On my way down to Baltimore to visit a lady, I picked up February’s edition of Scientific American. Why? Because a) I’m a nerd, b) I didn’t have any reading material fit for a plane ride, and c) I like to look smart when I travel. To my surprise, there was an article about the science of beer battered fish and chips – enter my cheering inner chemistry enthusiast, stage right. Since I’m assuming no one has time to read SA today, I’ll tell you what I learned. Of course, the real article can be found here if you don’t want to read my incessant jibberjabber.
So why do we salivate at the mention of “beer-batter?” For some reason, beer batter just makes fried food juicier, more tender, and generally more delicious. The reason, my dear Watson, is due to chemistry, physics, and thermodynamics. The ultimate three-way dweebgasm.
The bubbly tickles of CO2, which also are the cause of that creamy head on the pint of stout in front of you, help lighten the batter. Gasses, unlike liquids and solids, dissolve more readily at cold temperatures and would rather evaporate off at high temperatures. Once beer batter hits a hot fryelator, the CO2 tries desperately to escape it’s oily fate only to be trapped by the viscous batter. This is possible because of the slow-popping nature of beer foam bubbles, which is attributed to the excess proteins in the beer itself; these proteins help form a long-lasting head on your pint, as opposed to protein-free champagnes and sparkling wines. The trapping of carbonation in the batter makes for a light, crispy crust on your chicken tenders.
The foam action of beer also helps insulate your beverage and keep it moderately cold. The same holds for beer in batter, except the insulation acts as a direct heat barrier against the hot oil. Since the laws of thermodynamics indicate that it’s entropically favorable (hell yes I just used that word) for gasses and liquids to heat rather than solids, the frothy batter protects your chicken wings from charring. It also uses that heat to tastify the batter via the all-important Malliard reaction, the same reaction your steak undergoes when you throw it on a grill. Caramelized sugar chains form across the surface of your fish and chips, giving it that deep-southern-chicken-fried taste we dream of, while your protein is protected inside simmering around 130 degrees.
Alcohol is also a chemical advantage for the batter because of its low boiling point. When booze (i.e. EtOH) mixes with other constituents, it’s usually the first thing that evaporates – which is why we have distilleries. Batters made with water need to cook longer than batters made with alcohol because of this property, since the batter is cooked all the way through when there’s no liquid left in the mix. Alcohol-based batters cook quickly enough to not overcook the protein inside, giving it that juicy, hand-me-another-napkin deliciousness.
I’d like to see what happens, then, to the quality of batter when you use a big beer like a triple IPA, or beer with a lot of extra maltiness in it, like a porter or stout. What about hoppy beers – would the floral and citrus notes come through in the wing? Would heffewizen-batter wings have pineapple or orange flavors?
Alright then, when’s the next tailgate? I’ll bring the Bunsen burners.