Onion rings, french fries, and wings -- oh my!
The love Americans have for fried foods borders on an obsession. We crave them so much that we go out of our way to indulge in them, even though we know we should maybe be eating broccoli. But why does fried food taste so good? Science provides both a psychological and chemical answer.
The psychological reason behind our love of fried foods is a rather simple one. We love the sensual stimulation they provide. To explain, consider the differences between oven-roasted wings with deep-fried hot wings. What's the difference? Deep-frying stimulates three sensual experiences that are lacking in their oven-roasted counterparts.
When you bite into a deep-fried wing, the first sensation is an audible crunch. "For non-gustatory, non-olfactory stimulation, people prefer crunchiness," says smell and taste researcher Alan Hirsch, M.D. He refers to the sensation as the "music of mastication," an auditory accompaniment that stimulates the auditory portion of our brain, adding another sensual experience to eating.
In response to the initial crunch, biting into that deep-fried wing reveals a feeling of moist food melting in your mouth. Our mouths love the tactile sensation of our food melting. This sensation is often absent in oven-roasted foods, which tend to be drier. This juiciness vs. dryness relates to the chemistry of frying.
Frying adds flavor to the food we are eating, and it comes from a variety of sources. First, there's the fat in the oils themselves. They have unique flavors -- olive, sesame, vegetable, peanut, etc. -- that can be utilized for their distinctiveness. Next there's the batter. This not only adds to the crunchy texture, but also contributes to the overall flavor of the dish.
The bottom line is we derive the most pleasure from our experiences that stimulate the most senses. Though any meal can stimulate two or three, we get maximum engagement when more senses are touches, and this is something fried foods can help accomplish.
Understanding how frying produces the sensual stimulation we crave requires a closer examination of the second scientific reason for why fried foods taste so good. It's all in the chemistry of fried food.
The crunchy, melt-in-your-mouth sensations of fried food are the result of a chemical process that occurs during frying. Frying food involves the use of oil heated to a temperature that is more than twice that of water. When the food enters the hot oil, the water on its surface begins to boil off, which is where the bubbles come from when frying. This instant chemical reaction dehydrates the outer layer, producing crunchiness and sealing moisture into the interior of the food.
The chemical process responsible for enhancing flavor is known as oil uptake. Oil uptake is the amount of oil absorbed by the food and is in direct proportion to the amount of water lost. When foods are too greasy, it is because oil temperature is too low to extract enough moisture, increasing the food's oil uptake. The ingredients added to batter add to the flavor of the food, but it also enhances juiciness, because only the batter becomes crispy, while the food inside remains moist.
There are some flavor benefits derived from adding beer to the batter, but the main benefits are its bubbles. The bursting of carbon dioxide bubbles of beer within the batter contribute flavor by adding body to the batter while also making it lighter and airy.
The design of the fried foods you purchase off the shelf or in your favorite restaurant is to satisfy your cravings. Selection of the right oil contributes to crunchiness and enhances flavor. Combining certain ingredients to the batter contributes to craving satisfaction, while establishing and enhancing brand recognition through flavor.
Why does fried food taste so good? The chemistry of frying produces an effect on fried foods, contributing to greater sensual stimulation, and satisfying your psychologically driven cravings.