Why Fry?

This experiment is once again food related. I was preparing our evening meal as I was thinking about possibilities for experiments. As I cooked the turnips, turnip greens, yellow squash, and steamed potatoes, I considered several ideas. Then as I began to cook the hoe cakes, I knew what we would do. Hoe cakes are similar to cornbread. You add hot water to self-rising cornmeal to make a thick batter, which is spooned into a skillet of hot oil and cooked to a golden brown. Topped with some butter, they are delicious. This started me thinking about why we fry food in oil.

To investigate this, you will need:

  • bread
  • cooking oil
  • a skillet
  • a knife to cut the bread
Warning! We will be cooking on a hot stove and using a knife, so be sure to get permission. Be safe. Be careful. Be sure to have an adult with you, so you have someone to blame if something goes wrong.

Why do we fry food in oil? The oil adds extra calories, which many of us do not want, yet we still fry in it. Why not cook without it? To examine the reasons, take a slice of bread and cut it into small cubes.

Place the skillet on the burner. Put about a spoon of oil onto one side of the skillet. Turn on the heat. When the skillet gets hot, place two or three bread cubes onto the dry part of the skillet. Place two or three more into the hot oil on the other side of the skillet. Watch carefully and observe the differences.

The bread on the dry part of the skillet just sits there, while the bread in the oil sizzles and bubbles. The bread in the oil quickly turns golden brown while the dry bread is just beginning to change color. Once the bread in the oil is nicely browned, remove all the bread. Let them cool a minute and then compare their texture. The dry bread seems toasted a bit, but the fried bread is very crisp. Taste both and you will find that the fried bread has a better flavor too.

Frying in oil provides an excellent pathway for the heat to get from the skillet to the bread. With the dry bread, only a small part of the surface is in contact with the hot skillet. The hot oil makes contact with more of the surface, even soaking into the bread to carry the heat deep inside. This speeds up the cooking process and helps the inside cook before the outside starts to burn.

One of the goals of frying is to make the food crunchy. To accomplish that, we need to remove water from the food. The bubbles from the frying bread are not the oil boiling. Instead, the water inside the bread boils and bubbles away. As the water is removed, the oil soaks in to take its place, carrying the heat deeper into the food.

The oil also has an impact on the flavor of the food. Besides adding its own flavor, the oil absorbs flavors from the food and carries them to our taste buds. Putting butter on your toast does more than add a butter flavor. It also enhances the flavor of the toast itself. Of course, you can enhance the flavor even more with some jelly, making a nice snack to wind up our science experiment.

Have a wonder filled week.