(or, "It Came From The Fryalator")

Restaurant and Foodservice Utilization of Frying Machines

"A big vat of boiling, nasty grease that any breaded food or object can be fried in... i.e. chicken, cheese sticks, onion rings, oreos, pickles, ice cream, liver, shoes, toy poodles, condoms, your mom, the Farkland (sic) Islands, ANYTHING."

Yo Jerri Dee, go throw a fewa dem dere hogs feet in da fryalator fo suppah, bitch.

— definition of "Fryalator" from The Urban Dictionary

Deep Fried Foods From a Food-Service Business Perspective

The term "Frialator" is a trademark of the Pitco-Welbilt Corporation. Someone else has the trademark on "Fryalator." But the use of the "y" (the popular spelling) makes clear the use of the so-named piece of restaurant equipment. It's a machine with a gas or electric heating device capable of creating a temperature that rivals Beelzebub's inferno, atop which sits a vat which typically contains about five to eight gallons of some sort of oil or grease. Baskets dangle from hangers, the baskets are used to lower the foodstuffs to be cooked into the hot oil, and retrieve them once cooked. A temperature control keeps the oil from smoking and spontaneously igniting (a leading cause of restaurant fires in the U.S., second only to over-stove exhaust-duct grease fires). The frying machine has evolved from a (sweltering) huge pot on a specially-built gas stove to the gleaming, stainless-steel, computerized jobs, attached sometimes four-in-line, with automatic timers, automatic grease filtration devices, and all manner of safety and efficiency innovations. These new machines also squeeze every bit of energy out of the gas or electricity they're fired with, and are designed to generate less ambient heat, thus making the kitchens they're housed in just a bit more comfortable for their operators.
 

Historical Figures in Frying

Colonel Harland Sanders and Sylvia Woods don't have much in common. Sanders was an entrepreneur who long ago shuffled off this mortal coil, but his memory is kept alive by the thousands of Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets (now officially called "KFC") that dot the land. The image of the Colonel is of a stately mustachioed Southern (white) gentleman, replete with wide-brimmed hat, white jacket and fancy black tie — the ends hanging down making it a "Plantation Tie" thanks to XWiz for aiding with research — the archetypal plantation-owner. His image has been over the years stylized to reduce the stark reality that it evokes, for some, all that was bad about the deep south during the era before emancipation. Ms. Woods, on the other hand, is the real, live heart and soul (pardon the pun) behind one of New York City's most famous restaurants and arguably the most famous soul food restaurant in the world. Sylvia grew up when people of color were referred to (and referred to themselves as) negroes. She hates to talk about the subject, but is on record as choosing "black" to describe her race. Sylvia Woods, ever humble and polite to a fault (she wouldn't ask the next-door business to sell to her so she could expand, because she thought it impolite to ask a family-owned (dry cleaning) business which had living quarters upstairs to sell - her son pushed her into asking and they sold to her, gleefully - she didn't realize that perhaps they'd want to rid themselves of their marginally-profitable business on Harlem's Lenox Avenue).

But what these two individuals of historical note do have in common is a splendid beginning to this tidbit of information about where deep-fried foods have been and where they're going. Both started working and then owning luncheonettes. Both offered fried chicken, with a delightful, secret coating, fried up in grease in a cast iron skillet. Both longed for something, well, more, something different to farther distinguish their fried chicken from anyone else's.

Somewhere in Sylvia's restaurant, just hangin' around, is one of her first cast iron frying pans. At the Kentucky Fried Chicken museum at the company's restaurant services headquarters, one can still see one of Harland Sanders's old pressure cookers. (The "secret" behind the juiciness of Kentucky Fried Chicken is that it's fried under pressure.) Restaurant lore is filled with stories of horrible disfigurement and death by "exploding pressure fryers." God bless Colonel Sanders for being the first person to dare to put a quart or so of grease in a pressure cooker and fire it up to about 350 degrees fahrenheit. Now hold those thoughts.
 

The World of Deep-Fried Foods

Let's examine (by no means completely) the myriad ways food-frying is applied across popular cuisines:

New England: clam fritters, corn fritters, fried clam strips, fried whole-belly clams, crab cakes, fish cakes, apple fritters, blueberry fritters. UPDATE 1/21/07: The lovely Angela chimed in recommending the "Lobster Hut" in Plymouth, Massachusetts and added to my list "clam cakes, squash fritters, apple cider donuts, fried slabs of cod for sandwiches, fishaman's platter..oh god, fried oysters, butterfly shrimp, fried scallops...".

New York "Italian": fried pizza dough (with powdered sugar atop), some restaurants deep fry their meatballs for expeditious service of spaghetti & meatballs with sauce; same goes for Italian Sausage and Eggplant or Chicken Parmagiana.

Southern United States (but now country-wide) kit reminded me not to use "Southern America" 'cause we're talking about two continents, here, and some people might get upset : Fried Chicken, Chicken Fried Steak, Fried Catfish (put on a roll with coleslaw becoming a "Po' Boy Sandwich")UPDATE 1/22/07: thanks to grundoon for: Hush Puppies, bacon-fat saturated morsels of goodness made of corn meal; and quite often an accompaniment to the catfish. UPDATE 1/24/07: kidcharlemagne mentioned that another Southern delight must be mentioned: fried okra; alongside that it occurred to me that Fried Green Tomatoes must also be included. Take out the Fried Green Tomatoes; they're fried one-side-at-a-time, usually.

Buffalo, New York: Buffalo Wings (spicy chicken wings that're served with blue cheese dressing and celery sticks, don't in Heaven's name ask me why).

New Orleans, Louisiana: beignets (the best "donuts" you've ever had in your life) served with dark, chicory-laced Cafe au Lait. Fried Crawfish or Fried Shrimp.

Chain Restaurants: Fried (breaded) Mozzarella sticks, Curly Fries, Jalapeno "Poppers" (cheese-stuffed breaded Jalapenos), Chicken Wings, Chicken McNuggets, Chicken "Tenders."

Bad diners deep-fry hot dogs (but they're oh-so-good!), deep-fried pork breakfast sausage, deep-fried bread chunks (croutons for salad) (eeeewww!),

Chinese Restaurants: put nearly everything "chunky" or "large" (not cut up into bits) in the fryalator. Chicken chunks for General Tso's Chicken, spare ribs, egg rolls, spring rolls, crab "Rangoon," Fried Shrimp, "boneless" spare ribs (red roast pork), chicken wings, chicken fingers, won-tons, the neighborhood cats (just kidding, to see if you're still paying attention).

Jamaican Restaurants: fried Plantains and the infamous and myriad-variety Meat Pies.

Beside the delightful tempura, the frying equipment in Japanese Restaurants (in America) occasionally issues forth a peculiar delight: deep-fried ice cream. This is created by making small "blocks" about 2" x 2" x 4" of ice cream and covering the outsides with either pound cake slices (or in some cases, crust-removed white bread). These items are then frozen to a very, very cold temperature. When the deep-fried ice cream (sometimes called on the menu "Fire of Love") is called for, the tempura chef dips the frozen, bread-covered ice cream bricks in tempura batter and quickly browns the batter. The result is plated, covered with 151-proof (like gasoline) rum, and ignited. The blue flame is intriguing, until one discovers that occasionally a bit of the 151 hasn't gone out and is burning invisibly. Ouch! is the least of it; this flamboyant dessert has been responsible for igniting more than one hairspray-laden bouffant coiffure. Typically, however, the flame subsides as the dessert is cut in halves and plated for two diners or more. This dessert has also been enjoyed by kit in Mexican restaurants, coated with sugar and cornflakes.

One item never made in a fryalator: the French Restaurant delight Pommes Frites Souffle wherefrom our awful French Fries derived their name (no relation, any way, shape or form beside the fact that both dishes utilize potatoes as a base).

All Over The Place: French Fries, Steak-Fries, Curly Fries, Fried Potato Skins (with sour cream and bacon, of course). The Idaho Potato Industry brings us: over 500 different styles of "enhanced" French Fries, "Tater Tots" (tiny cylinders of ground potato, pre-fried and frozen, ready-to-refry), McDonald's "Hash Browns" (nothing like real, skillet-cooked shredded potatoes with onions and peppers; simply patty-formed Tater Tot materal), McDonald's "Apple Pie" (now baked, for healthy consumption — the fried ones had myriad bubbles on the dough and were a guilty pleasure - the baked ones have a crust that's tough and similar in taste and texture to cardboard).

Doughnuts and crullers deserve their own corner of this list. The "Krispy Kreme" chain actually lets you see the tremendous vats of hot oil that these things are tumbled around in, and view the cloyingly-sweet glaze drip all over doughnuts (and conveyor belt).

Potato Chips, had been left off of this list by the writer, thankfully Jack chimed in "Saratoga, New York — a chef at one of the old hotels in town made them when one of his customers complained that his potatoes were undercooked — he was expecting them to be inedible. Once they got popular they were called "Saratoga Chips".

All of the aforementioned foods have been enjoyed by this writer at one time or another, against the advice of his physician and most of the medical community in general; not to mention against the advice of myriad food police he's either befriended, acquainted with, or related to.

One must realize that deep-fried foods are here to stay, so how, we must ask, will the food industry spin the public perception of fried foods from "bad" to "good" (or more like "alright")?
 

Oil for Frying: Better Living Through Chemistry

Years ago, hydrogenated shortening was all the rage, especially in the fast food business. It's much easier to handle than liquid oil, and damage in transit doesn't mean that the shipper must return the whole darned pallet of packages. However, hydrogenated fats (like Crisco brand shortening) are bad, bad, bad for you*. The big buzz-words these days are "trans-fats" and "triglycerides." The first being humongous molecules of fat guaranteed to raise your body's level of the second, resulting in an arterial blockage that not even Super-Duper Industrial-Strength Drano can rectify. The U.S. government has mandated that oil products' nutrition facts labeling indicate the amount of "trans-fatty acids" present in the product. Trans-fatty acids have been shown to be carcinogenic to laboratory animals (in hundreds of times the amount that any normal human would consume — except that "Super Size Me" guy, maybe).

*The best example of what seemed to be a good (greasy) thing gone wrong is margarine. Margarine is butter-flavored, partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Margarine started out as a cheaper alternative to butter. The first margarine was simply a wax-wrapped block of vegetable shortening which came along with a capsule of yellow coloring that the housewife had to tediously insinuate into the white substance, thereby emulating the "look" of butter. The margarine craze was started when the "butter can give you a heart attack" theory came out. That backfired. Now, progressive companies are manufacturing what health-food enthusiasts have been making for many years; "Better Butter," butter and olive oil (known for its cholesterol-reducing properties) are blended together, salted and used as butter would be. But what about Julia Child, perhaps America's most popular butter proponent, who ate it every day of her life, drank up a storm, and yet lived into her nineties?!

The food science involved in what prolonged exposure to high heat actually does to fat molecules is beyond the scope of this writeup. Suffice it to say that the longer oil is heated, the longer and bigger the fat molecules in the oil become (not as a rule; but usually). So by the time the neighborhood diner's used their oil until it's last day (usually day 5) those partaking of foods cooked in their fryalator are just begging for a heart attack. The most obvious and simple barometer for oil quality is the oil's color. Black oil = danger. Dark amber-colored oil = on it's way out. Light-amber colored oil is fine; and clear or light yellow oil is brand-new.

By lowering (or in the case of FryMax ZT, a commercial frying product, eliminating) the trans-fatty acid content of a frying oil, the restaurateur can display all over the place "come here and enjoy fried foods without the guilt." Frito-Lay now has a line of snacks cooked in oils low in trans-fatty acids (typically refined corn oil). Whether or not they'll be a flash in the pan (pardon the pun) on the snack-food scene is yet to be seen. (Remember the "low-carb" craze? The Atkins line of low-carbohydrate snacks was overpriced and under-portioned. It flopped, big-time, and has lost valuable supermarket shelf-space like crazy.)

There are chemical additives to oils which assist the precipitation of distasteful and harmful substances (mostly carbon) to the bottom of the fryalator. There are oils with enhanced temperature-endurance characteristics so as to foil careless employees who do not control oil temperature properly, or who incorrectly set thermostatic cooking controls.

Finally, when all is said and done, there are myriad filtration devices offered on the market which claim to (and do) extend the usable life of frying oil. Simple filtration devices are merely fine metal screens through which oil is either poured or pumped under pressure, so as to remove the carbon which mars the color and wreaks havoc with the flavor of fried foods. Paper one-use filters require a pressure-pump. This means turning off the frying equipment, dumping the oil into a bucket with filter and pump attached, and pumping the oil back into the frying equipment. The height of filtration technology utilizes both paper filters and a slurry made from cellulose and other materials. This system is capable of rendering dark-brown oil which has been used in heavy-duty conditions back to a useable light amber color in one pass through the filter. Only high-production frying situations realize cost savings in these situations, because the filters and slurry cost money, the equipment costs money, and the pumps capable of achieving the necessary pressure to achieve rapid filtration use a lot of energy.

The Chinese utilize perhaps the smartest, cheapest way of all to manage oil lifespan and cook in the healthiest way possible for their patrons. At the end of each mealtime, the frying machines are turned off, one-at-a-time, and the oil drained into a large pot. The huge pots sit, covered, for a day. By that time, the top-most portion of the oil is light amber colored, devoid of the heavier, harmful fat molecules, which have precipitated to the bottom of the pot along with harmful carbons. One-third of this pot's contents are returned to the frying equipment, along with some of the "clean" (precipitated) oil from yet another pot. To make up for the darker oil and black sludge that remains, and is thrown out, one of the frying units (along with a wok, for thinly-coated delicacies) is filled with brand-new oil. So there's always a machine with brand-new oil, and a machine with used, but serviceable oil in process, along with two pots taking their sweet time to cool and precipitate. Patience is a frugal virtue.
 

Equipment from Economy-model to Super-Ultra Deluxe

A convenience store owner who is located near a college may want to capitalize on the fact that he stays open 24 hours and the local fast-food places close. So for only about $500, he can pick up a counter-top model frying machine which holds just a few quarts of oil, and fry all manner of snacks for munchies-plagued pot smokers or just plain starved students. These things are more than likely powered by electricity and are a pain in the neck to clean properly.

The most common model of fryalator is a stand-alone model, fired by gas, which accommodates about five gallons of oil. The size of the unit is about 3' high by 2' wide by 3 1/2' deep. The machine includes two metal-wire baskets within which the food is fried and lifted out of the oil to hang and drain. The oil container itself is not flat-bottomed; e.g., the heat doesn't come from the bottom, like it does from a fire under a skillet or pot of oil. Instead, the flames burn through cylinders welded into the bottom of the oil container, effectively heating the oil in the topmost part of the unit to a higher temperature than the portion of the vat under the cylinders. This way the carcinogenic carbon particles and other nasties (the huge, used-up oil molecules) precipitate to the cooler, lower part of the vat until they're drained out during cleaning. Baffles (pieces of perforated metal) are often welded inside of the fire cylinders; so as to add to the efficiency of the unit by concentrating the heat under the oil, and letting less heat escape out of the flue (the "chimney," if you will, where the by-products of burning propane or natural gas get emitted into a range hood exhaust fan and into the outside atmosphere).

Modern fryalators are equipped with safety devices, one is a thermocouple which senses if the fire is somehow blown out, and prohibits the flow of gas without the pilot light being lit. The second is a fail-safe, secondary thermostat (the first thermostat merely controls temperature setting and on/off function). The secondary thermostat cuts off the flow of gas to the machine altogether if a high-temperature limit is reached (usually 450 degrees). This prevents spontaneous ignition of the over-temperature oil in the vat, resulting in a fire that makes burning gasoline look like child's play, and most certainly trips the required automatic fire extinguishers in the hoods above (which means a day's cleanup and a wait to have the extinguisher tanks recharged). A grease fire is not only a good way to ruin one's day; it can burn up a restaurant, if uncontrolled, in fifteen minutes time. The ensuing panic experienced by untrained employees adds to the danger, as they may attempt to control the flames by using substances which only spread the burning grease around. I have personally watched helplessly as three employees were seriously burned by grease flames when they defied my insistence that they leave the kitchen so I could get in myself to use a proper (type "K") fire extinguisher to put out the fire. UPDATE: 1/21/07 riverrun messaged he was "curious about why there aren't *hundreds* of kitchen fires daily." The answer is that there are quite a few. That's why liability insurance is so extremely high in the restaurant business. It's the combination of unintentional and, sadly, intentional fires (the source of which is hard to pinpoint even by seasoned fire investigators). Small flare-ups happen all the time; nothing that a well-placed handful of salt or baking powder can't extinguish. The biggest problem, from personal experience, is when you get non-professionals (kids, usually) in the kitchen who aren't properly trained in safety. A peculiar form of what some may call common sense impels some folks to pour water on any fire. Water is the worst, worst, thing to put on any kitchen-related fire (unless your paper towel roll is going up in flames). The most astounding thing I ever saw in this business was a college-educated young man drop a handful of ice-cubes into a frialator (and ran). The ice cracked and boiling oil fulminated and overflowed the fry-pot. The steam alone burnt a nearby cook to the extent he had to go to the emergency room. I suggested that he be charged with assault, but the owner of the restaurant decided against it. I notified the restaurant the next day that I'd no longer be providing public relations and promotional services to them.

The "Rolls-Royces" of the frying industry are typically all connected together in a huge line, sometimes six at a time. In the middle of the whole affair is a pumping device and a tank which accommodates as much oil as a single one of the fryers. These machines are connected by valves to the tank, which also contains a filtration system. Typically, the filtration takes place several times a day, with the filter being emptied of myriad bits and other by-products of frying (including stuff like errant, incinerated french fries which somehow jumped out of the fry baskets). The finest machines make it easier on the operator to filter, either automatically or semi-automatically, so that lazy employees who try to get out of the normally tedious job of filtering and discarding scalding-hot greasy by-product are circumvented. Atop these machines are usually timers attached to temperature sensors in the oil containers, which measure the heat loss (difference between two full baskets of frozen french fries and a half-basket of frozen french fries) and make sure the end product comes out consistently perfect every time. Typically a button is pre-set for all manner of food to be fried.

The Fryalator's Achilles Heel

Oh, I forgot to tell you, despite modern technology being what it is, there is, as far as I know, no machine yet manufactured which senses whether or not there's oil in the vat (made of welded cast iron, steel or alloy). What with the cast-iron or steel vat and the stainless steel skin and all the dangers involved, wouldn't you think that a Fryalator would be indestructible. Er, no. Now, some frying machines cost upwards of $5,000 USD. If you have a nincompoop in the kitchen who fails to read the bright red warning sign "fill to proper level with melted shortening or liquid oil before turning on fire" (typically on the door, at the same level as the on/off/temperature knob) and the moron fires up an empty pot, a sickening creak (occasionally accompanied by a loud pop) will issue forth from the violated, dry machine. There are two alternative ways of repairing a leaky, cracked pot; replacement of the entire machine or careful, skilled welding (the latter seriously compromising the useable lifespan of the equipment, nonetheless). On a (slightly) smaller dollar scale, starting your Fryalator without oil inside is just like starting your car without motor oil in the crankcase!
 

Where Fried Foods Are Going

The 2007 Restaurants and Institutions Magazine Diner Research Study surveyed over 3,000 respondents and discovered that value, service, and indulgence were on the top of the list of customer requirements of a dining-out experience. A mere 13% responded that health-conscious choices would be a priority when dining out. So I guess trans-fats are here to stay, until modern science makes a successful attempt at allowing us to have our deep-fried twinkies and eat them, too.
 

Postscript

The inquisitive reader may be interested in knowing the evolution of frying in the case of the two individuals mentioned hereinabove as examples of, for lack of a better word, "millionaires by frying." Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants now are equipped with top-of-the-line, fail-safe frying devices capacious enough to thoroughly render an entire roost full of frying birds ready-to-eat in a matter of 15 minutes time. Temperature and pressure are computer-chip controlled and double-back-up sensors are wired like a veritable nervous system throughout these miracles of food-service technology.

The promoters of Sylvia's restaurant, on the other hand, would be delighted to have the public believe that in the kitchen, legions of cooks are busy with cast iron skillets frying the chicken one side at a time, the old-fashioned way. I'd hazard an educated guess (through personal experience with the delightful personality of Ms. Woods) that Sylvia, being a good Christian woman, wouldn't lie and would explain that they indeed are equipped with some of these new-fangled frying machines. A trip to the restroom at Sylvia's on Lenox Avenue in Harlem will prove to the observant eye gazing into the kitchen, that indeed there are fryalators installed therein. Now, I don't know if the chicken ends up therein, or if they're just used to fry other items which are not so critical.

SOURCES:

  • The Urban Dictionary: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Fryalator (accessed 1/19/06)

  • Kentucky Fried Chicken: The Pressure Cooker http://www.kfc.com/about/pressure.asp (accessed 1/19/06)

  • Frialator, Inc. (purveyor of frying equipment in the U.K. and Europe http://www.frialator.co.uk/ (accessed 1/19/06)

  • Frymaster (an Enodis Company) http://www.frymaster.com/ (accessed 1/19/06) and their "Fit Frying Whitepaper" http://www.frymaster.com/docs/uploaded/fry/pdfs/Executive_article.pdf (accessed 1/20/06)

  • Commercial Appliance Corp. (information about Pitco Frialators) http://www.commappl.com/ (accessed 1/20/06)

  • Article about Sylvia's Restaurant: http://www.harlemlive.org/community/bidness/sylvias/index.html (accessed 1/20/06)

  • "Successful Strategies: ACH Food Companies Inc. wants to continue to transform itself from a commodity business to a provider of branded products." By Staci Davidson, Food and Drink Magazine, March, 2005.

  • Various issues of Restaurant Hospitality Magazine.

  • Various issues of Food ArtsMagazine.

  • Having greasy hands and returning home most nights early (and now again late) in my restaurant career and showering for an hour to get the grease-stench outta my hair.

Sylvia's is a trademark of Sylvia's Restaurant. Kentucky Fried Chicken and KFC are trademarks of Yum! Brands Incorporated, of which KFC is a wholly-owned subsidiary. McDonald's is a trademark of McDonald's Corporation.

If one arrives early enough at Sylvia's, park your car on the sidewalk, that is, across the sidewalk, to avoid the exorbitant price of parking in the public lot two blocks away. Should one be lucky enough to find the gates to the side-yard open, back in; a $20 given to any of the large men who run up inquiring what you're doing with your car, accompanied by the admonition "ask the guys to watch my ride on their cigarette breaks" is the coolest thing in the world to do to impress guests, along with costing just about as much as the parking would be elsewhere in the neighborhood. And you won't get your hood ornament stolen.

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