Posted by: edibleplanet | February 19, 2011

Why does deep fried food taste so good?


Some Poori

Last week we discovered puri (or poori) – an Indian dish of flat discs of dough that are deep fried until they puff up. They are completely brilliant. Fun to make and more delicious than such simple food has any right to be! They are perfect with a spicy vegetarian curry. But it got us thinking. Why is deep fried food so good?

The quick and obvious answer is; “Oh, it’s the fat.” Now this is true to a certain extent, but it’s not the whole picture. For a start, while it’s nice to nibble little bits of butter when you’re baking you can’t eat a huge block of it. It becomes sickly very quickly. Lard, kremelta and ghee aren’t even nice to nibble on. Olive oil is delicious, but I wouldn’t want to drink a whole glass of even the finest extra virgin oil. No, there’s more to the deep fried thing than just the sheer consumption of fat.

It turns out that (like a lot of things when you start digging) there is a lot going on when you deep fry something. Each of these aspects aren’t much by themselves, but taken as a whole they constitute the amazing flavour of deep fried food.

Firstly the oil is at a high temperature (about 190ºC when I do it). The food is immersed in this very hot medium which transfers heat much better than air. It’s also completely devoid of water. Any water in the surface of the food quickly boils and evaporates. This means the surface of the food becomes very dry and crisp. The hot oil also allows the middle of the food to come up to temperature and cook very quickly. Moisture doesn’t have time to escape before the food is removed from the oil and served. The crispy outside and soft, moist interior are characteristic of deep fried food, and certainly one of the appealing factors.

On the surface of the food the intense heat of the fat causes two other reactions to occur: caramelisation and Maillard reactions. Caramelisation is the browning of sugars, and it is the same process as making toffee. Any sugars on the surface of the food are quickly caramelised to a deep brown colour. Maillard reactions are very similar to caramelisation, but they happen to amino acids rather than sugars. The best example of a maillard reaction is the crust that forms as you cook a steak. It’s not the sugars in the steak turning brown, it’s the proteins. The same happens on the crust when you bake bread. Maillard reactions are very complicated, and there is still much that we don’t know about how they work, but we do know that humans find the flavour of caramelisation and maillard reactions very tasty indeed. Deep fried food is a beautiful golden-brown because of these two reactions, and another contributor to their appeal.

Finally, deep fried food does indeed absorb some fat, and yes we do find fat nice to eat.

Deep fried food has a terrible reputation these days because it’s ubiquity, cheapness and deliciousness means that we have been eating far too much of it. Combined with our relatively easy-going lifestyles we tend to store all that wonderful energy away rather than burn it all off toiling in the fields. So I can’t tell you that deep fried food is healthy, but I can explain why we find it so agreeable to eat.

Here’s a recipe for puri, just in case you are curious:

1 cup flour
2 tablespoons semolina
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp salt
water to make a dough a bit less than half a cup

Combine the flour, semolina, salt and milk. Add water gradually until you have a nice flexible dough.  Knead until smooth and elastic. Let the dough rest for at least 30 mins to let the gluten develop. Heat a small pan of oil to about 190ºC. Take balls of dough, flatten them into a disk shape (we use a tortilla press, but you can use your hands, a rolling pin or anything flat and heavy). Drop them into the oil and marvel as they puff up. Flip them over so the other side can puff up. Remove from the oil when they are golden. Serve with a spicy curry and some pickle.




  1. Aha! This all makes sense – thanks for the education 🙂

  2. […] only find in something that has been deep fried. The Edible Planet, I think, has come up with the best answer to why we like deep fried foods. There’s the enticing golden-brown color, the crunchy […]

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