment). But the disadvantage of these units is that they often don’t accommodate all types of filtration media (most are steel-mesh filters, while some also allow you to use a fabric filter), and they can’t polish oil. They also may be underpowered compared to a mobile or standalone filter unit.

Disposal

Used frying oil is no longer waste or trash. The market for bio-diesel fuel continues to grow and used cooking oil is the perfect feedstock for fuel producers. Many oil suppliers also will collect used oil if you have a storage tank and will give you a credit toward your next fresh oil purchase. Or you can negotiate directly with a waste oil collection service. 

You should regularly test the oil in your fryers to get maximum use from it and know when it’s time to change it out. Use an accurate testing method such as chemical test strips or a bi-metal sensor that measures TPM (again, see story). Don’t let employees make judgment calls or you may be wasting good oil or cooking in overused oil.

As mentioned earlier, you can transport used oil to storage tanks (located inside or outside the facility) with oil caddies directly into the tank, with oil caddies through a pumping station, or with a direct-plumbed system. 

Direct-plumbed systems are the safest and least messy since employees never have to do more than flip a switch to drain used oil from a fryer and pump it into a disposal tank. But these systems also are the most expensive of the three options.

There are several companies that provide turnkey oil management on a national basis, but there also are myriad local outfits. If you’re a national chain, you might want the simplicity and convenience of dealing with one oil management provider or you might find it pays to do some homework (comparing cost, reputation, responsiveness) to determine if a local company suits in certain municipalities. 

All Together Now

What some companies now are doing to make oil management simpler and more automated is adding sensors and telemetry to different pieces of these systems. Providers of direct-plumbed bulk fresh oil systems, for example, can measure the amount of fresh oil you’re using.

When fryers with built-in filtration are part of the system, they can monitor how frequently employees are filtering oil and send out alerts when it isn’t being done on schedule. 

And the systems also can meter the amount of waste oil going into the disposal tank for accurate records of credits you should receive. The data also tells you how much oil you’re “losing” through absorption so you can adjust filtering schedules, cooking procedures, the type of oil you’re using or even product recipes.

Alerts can be e-mailed to your computer or mobile device or upload to a website. You can even have an alert sent to your oil supplier and/or recycler to replenish the bulk fresh oil supply or collect waste oil from a full tank.

One other note is that all of these products and services are available through a couple of different business models. Some companies will provide fresh bulk oil and waste oil tanks free of charge and plumb them to your fryers in exchange for supplying your oil, in essence leasing you the equipment. 

The advantage is that this type of system is highly automated so you and employees have virtually no hands-on contact with frying oil. The disadvantage is that you have to use the oil they supply, and while they may have an adequate selection for most operations, they might not offer an oil or oil blend that’s best suited for your application. 

Other companies provide equipment, systems and services on an a-la-carte basis. You buy only what you need or want. For example, you can buy a bulk fresh-oil tank and have it plumbed directly to your fryer vats, but purchase oil from whatever supplier you want.

Finally, if you do choose to purchase and own your equipment rather than lease it, always check warranties and service networks in the event something does wrong. We know of one filter manufacturer, for example, that offers a lifetime warranty on its equipment. That alone might be worth the price of admission. And with apologies once more to the Bard, oil’s well that ends well.

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FER REPORT: All About Oil

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