From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject There’s an Entire Industry Dedicated to Making Foods Crispy
Date February 25, 2020 1:00 AM
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[Ever wonder why are we so drawn to the snap of a potato chip or
the crackle of fried chicken? Biology, psychology, and an incredible
amount of engineering.] [[link removed]]

PORTSIDE CULTURE

THERE’S AN ENTIRE INDUSTRY DEDICATED TO MAKING FOODS CRISPY  
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Alwx Beggs
February 20, 2020
Bon Appetit [[link removed]]

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_ Ever wonder why are we so drawn to the snap of a potato chip or the
crackle of fried chicken? Biology, psychology, and an incredible
amount of engineering. _

Behind every chip commercial, there’s a chip biter with a
microphone. Executive producer Becca Falborn expertly chomps on a
stack of Pringles at the Sound Lounge mixing studio in New York., Alex
Lau

 

Two beach chairs sit side by side in front of the glittering blue
ocean. The sun is shining. And in between those chairs, nestled in the
warm sand, is a perky yellow bag of Funyuns. That’s a mural I saw in
the Frito-Lay headquarters in Plano, Texas. I was there! My pilgrimage
to the pinnacle of potato chips! Each step I took down those carpeted
corporate hallways was a bounce. I love potato chips. I love snack
foods as a whole category, but chips are my number one. I have a stash
under my desk that I share on our office snack table when the mood
calls for it. I have a designated “chip plate” my coworkers know
by name. At my last job I became known for shrieking “They put chips
on your sandwich!” every time we ate at a local lunch spot (that had
no other redeeming qualities).

I’m trying to set myself up here to explain how I ended up at
Frito-Lay headquarters, standing in a stainless-steel-outfitted
Culinary Innovation Center in front of a spread of chips, accepting a
strawberry Bubly water from a guy called Chef Jody.

Because the thing about chips is, they’re perfect. The reason chips
are perfect is their texture. They’re crispy. And crispy foods are
the best foods.

Okay, fine! I also like jiggly. A colleague of mine wrote a piece
about the beauty of chewy
[[link removed]]. Another is
enamored with “crispy gone soggy
[[link removed]].” There are
other fantastic food textures out there. But why is crispy so
alluring, so valuable, so desirable? _Bon Appétit_ used it around
500 times (I’m rounding up) last year to describe everything from
salmon skin to the top of baked French toast. Frito-Lay yearns to
achieve hyperbolic levels of crisp. Popeyes has us lined up for crispy
chicken sandwiches. The opulence-forward restaurant Benu
[[link removed]] in San Francisco has served “pork
with inverted crispy skin” on its $325 per person tasting menu.

In the datasphere, the use of _crispy/crispiness_ in U.S. reviews on
Yelp has increased 20 percent in the past decade. In close to 7,000
menus analyzed by Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky, _crispy_ is by far the
most frequent adjective used to describe texture. The Cheesecake
Factory uses the words _crisp_ or _crispy_ nearly 50 times on ONE
menu. Researchers have revealed that people find crispy foods
“appealing” and “enjoyable,” and that people associate crispy
and crunchy food sounds with “FUN” and “pleasantness.” Get
this, brainiacs: Neurons in our orbitofrontal cortex DING DING DING
like game-show bells whenever we eat crispy foods. Crispy is
everywhere. Crispy is beloved. Crispy is...

Totally calculated.

Our predictable, blatant obsession with crispy has sparked an entire
food and marketing industry that caters to it. You can measure crispy,
engineer it, and promote it. Scientists can make crispy crispier.
But _why_ do we love it? How do we see it, hear it, and taste it?
What even _is_ it? Who the heck is crunch? Let’s get to the bottom
of this bag of potato chips.

FIRST, PUT ON A LAB COAT

The study of crispy started in the food lab that brought the world
Jell-O, instant coffee, and a Seinfeldian array of breakfast cereals:
General Foods (now owned by Kraft Heinz). Scientists weren’t paying
close attention to food texture until the legendary General Foods
research scientist Alina Szczesniak broke it wide open in the ’50s.
Me summarizing her work: “Everyone’s obsessing over how foods
taste and totally ignoring how important TEXTURE is to the experience
of FLAVOR.” The other scientists: “Oh daaaaaaaaaamn. She’s
right.”

Szczesniak, who died in 2016, laid out a scientific range to evaluate
food texture based on eight qualities, like hardness and elasticity,
called the sensory texture profile. Crispiness is a “stimulant to
active eating,” wrote Szczesniak with a colleague, and “it appears
to hold a particular place in the basic psychology of appetite and
hunger satiation, spurring one to continue eating.” Well, yeah.

To assess crispiness, which Szczesniak categorized as
“brittleness,” you had to measure the force a bite needs to break
a food. Her team used human panels to test texture, but she also
invented a few machines, including the Texturometer, a mechanical
mouth (with blades, not teeth, _I know_) that spits out readings on
crispiness and other traits. Today Frito-Lay and its competitors have
their own versions of the Texturometer to measure products’
crispiness.

What did General Foods do with this data? The company came out with
aisles of crispy cereals, frozen foods, and packaged snacks as
Americans were starting to spend more and more time in front of the
TV. How convenient.

WAIT, WHAT ABOUT CRUNCH?

People tend to use crispy and crunchy interchangeably, but there’s a
difference, and it’s been studied. This isn’t a matter of opinion,
okay?! Scientists recorded people eating a variety of crispy and
crunchy foods—crackers, chips, apples—and found that crispy foods
make easier breaks and higher-pitched sounds and are usually attacked
with the front teeth, while crunchy are molars, lower-pitched. Other
studies looked at the mess a food makes when it’s bitten, and crispy
foods had more breaks and pieces compared with crunchies. Many have
pointed out that the words are onomatopoeic: _crispy_ ends with an
uplifting quick _isp_ like a chip snapping in your
teeth, _crunch_ comes out of the mouth like a bulldozer hitting
dirt. A Pringle is crispy; a thick Snyder’s pretzel is crunchy.

LET’S TALK ABOUT PCS

Back at Frito-Lay HQ, I stood in front of a chip lineup that spanned
from airy Wiffle ball–like Poppables to classic Lay’s (which they
refer to as “PCs”) to kettle-cooked Lay’s and these new chickpea
flour Frisbees called Off the Eaten Path. Dr. Chris Cioffe, senior
vice president of sustainability and global snacks R&D at PepsiCo
(phewph!), beamed with pride at her chip babies. I beamed with
gluttonous joy. I gushed like a red-carpet reporter about what a fan I
was of jalapeño kettle chips.

“Women really seem to like the kettle-cooked,” Dr. Chris said,
“and usually the fold-overs are the secret”—fold-overs, as in,
the chips that fold in the fryer like shells. Frito-Lay got the female
fact from post-market reports and from consumer panels, but a 2015
study at the University of Arkansas came to similar findings: Female
consumers were more likely to notice food texture, especially crisp
and crunch, than their male counterparts, whose attention first goes
to food color and flavor. Don’t ask why! No one knows!! Maybe
we’re trying to drown out the noise of men talking so much!!!

Kettle chips are in the “hard bite” category, which “is growing
like crazy” right now, Dr. Chris said. They’ve introduced Ruffles
Double Crunch, a kettle-cooked Ruffle, plus revamped Cool Ranch and
Flamin’ Hot Limon Doritos.

But where do chip babies come from? Frito-Lay creates crisp in four
major ways, executive chef Jody Denton told me: ingredients (finding
the right combination), moisture control (dehydrating snacks), shaping
method (each chip has its own custom equipment), and the speed and
method of cooking (frying, baking, etc.).

Kettle chips are all about that fry time. A regular potato chip is
fried fast at a high temp. A kettle chip cooks longer at a lower
temperature, getting browner and crispier. Cheetos get extruded, which
means they get squirted out of a machine like cheese turds or Play-Doh
noodles. By squirting the dough out with added air, they end up as
Puffs. Cheetos Crunchy are extruded, but their time in the fryer is
the key to their harder bite. I got a glimpse of the machines, which
look like missile launchers. That, folks, is why you can’t
replicate Cheetos at home
[[link removed]], unless you’re Claire
Saffitz.

Frito-Lay _sustains_ crisp with packaging. The bags are puffed with
nitrogen-infused air that keeps the chips fresh. Packaging is also how
they _promote_ crisp. The pop and whoosh of released air. Classic
Lay’s bags had a makeover recently and on the back there’s a list
of words with “CRISPY!” up top—where they know consumers’ eyes
go first because, of course, they do eye-tracking experiments. You
thought we lived in a world without chip surveillance?!?! And don’t
forget the sound of the crumpling bag, or the pop-off of the Pringles
lid. Those signify crispiness as much as the chip itself.

Then there’s the photo of the single oval chip—no crumbs in
sight—on the front of the bag. Katie Ceclan, a marketing exec at
Frito-Lay, told me this is because consumers associate crumbs with
broken boys at the bottom of the bag. Plus, “we spent a lot of time
with shadows,” Ceclan said. On the previous bags a straightforward
shot was too flat and cartoonish. Crispy is dynamic and tactile,
multidimensional mouth magic! Crispy lives in the shadows.

Well, sometimes crispy lives in the crumbs. At Popeyes, they call them
crispy poppies. “That’s when you get that kind of gnarled or
almost cornflake texture on the chicken,” said Amy Alarcon, vice
president of culinary innovation at Popeyes. Her team’s latest
creation, the wildly popular crispy chicken sandwich, captivated the
crispy nation for weeks. The ad campaign was just one close-up photo
and a viral tweet that threw shade at Chick-fil-A’s sandwich:
“Y’all good?”

We tried the sandwich in the office. Senior food editor Andy Baraghani
was impressed with the supremely crispy skin despite it having
traveled at least 30 minutes. (A box of fries, on the other hand, was
pure sog.) All of our talk was about the crispy shell—what’s
inside, in this case, isn’t what counts. The coating here is not the
same as what you’ll find on the classic Popeyes chicken. It’s a
combination of hard and soft wheat flours, similar to the difference
between all-purpose and fluffy cake flour. Popeyes works directly with
flour mills to source flour that has the exact percentage of protein
needed to “deliver that perfect shatter bite that people expect from
us,” Alarcon said. Each season the wheat crop changes slightly, in
the way corn does, so the culinary team has to regularly measure the
protein in the flour and adjust the blend until the ratio is
calibrated for peak Popeyes crispy.

If you look at the ad for the sandwich, it’s nearly 3-D. I spoke to
Tom Hamling, head of creative for the agency GSD&M, who oversaw the
campaign. Every detail was scrutinized to make it appear as crispy as
possible. Photographers and food stylists are sent a styling brief,
which no one dared show me, that sets the ground rules. IT SHOULD NOT
LOOK GREASY, but there should be a _twinkle_ of shine, it might say.
A food stylist who definitely signed an NDA gets the official recipe,
and the beauty pageant begins.

There’s a crowd on set that includes some of the Popeyes culinary
team to give the stylist notes as the camera starts rolling. If the
sandwich loses its recently fried glow, a stylist might dab it with
oil in the places the light hits, which is exactly how I apply
highlighter to my cheekbones. If a spot on the chicken is lacking
definition, a stylist who has worked on similar shoots told me she
might do some “crisp grafting,” piling fallen crispy poppies back
on the chicken to oomph it up. “Even Kate Moss wears makeup
sometimes,” the stylist said.

CRISPY IN CONCERT

“_This is Pringle chews, starting slow._” Marshall Grupp was
splayed on a rug in the offices of the Sound Lounge
[[link removed]], a sound mixing studio in New York. He has
wavy long hair and was wearing an incredible fleece pullover in a
southwestern print, which is a look I’d say screams: I’m the sound
guy. They’d assembled a tray of crispy foods to take into a
recording studio with me—a Honeycrisp apple, Frosted Flakes,
Ruffles, a Rice Krispies Treat—and Grupp was snacking on them
analytically: “There’s sugar on the Frosted Flakes, so it might
add to the texture of the sound.”

Years ago he made a hundred-something sound effects library for
Pringles, a collection of sounds for ads and wherever else a Pringles
crunch might be heard (your dreams?). When the first recording played
on the Sound Lounge’s giant speakers, we heard a big satisfying
crrr-unch and then four crunchy decrescendoing bites. It was like
hearing Pringles at Carnegie Hall. I was rapt. “Wow. That was a
pretty good sound,” Grupp said, amused. There were no mouth noises,
no hint of moisture or breathing. It was “clean.”

“_This is a single. Pringle. Crack._” A quick, papery snap.
“That’s just hands,” Grupp said, snapping a chip in half with
his hands to show me.

“_Chip nibbles._” A rapid-fire tat-tat-tat. Grupp exclaimed: “I
even did nibbles!!!”

The Sound Lounge records Foleys—sounds that match up with an
image—for movies, TV, and commercials. For food clients, a producer
goes into the recording studio and eats the food itself. Then the
Sound Lounge will edit the sound: layering sound over sound like
thwacking Bruce Lee punches, balancing the bass and treble, or adding
reverb for slow-motion chip action. “It becomes a little more
artistic, a little more dramatic,” Grupp said. “[We’re] taking a
real sound and making it more than what it really is.”

When a commercial for Ore-Ida tater tots needed to sound crispier,
producers fried the tots a second time, which did the trick. In the
ad, a sports commentator narrates as a little girl sits at the dinner
table with her mom: “Will Lily trade a bite of chicken for the
crispy Ore-Ida tater tot???” Lily bites into the tot and the Sound
Lounge’s beautiful crunch crackles in its split second of stardom.

When we bite into crispy food, the crunch in our teeth vibrates up our
jaw to our ears. We hear it and feel it. It’s a huge part of why we
find crispy foods exciting. In an Oxford University study published in
2015, people bit into 180 Pringles while listening to the feedback
sound of their biting. The researchers found that the louder the
sound, the crispier the chips seemed. In a bacon study (!), the sound
of crispy bacon was as important to people’s enjoyment of it as
smell and taste. Frito-Lay has measured products’ crunch in
decibels, mostly to “maintain brand identity,” confirming that
Cheetos are consistently crunchy, year after year. They once audibly
confirmed that Doritos make the loudest crack.

I put on headphones and headed into the Sound Lounge recording booth
with the tray of snacks. We cranked up the volume and I bit into a
Ruffle; I could hear the crunch loud and surreally clear. It sounded
plasticky. A Nature Valley granola bar that I snapped in my hands was
sandy and anticlimactic. Corn Flakes crushed in my palms sounded like
a giant walking on Legos. We looked at the sound waves of my crunches
and you could see the sound spike up and down. “It has a
personality!” Grupp said.

MEANWHILE, IN NEW JERSEY

When Gail Vance Civille picked me up from the train station in Summit,
New Jersey, I noticed we were both wearing blue corduroy pants. “I
wore my most textured outfit for you,” I said. “My friends say my
house is full of textures,” she replied before defying every turn
her Google Maps narrated and yet somehow ending up at Sensory
Spectrum [[link removed]], her consulting company. There
they evaluate everything from body lotion to kitty litter to granola
bars in development. They might get 15 chip prototypes to test, after
which the maker might narrow down to three to test with consumers.
Then Sensory Spectrum might see the product again to determine shelf
life (you thought expiration dates were plucked from thin air?).
Civille, 76, has eaten a lot of stale chips.

Civille worked with Szczesniak at General Foods back in the day. Since
then she’s cowritten a book that explains how to run a sensory panel
(similar to what Szczesniak started) that most food companies use. A
food-loving crowd of 10–15 trained experts sit around a table and
VERY thoroughly analyze, say, a new frozen chicken finger, according
to a VERY specific set of categories. One of which is, duh,
crispiness. It’s a 0–15 point scale. A marshmallow is 0. A Life
Saver is 15. Iconic products like Quaker Chewy granola bars (2) and
Goldfish (11) are tentpoles in the scale, so if you’re trying
something new, you can think, Is this crispier than a Goldfish? Then
it probably ranks at 11 or higher. If you look at the evaluations of
snack foods on the whole, Civille said, “As the crispiness goes up,
the liking score goes up.”

She and panel leader Liz Filoramo set up a sample panel for me. I got
an evaluation worksheet, a water cup, a plate of Cheetos—Crunchy and
Puffs—and a spit cup. As if I’d ever spit out a Cheeto! Chester, I
would NEVER. The Puff was up first, and Civille instructed me to bite
it between my molars, slowly. Crispy, Civille reminded me, makes many
small ruptures when bitten, while crunchy makes fewer breaks and is
denser. The Puff shattered easily between my teeth with
a _shhhick_ and dissolved into exfoliating cheese goo. We gave it a
7.5. The Crunchy was a much denser bite and over with much faster.
That was a 12.

CRISPY IN THEORY

Meet the new Ruffles Double Crunch. They’re caramel-colored because
they’re “kettle-processed,” which you’ll remember means they
were left in the fry oil a bit longer for extra crisp. The ridges are
almost dangerously sharp. “Ouch!” said one of my colleagues when
we tried them around the office snack table. “I can’t hear what
anyone’s saying when I’m chewing this,” said another (please
note, _female_) loudly. “They’ve gone too far!” cried a third.
I thought they’d be great with a tub of sour cream and onion dip,
tucking the second bag under my desk for myself.

The package has “2X the crunch!” stamped in a chalk font and
reminds me of ads for CrossFit gyms and protein powders. Sensory
Spectrum’s Civille has a theory that people of a certain personality
type like crispy because it’s an attack. “It’s much more
aggressive than chewing on a caramel,” she told me, baring her
teeth.

That doesn’t fully explain it, though. Szczesniak and other
scientists published in _The Journal of Texture Studies_, which you
better believe I read, posited that humans like crispy because it
signaled freshness and safe-to-eatness in our caveman days (lettuce,
apples, tasty crickets). Then fire meant we could create crispy—we
adapted to love crispy things even more when fried in fat.

_The Omnivorous Mind
[[link removed]]_ author
John S. Allen wrote that crispy rescues us from “sensory
habituation,” getting bored by the third slippery sip of tomato
soup. The most comprehensive, logical theory to me was a similar
argument from Oxford professor Charles Spence, who did the Pringles
sound studies. He writes that crispy is king because it offers a
“multisensory experience”—sight, taste, feel, and especially
sound, piled together like a tin roof sensory sundae.

I didn’t talk much in this story about cooking crispy at
restaurants, where it can be just as scientific as at Popeyes, but for
a much smaller audience and with much scarcer ingredients. At Atomix
[[link removed]] in New York,
chef Junghyun Park adds nitrogen dioxide gas to the batter for a
super-crispy langoustine twigim (like a fritter). In outer space—I
mean Vespertine [[link removed]] in L.A.—chef Jordan Kahn
makes an herbal distillate of Turkish bay leaves as the base for a
thin and crispy bay leaf cage that holds a caramelized leek heart
hostage inside. At New York’s Momofuku Ko
[[link removed]([link removed])],
you start your meal with a one-bite pommes soufflé—a dollhouse-size
potato pillow that’s been fried at two different temperatures in
order to explode into its puffy shape and dehydrated so that it
remains insanely crispy, two techniques the Frito-Lay execs would
surely nod in agreement with.

And I didn’t talk about cooking crispy at home! The joys of chicken
thighs fried in their own fat, crispy pakoras, icy-crisp fennel salad,
none of which require a bulk order from modernistpantry.com. I figured
you were pretty familiar with those cooking techniques since we seem
to wax poetic about them in every issue.

Instead I keep thinking about how unreal crispy has become when it’s
formulated in food labs for mass consumption, preserved in puffy
packaging. How the photography we see is saturated, shadowed, and
oil-slicked by professional perfectionists. How the crunch sound in
commercials is amplified and deepened, like a fart in a porcelain
bathtub.

There are so many places in our lives where, when trying to re-create
reality, we simply take it too far—see Instagram, _Vanderpump
Rules_, and Botox as reference. Where will we go when crispy’s gone
too far? After the roofs of our mouths are cut up from too many
extreme Ruffles? And that’s when a smooth, jiggly cup of pudding
starts sounding really nice.

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