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Carbon and Grease Woes?

Charles  Davenport
by Charles Davenport April 21, 2011


Carbon and grease are issues for all kitchens of any size as even the smallest kitchens experience carbon and grease build-up. Carbon and grease build-up occurs mainly on hood filters, sheet pans, oven racks, grills, stock pots, and sauté pans but it can occur on any stainless or aluminum surface exposed to heat and fats, oils and greases (“FOG”). Carbon and grease build-up is a problem. It can bring unwanted attention from the health inspector causing him or her to look harder at other aspects of your operation. Carbon and grease can create a negative impression with customers, especially in an open kitchen environment. Carbon and grease and can be a breeding ground for microbes. Carbon and grease choked hood filters by themselves can pose a number of problems. Improperly maintained hood filters can: (1) cause grease to back up into your kitchen and dining room and even get into your HVAC system, (2) can make your hood much more difficult to clean, and (3) can increase the risk of grease fires. Besides, they look gross!
There are essentially five options to keep carbon and grease from choking your equipment: (1) what I will call the “elbow grease” option; (2) the caustic cleaner option; (3) power soaking sinks; (4) cold water soak tanks; and (5) warm water soak tanks.

Elbow Grease
On the surface elbow grease sounds like the most economical option. Many operators tell me that they are happy cleaning their equipment with low wage workers. After all, they are already paying them and there is downtime during the course of the day where they could clean the equipment. It is possible to keep your equipment sparkling with elbow grease but it’s just not likely. First of all, the equipment has to be cleaned right away to prevent buildup. Once the carbon and grease starts layering on the equipment it becomes impossible to remove with “elbow grease.” This is especially true of aluminum equipment which is very porous and difficult to clean. Even if an operator is preternaturally diligent there is still a cost issue. Labor is not free. Time spent scrubbing pans during the day could be spent on more productive tasks. Time spent scrubbing at the end of the operating day is time that could be saved by sending the employee home. Moreover, heavy duty scrubbing uses abrasive sponges, water and degreaser. None of these items are free either. Thus, the operator who thinks “elbow grease” is the cheapest or best way to keep his or her equipment carbon and grease free really needs to carefully examine the true cost of elbow grease.

Caustic Cleaners
There are also spray-on formulas that claim to remove carbon. These products tend to be expensive and caustic. Many of you will know which product I am referring to and many of you will have tried it. I know many of my customers have. These products may be sufficient for a really small operation where carbon and grease removal is only an occasional issue, but trying to clean a large number of pans with these products is very labor intensive and costly.

Power Soak Sinks
These sinks are expensive with some costing in excess of $20,000. They also use mechanical agitation which can bang up equipment. They are not an option for most operators but may be suitable for larger institutions that have an enormous number of pots and pans. They do not remove carbon and grease buildup very well and are mostly useful for cleaning caked on food off pans. In the right environment these sinks can be useful but much of what they do could be accomplished with a regular sink and a soak tank at a fraction of the cost.

Cold Water Soak Tanks
There are only three things in the world that clean: heat, time, and agitation. Cold water tanks lack heat so they must depend on the latter two factors. Cold water tanks typically do not have any mechanical agitation so they must depend on chemical agitation. Chemical agitation is typically achieved through a higher PH cleaning product that may or may not be safe for aluminum. If you decide to go the cold water tank route please be certain that the chemical is aluminum safe or it will eat your aluminum pans. Cold water tanks also take a long time to clean because there is no heat. Heat is important because it accelerates the chemical reaction that occurs between the cleaning agents in the soak tank formula and the carbon and grease molecules stuck to your pans! Make sure you try a cold water tank before you buy one or sign up for one. Cold water tanks can be less expensive than hot water tanks because they are typically made of plastic while hot water tanks are usually made of stainless steel. They are also usually pretty inexpensive as the chemical usually only needs to be changed one per month. However, the time it takes to clean a pan is often many days.

Warm Water Soak Tanks
Warm water soak tanks cannot be matched for carbon and grease removal. We all know how well soaking a pan in warm water works; imagine soaking the same pan for hours in a warm water bath with a specially formulated carbon and grease remover! Not many chefs are familiar with these tanks but if you have a carbon and grease “issue” they are worth a look. Warm water soak tanks should be made of stainless steel. They should use a chemical safe to the touch, safe for aluminum, and be capable of removing carbon and grease at 160F. Warm water tanks usually use a mildly alkaline detergent because much of their cleaning power comes from heat and time. Warm water tanks are usually more expensive than cold water tanks because they are made of stainless steel. However, like cold water tanks they have a low cost of ownership because they can use the same chemical to clean carbon and grease all month long.

No matter what method you use I wish you the best of luck in your never ending battle with carbon and grease.

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