There’s no coating the truth that in an industry facing pressure for profitability amid rising costs and oscillating consumer demands, delivering what the customer wants, when they want it, in a way that is both time-efficient and cost-efficient poses challenges. And when it comes to coated products, including breaded, battered and fried products, processors are working to meet consumer expectations in convenient, affordable and sometimes-healthier products while running systems that meet operational goals.

Demand for fried foods is alive and well, both in the foodservice and retail segments, and for products ranging from breakfast foods to appetizers and entrées. Old-fashioned fried chicken, for example, was a culinary darling this year, as were appetizers with an ethnic flair, like fried pepperoncini bites and fried mac-and-cheese wedges, among others.

At the same time, while fried foods remain a staple in the American diet, the issue of transfats and the perceived healthiness of oils remains on the front burner. Today’s manufacturers of fried-food products, including protein products, increasingly often must provide information and analysis related to their frying and filtration processes.

Doug Kozenski, sales manager for prepared food processing systems at Hayward, Calif.-based Heat and Control, agrees processors have gone from the proverbial fryer into the fire, in terms of balancing various marketplace demands and internal costs.

“The production of meat and poultry products is a tight margin business,” he says, pointing to one particular area of concern over the last few years. “Processors constantly strive to control production costs, and oil is a significant expense for producing a quality product.”

Oil slick

Indeed, the oil rush – in the sense that processors are rushing to find ways to keep a lid on oil costs while maintaining product quality – is on for manufacturers of frying and filtration equipment.

Filtration Automation Inc., based in Mansfield, Texas, has been working closely with processors to find solutions to their oil-related concerns. “The oil issues are pretty extensive,” reports owner Gary Haddock, adding that the challenge won’t likely go away soon, either. “The cost of oil will continue to rise,” he predicts.

Better filtration is one way to combat high oil prices by ensuring longer oil life. According to Haddock, one processor was having issues finding a filtration system that worked for them, and turned to Filtration Automation. “They had a canister-style system and were getting a three-day shelf-life out of one cycle of oil. We have almost tripled that time for them,” he reports.

At Heat and Control, Kozenski agrees that finding ways to maximize oil life remains a main driver of improvements. He reports that Heat and Control’s externally heated frying systems are designed around low oil volume, rapid oil turnover, precise temperature control and continuous filtration. “Other industries that fry very high volumes of product have long since standardized on externally heated fryers to assure consistent product quality at the lowest frying costs. High oil costs are motivating meat, poultry and prepared-food processors to adopt this technology as well,” he says.

In addition to maximizing oil life, processors with frying operations are also looking to improve the quality and consistency of their products.

While oil costs are top-of-mind among processors, so is oil quality. Haddock underscores that processors want consistency with oils for optimal product quality. “Coloration is a big issue with processors. Most want light oil, and it’s important to be able to filter extremely well at high volumes of production, to pull out color,” he says. That said, there is an occasional processor who wants a darker oil, to be used with products like meatballs.

Kozenski agrees that many meat and poultry processors are lightening up when it comes to oils. “Other fried-food processors have been using ‘lighter’ oils for years. The key is gentle oil heating, efficient filtration, proper fryer sizing with low oil volume for rapid oil turnover, and controlled oil flow for uniform heating throughout the fryer,” he explains.

Turning up the volume

Processors want frying and filtration systems that enable them to keep up with customer demand while maximizing production efficiencies. Many processors are looking for greater capacities. One of Heat and Control’s newer systems is a breaded product fryer designed to achieve higher capacity in the same space than existing direct-heated fryers.

While capacities are bigger, processors don’t want to upsize their footprint, points out Kozenski. “Another focus is modularization for quick installation, reduced floor space and lower maintenance,” he observes, adding that the company’s fryer support modules include oil filters, heat exchanger, pumps, piping and other components mounted to a compact skid to reduce piping runs and utility hook-ups. “It’s all about doing more with less,” he adds.

JBT FoodTech, Sandusky, Ohio, is also working with processors who are looking to do more frying, faster and more efficiently. That company’s Stein TFF-IV fryer is its most-recent system for high-volume frying, currently running on about 400 food processing lines worldwide. The fryer can be paired with a MicroMax filter, to maximize and optimize oil use.

Meanwhile, through its acquisition last year of Netherlands-based TS Techniek (TST), Provisur Technologies, Mokena, Ill., has bolstered its battering, breading, frying and cooking applications, including high-volume frying systems. Among other solutions, TST has developed high-capacity tunnels engineered around customized production needs and, at a time of high energy costs, energy efficiency. TST’s tunnels can be paired with oil filter and management systems, CIP systems, in-feed and out-feed conveyors and a tag reader system.

Finally, as sustainability remains an issue for manufacturers, frying and filtration systems increasingly feature components that are deemed better for the environment. Heat and Control, for example, offers a pollution control heat exchanger.

Lynn Petrak is a contributing editor based in the Chicago area.