Like the folks at Pacific Gas & Electric’s Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif., we’re energy-neutral here at the magazine. So we were surprised to learn, anecdotally at least, that even where gas is cheaper than electricity many operators prefer electric fryers over their gas counterparts. When it came time to visit the category again we decided to focus on electric fryers and find out why.
Turns out that as good as gas fryers are, electric fryers have a few things going for them that can give them an edge in many scenarios. First, because they have no flue to carry away hot gases, electric fryers put less heat out into the work area, so employees are more comfortable. Second, less ambient heat means less of a load on the HVAC system and less demand for makeup air. And since electric fryers heat oil directly rather than heating the fry pot (happening in most, but not all gas models), they put less stress on fry pot welds and often have a longer warranty.
Perhaps the biggest reason operators often prefer electrics, though, is because so many models are so darn energy-efficient. Enough so that they often cost less to operate than gas even in areas where gas is less expensive.
They’re about to get even more efficient, too. The Environmental Protection Agency is changing its Energy Star specification for commercial fryers, effective October 1. While the change doesn’t affect large-vat open fryers (wider than 18-in. with oil capacity of more than 50 lbs.), it does change the game a bit for standard-vat fryers, which most operators typically use, banked together in multiple-vat batteries when operators need more capacity. Standard vats are typically 12-in.W to 24-in.W and carry oil capacities from 25 lb. to 65 lb., but typically fall between 35 lb. and 50 lb.
To qualify for an Energy Star label after October 1, these smaller standard fryers must be 83% efficient (up from 80% now), with an idle energy rate of 800W or less (down from 1000W presently). Specs for large-vat fryers remain the same.
Energy Star-rated or not, look for heavy-duty construction using stainless for the fry pot, not coldrolled steel. The more stainless used in the cabinet, too, the better. Some models use stainless for the front, but not sides or back. Others use stainless on three sides but not the back, and a few models use it throughout.
Heating elements in electric fryers are submerged in the oil, and come in a couple of different types. Tubular cal-rod elements are fixed in place, and can be cleaned only when the fry pot or vat has been drained.
Ribbon elements (also called “flat” or “firebar”) also may be fixed in place, but more typically tilt up out of the oil to make it easy to clean both the elements and the fry pot. One maker also designed its tilt-up elements to self-stand, so employees don’t have to hold or prop them up while cleaning the vat. Check spec sheets; some ribbon elements are sheathed in stainless, also contributing to easy cleaning.
Ribbon elements have several wires running through them, and as a result of their flat shape, present more hot surface area to the surrounding oil. Some manufacturers suggest this makes them more efficient and faster to respond to temperature changes than cal-rod elements. There isn’t much data to support this, and several cal-rod models more than meet Energy Star specs. The chief benefit, again, is ease of cleaning.
Fry pots or vats are usually measured in terms of oil capacity in pounds, but take the fry pot’s dimensions and shape into consideration when you set specs. A typical base model, small-vat fryer is 14-in.W and holds in the range of 50 lb. of oil. But fry pots may be up to 22-in.W and also may have different depths.
Wider pots give you more surface area for fried foods that tend to float—onions rings, doughnuts, tempura, etc. Deeper pots give you a larger “cold zone,” the area below the heating elements where oil can be as much as 100°F cooler than the temperature in the frying zone above the elements.
A large cold zone is a big benefit if you’re frying breaded products and products like bone-in chicken, which spends more time in the oil. These products will shed food particles—breading, etc.—as product cooks, and the cold zone gives those particles a place to collect where they won’t be scorched by the heating elements, carbonize and cause faster contamination and deterioration of your oil.
After you’ve looked at what you’re going to cook, figure out how much you’re going to cook during peak hours. That will help tell you how large a fryer, or how many, to buy. In general, fryers produce about one-and-a-half to two times their oil capacity of food per hour. In other words, a 50-lb. fryer in most circumstances can produce about 100 lb./hr. under ideal conditions.
The Other Expense
Which leads us to the other big operating expense fryers consume besides energy—oil. Oil’s biggest enemies are air, water, food particles and salt, along with chemicals, detergents, and a few other things.
Three primary chemical processes cause oil breakdown: oxidation, hydrolysis and polymerization. Air oxidizes oil, causing it to go stale. Oil and water obviously don’t mix well; water in hot oil forms acidic compounds that affect flavor and odor. And as oil begins to degrade, polymerization forms compounds that clump together, and those in turn hasten the formation of more compounds. Chemicals and detergents cause foaming and break oil down faster. And finally, heat accelerates all these processes.
You can save on cooking oil in two easy ways: extend the life of what you use, and use less. Extending oil life is easily accomplished by filtering it. Filtering used to be a messy, dangerous job, but many models now come with built-in filtering systems. Buying a fryer without some sort of automatic built-in filtering is usually a clear case of being penny-wise and pound foolish. If manual filtering is messy, hot and dangerous done incorrectly, it’s a fair assumption that it won’t get done as often as it should be. The domino effect of too infrequent filtering is bad oil, and bad oil cooks off-flavored, greasy food that your customers will not want to eat, or at least not a second time.
Keep It Low
As mentioned, most regular fryers have some sort of a cold zone, extending the life of the oil by preventing food particles from scorching and degrading it. But that zone takes up space, space filled with oil.
Low-oil volume fryers eliminate that cold-zone space (and the oil in it), so a 50-lb. fryer becomes a 35- or 40-lb. fryer. These fryers produce the same amount of food as a larger fryer, but use as much as 40% less oil.
A smaller vat with little or no cold zone, however, can spell disaster for oil quality unless one of two things happens: your dedicated and disciplined crew recognizes when it’s time to filter the oil and wheels up the filtering pump (remember the caveat above); or your fryer recognizes when it’s time to filter the oil and alerts your crew to follow a couple of easy steps.
Fortunately, the latter is true of most low-oil volume fryers these days. Manufacturers have been coming up with easier and more foolproof methods of automatically filtering oil for years, especially for this type of fryer. A couple of manufacturers make the job as easy as turning a drain valve and pushing a button to start the filtering cycle. One maker even eliminates the step of turning the drain valve—push a button, and the fryer does the rest.
Models with digital electronic controls monitor and track how many times the fryer has been filtered. Based on the cook programs entered by employees, they also track what’s been fried and the number of cook cycles, alerting the crew when it’s time to filter again.
A couple of manufacturers have made the filtering job even less messy and costly by eliminating paper filters, pads and powder, using a stainless mesh filter instead. You can run the reusable metal filter through the dishmachine to clean it.
Several makers also offer an auto-fill feature that monitors the oil level in the fry pot and automatically adds fresh oil from a reservoir into the pot. The addition of fresh oil keeps the pot level consistent for better frying and extends the life of the oil, too.
You (Or Your Fryer) Are In Control
While some less expensive base-model Energy Star-rated fryers have solid state analog controls, you can step up to digital controls, and programmable digital touchscreen controls on many models.
Less expensive models may use snap-action-type thermostats, while electronically controlled models use a more sensitive resistance-temperature-detector-type thermostat. Timers are more typical on less expensive models, again, with more elaborate models using computer programmability.
More sensitive temperature control and digital electronics have allowed manufacturers to set up algorithms in their controllers that help fryers recover faster without scorching oil or going above your set point and then cooling back down. One maker even uses exclusive “pulse” heating to deliver small doses of power to the heating elements as oil reaches its set point, rather than simply switching them on or off.
Computer-controlled fryers also offer you the ability to program and store from 10 to 40 cook cycles, depending on the model. A number of models have a USB port so you can load cook cycles into the fryer, or download monitoring information from the fryer to add to maintenance and service logs.
Little Things (That Add Value)
Makers have several other features you might want to spec. Some makers offer them as standard equipment, some as optional features.
Basket auto-lifts. Motorized lift systems automatically raise baskets out of the hot oil when the product cook cycle is complete. These auto-lifts make frying safer for employees and deliver more consistent product.
Oil reclamation ports. Large drain valves on the back of some models make it easy for you to pump used oil to oil reclamation tanks on your loading dock for collection by recyclers.
Split/full vat. Several makers offer models with the option of a full vat or split vat, which divides the vat into two separate fry pots. This feature gives you more product options, especially when you gang fryers together in a battery—split vats for French fries on one side and fish on the other to prevent flavor transfer, for example, or use full vats for fried chicken.
Melt and boil-out cycles. Most models offer at least one melt cycle (for solid shortening), and some have several so that shortenings of varying densities don’t scorch while melting. And almost all fryers now offer a boil-out mode for thorough cleaning on a regular basis.
Figure out what features you want in your price range and look for the Energy Star label; be sure to ask if the model you’re considering will meet the new Energy Star efficiency rating coming in October if that’s a must for your operation. You’ll end up with a high-efficiency fryer that will do the job while saving you money.
Fryer Gallery: Energy Star-Rated Electrics
This Energy Star-rated, 60-lb. capacity fryer’s lift-up heating element ensures easy cleaning of the fry pot. Your employees will appreciate the easy, 2-step filtering process. Included are an 8-gpm filter pump for fast refill times and an extra-large 3-in. drain spout to eliminate splashing and swivels during oil disposal. The tank is constructed of stainless while cabinet features stainless on front, door and sides. Solid-state thermostat with melt cycle and boil-out mode come standard.
Frymaster’s FilterQuick Fryer (30-lb. fry pot) with fully-automatic filtration and optional integrated Oil Quality Sensor puts caring for oil and optimizing food quality at your fingertips. The “smart” controller monitors and helps control food quality, oil and energy costs, and equipment performance. OQS monitors the health of the oil by measuring the oil’s total polar materials and advises when oil needs to be discarded—no need for guesswork. High-quality oil ensures high-quality food with optimal crispy fry results. This model is Energy Star rated.
HENNY PENNY EVOLUTION ELITE OPEN FRYER
Cooking better food with less oil—that’s the inspiration behind the Evolution Elite Open Fryer. With an oil capacity of 30 lb. per full vat, this Energy Starrated fryer uses 40% less oil than regular open fryers to produce the equivalent amount of food and lets you filter any vat any time at the touch of a button. Fast recovery, automatic oil top-off and easy-to-use controls mean you’re saving time, energy and labor with every load.
This 40-lb.-capacity electric fryer, rated by Energy Star, has a faster heat recovery and keeps kitchens cleaner compared with a gas-fired unit. Equipment highlights include a durable, stainless fry pot, front, sides, door, stub back and basket hanger, and a snap-action thermostat with a temperature range of 200°F- 400°F. The large cool zone captures food particles to improve oil life; easily remove the fine mesh crumb screen. Optional programmable computer controls are available.
Part of Pitco’s Solstice Electric Series, this 40-lb. to 50-lb. capacity, Energy Star-rated model uses fixed heating elements that come in 17kW standard or optional 22kW power levels and environmentally-friendly, mercury-free heating contactors. For precise temperature control, the fryer comes standard with a solid-state thermostat, sporting melt cycle and boil-out modes. Opt for the digital controller for additional timer capability (2 timers total), and the basket-lift system to save labor.
This Energy Star-rated fryer switches to idle mode (stand-by position) between loads or busy mealtimes, leading to substantial energy savings. The fryer automatically goes into sleep mode at 200°F after 30 min. of non-use. Another highlight of this 55-lb. capacity fryer is the user-friendly touchscreen controller that stores up to 40 programmable menus and has an oil-filtering lockout control. Resfab also offers MB-85AT, a high-volume, 85-lb. capacity model, available with ventless technology.
Holding 45 lb. of shortening, the Energy Star-rated E17-14 meets high-volume frying needs. Fast recovery shortens cooking time, allows for large loads during batch cooking and reduces shortening absorption. Computer controls (with melt cycle) ensure accurate temperature control and limit extreme temperature fluctuations. Heating elements are made of a low-watt density flat bar construction, offering even heat distribution. Vats, cabinet and carriage frame are stainless.
This model of Vulcan’s Energy Star-rated electric fryers comes with programmable computer controls—leading to accurate temperature control (200°F-390°F), multiple melt modes, boil-out mode and 10 programmable product keys. A stainless cabinet; 50-lb. capacity, stainless fry tank; and a 10-yr. limited fry tank warranty all come standard. Plus, the units come with a 1¼-in. full port ball-type drain valve and low-watt density ribbon-style heating elements.