Perhaps it started with the deep-fried Mars bar, or maybe the deep-fried Twinkie, but our nation’s love affair with everything dunked in batter and cooked in hot oil has exploded in the last few years. No longer reserved for French fries and onion rings, deep-frying as a cooking method has taken over everything from sliced pickles (delicious dipped in Ranch dressing) as well as the Thanksgiving turkey (cooked in a specially designed fryer).
No place are deep-fried foods celebrated more than in the South, where the art of frying is taught over hot popping messes of okra, hushpuppies and chicken-fried steak. In Texas, the State Fair has upped the ante on deep-fried delights and awards prizes for the best items served, which include deep-fried pineapple upside-down cake, deep-fried guacamole, deep-fried bacon, deep-fried jelly beans, deep-fried queso, deep-fried salsa and this year’s winner: deep-fried bubble gum. While you can’t actually deep-fry gum, the sweet concoction is made from bubblegum-flavored marshmallows that are dipped in batter, fried and decorated with icing and powdered sugar. Delicious and rich with virtually no nutritional content, this deep-fried sugary treat is a crowd favorite as well.
So what is behind the growing obsession with all things deep-fried? First of all, the fat: Humans not only love to consume fatty foods for their high caloric content and fantastic taste but also for the “mouthfeel” – that slippery, gooey texture that fatty lipids deliver so well.
But fat’s not all – if it was, we would all be munching on sticks of butter and sipping olive oil for lunch. Deep-frying also involves the caramelization of sugars as well as the Maillard reaction, which turns the chosen morsels to a rich brown color (also used in spray-tanning solutions).
Submerging battered food into hot oil also cooks it so quickly that moisture doesn’t have time to escape and is trapped inside the crispy shell of batter, hardened by the hot oil. This juxtaposition of a crunchy outside with a soft, moist inside packs a double punch of flavor and texture that our mouths and minds really enjoy.
Sumptuous fats, caramelized sugars, moist insides and crunchy outsides make deep-fried food irresistible to the palate – and the proudly American devil-may-care attitude is what brings these unhealthy items to the front of the plate. Like the teenager smoking cigarettes to feel rebellious or the child who refuses to brush his teeth just because she’s supposed to, these “bad” treats indulge the rule-breaker in all of us. We don’t just eat them even though they’re unhealthy; we eat them because they’re unhealthy.
For some people, cutting loose on deep-fried food or other unhealthy fare gives a much-needed release in a life otherwise ruled by deadlines, meetings, time cards and eight zillion other obligations. No one is obliged to eat deep-fried guacamole: It is 100% choice, and in a world where decisions are already made, this freedom of choice can be quite appealing – especially when dipped in Ranch dressing.