It's almost that time of year again where the temperatures drop! Throughout the US, food production facilities and shipping trucks will be colder in the coming months.
In the wintertime, how you handle your olive oil may have to be very different. Picture for a moment: it's February, your production is about to start and you pull out your tote of olive oil that arrived last week. You attach the dispensing pump and nothing happens -- no oil flows, and you can't get anything to come out. You look inside and see your oil is completely solid, like cold butter. Now what?!
This is an all-too-real situation that happens to lots food manufacturers using bulk olive oil. Any manufacturer that has a cool warehouse in the winter or is located in the northern half of the US can expect to have this happen at some point! The best thing you can do? Prepare and know your options.
First, Bulk olive oil solidifies
The solidification process (the slow freezing of oil molecules) can happen anywhere it's cold: in your suppliers' warehouse or during transport, as it's being shipped across the country in zero degree temperatures. It may also happen in your own warehouse after a few days of storage, if it's cold during the day or overnight.
First, the olive oil may appear thick and "gloopy". Or you may see white clouds that shift throughout the oil. Next, it will transform to the consistency of soft butter. Then hard butter. Once you notice the oil has solidified, the question becomes, "What do I need to do to turn this oil back into a liquid so it can be used?" And, "How long will it take?"
The answers all depend on a number of factors, the primary ones being the temperature of your warehouse, as well as how the air circulates around your space. It also depends on what mechanisms you have on hand to heat the packaging.
Steps to defrost the oil
If you need to defrost your olive oil, follow these steps:
1. Choose a room that is small enough to be heated at a reasonable temperature. Ideally, you can build a small enclosed area, or you can use a small room that is capable of being heated to 80-90 degrees.
2. Turn on a fan that is pointed towards the packaging. As the space heats up and the packaging (like drums or totes) begin to defrost the area closet to the packaging will stay cold and the places near the heater will stay warm. If you mix that air up by pointing a fan on it this will speed up the process significantly.
3. If a heated room is not available, keep it where it is in the warehouse. You will need to plan for more time to allow the oil to slowly melt. If the warehouse it is completely unheated and you live in a cool part of the country then it will stay solid longer.
4. If you are buying drums, you can use drum heaters, which are bands of heat that secure around the drums and slowly melt the oil. Often used for coconut and palm oil, these are also good for cold olive oil.
5. If the packaging is small enough (like 35 Lb. Containers or 1 Gallon Jugs) you can also do a hot water bath. All you need to do is fill the sink up with hot water, put the packaging in, wait an hour, and there you go!
How long Does It Take?
The next big thing you will want to know is if the oil will be able to be defrosted in time to use it in your next production run.
There are lots of factors at play that will play a part in how long it takes to defrost: size, air flow, and material of the packaging being used, how frozen solid the oil is, how much air circulation is in the room, and how hot the room can be heated.
The following information on defrost times by packaging size will give you a good idea to start with. As you can see, there are too many factors to be able to provide specific guidance, so the below is a rough estimation from our production manager.
IBC Totes take 1 day to defrost in a heated room. Without a heated room, you will be looking at 2-3 days without any additional heat in an open warehouse.
Cardboard works as insulation so these totes take longer to melt. Expect at least 2-3 days in a heated room with a fan, or 4-7 days in a warehouse.
This can take 1 day (at the most) to defrost in a heated room or with drum heaters attached.
35 Lb. Container
When placed in a warm room with a fan plan for 1-3 days to defrost. The air between the container and the cardboard box stays cool and acts as insulation, so this packaging can take longer. The best way to speed up this process is to take the jug out of the cardboard and put it in a hot water bath. This should speed up the melting time to only 1-2 hours.
Quality Assurance Concerns
Good news: this freezing and solidifying process doesn't affect the quality of the olive oil one bit. It will turn back into the same olive oil when it liquifies again.
Did you know that freezing olive oil can also help extend the shelf life by minimizing oxidation and exposure to air?
If you are defrosting Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the microscopic olive particles floating in the oil can sometimes drop to the bottom of the container during the defrosting process. Be aware that if there is any cloudiness at the bottom of your containers, a simple stir will reincorporate those particles quite nicely.
Being Sure To Plan Ahead
Because you can expect your olive oil to solidify in the wintertime, it's even more important to plan far ahead in the winter months when you are buying your oil. Use the defrosting timeframes above and don't forget that trucks are often delayed due to weather.
During this time, always plan further ahead if you can: 3-4 weeks is a pretty good lead time to keep in mind.