Keepers of the Oil: The Science of Fried

Freeze a Twinkie. Skewer it, batter it, and dip it in the fryer. Instantly, hot oil performs its chemical baptism. Water vaporizes. Starch gelatinizes. Crust caramelizes. Spongecake puffs into an airy pillow; cream filling melts to vanilla ooze.

The fried Twinkie, an ode to oily excess. (Photo by Rachel E. Gross)

The glory that is the fried Twinkie. (Photo by Rachel E. Gross)

Larry Fyfe will not wait in line. But for 45 years, he’s made his living off people willing to wait in his lines. Fyfe runs four concession stands at the Iowa State Fair, most of which specialize in deep-fried foods on sticks. In 1999, Fyfe introduced the hordes to fried Twinkies. This year he served up nearly 10,000 fried Oreos. “I’m glad people aren’t like me,” Fyfe says. “I won’t stand in line for anything.”

This August, more than a million Americans descended upon the fair. From 9 a.m. until midnight, they endured blazing Midwestern sun, barnyard smells, and Rihanna playing on a loop in order to obtain their prize: snack foods cloaked in greasy golden robes, held aloft for all to see. For a vendor as popular as Fyfe, such a situation demands complete efficiency. Deep-frying is “quick and quality, the most important things in this business,” Fyfe says. The reason? Science.

No liquid cooks faster than oil, says Brian Farkas, head of food science at Purdue University. First off, it’s dense, meaning it packs more energy. Secondly, unlike water, oil doesn’t boil. It heats and heats, reaching almost double the temperature of water’s boiling point of 212 °F.

The larger the temperature difference between the cooking medium and the thing being cooked, the faster the latter cooks. That’s why deep-frying a turkey takes 30 minutes, whereas in a conventional oven, the same feat takes hours. Twinkies cook in three-and-a-half minutes. Oreos take about two. “It really is all physics and heat transfer,” Farkas says.

Yet frying is more than hot and fast. It’s a profound chemical transformation, says Farkas, who has been researching frying since 1989. Foods enter oil naked and raw, and emerge transformed. “It’s incredibly complicated, and it’s beautiful what it results in,” Farkas says.

At Fyfe's Concessions, the congregation awaits. (Photo by Rachel E. Gross)

At Fyfe’s Concessions, the congregation awaits. (Photo by Rachel E. Gross)

When oil meets Twinkie, it vaporizes water in the dough, sending out millions of tiny bubbles that float to the surface, sizzle, and pop. The dough dries into a protective crust that seals in innards, keeping them juicy and intact.

On the surface, heat triggers that culinary process most beloved by chefs: the Maillard browning reaction. In Maillard browning, sugars fuse with proteins to create the golden-brown color and toasty notes integral to bread, chocolate, and fried chicken—“some of the most delicious flavors known to man,” says Keith Harris, a professor of food science at North Carolina State University.

If anyone knows the transformative power of deep-frying, it’s Abel Gonzales, Jr. In 1999, Gonzales worked nine to five as a programmer and database analyst in Texas. Today he works three weeks out of the year at the Texas State Fair, and judges the Destination America TV show Deep Fried Masters. Media outlets christen him “the high priest of frying,” “King of the Deep Fryer,” and “Fried Jesus.”

During his reign, he has conjured up such masterpieces as fried jambalaya, fried pizza, fried Coke, and fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches. But in 2009, he outdid himself. It came to him in a vision: fried butter. “I was just like, this has to happen,” he says. “I mean, frying a fat in a fat? Who wouldn’t want to try that?”

Inspired by the concept of butter melting on toast, he began dropping dough-wrapped balls in the fryer. For weeks, he taste-tested charred and bitter iterations. “Blegh,” he recalls. Eventually he hit upon it: a crisp shell that, when bitten, released a fountain of liquid butter. Holy crap, Gonzales thought. That’s perfect. The judges of the frying competition The Big Tex Choice Awards agreed, awarding him the title of “Most Creative.”

Frying butter was Gonzales’ pride and joy, the ultimate feat in fried. But fairgoers demand novelty; the trick is to keep evolving. If you fry it, they will come. Cajun cheeze. Pickle dawgs. Pecan pie. Lemonade. Twinkies. This year, Gonzales fried Nutella.

“Fried foods are here to stay,” Gonzales says. “And I’m pretty happy about that.”


Turkey legs, a bonafried tradition at the fair. (Photo by Rachel E. Gross)


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