For the love of crispy food

The love of crispy food is surprisingly innate and is something we’ve been working on for millions of years.

Ever since humans discovered fire, there has been crispy food. For some 1.8 million years in our history (according to anthropologists), cooking on an open fire was to be the turning point not just in the evolution of our brains, but in how we cook, eat and cultivate our tastes in food.

Thanks to heat, we can cook until our mouth’s content. And crispness in many cases is indeed something to aspire to. ‘Crispy’ is a term that can invoke salivation purely on mention – descriptively included on menus for surely that reason. As chef and restaurateur Mario Batali noted in The Babbo Cookbook: “The single word ‘crispy’ sells more food than a barrage of adjectives… There is something innately appealing about crispy food.” It’s a place we all want to go, be it the small, crunchy chip in the corner of the plate, the edge of a just-baked lasagne or the burnt caramel atop a crème brûlée.

Perhaps not surprisingly, our love of crispness has often been the centre of debate and intrigue, such as the connection between fresh food and crispiness dawned about 60 million years ago, when a primate diet was a mix of insects and plants – the crispness defining the freshness. And it still rings true today, where the association between rotting food and mushiness (and therefore sickness) means we’ve evolved to not appreciate the texture (except maybe where mushy peas or rice pudding is involved).

The discovery of fire and cooking was also the discovery of the Maillard reaction. It’s one of the most important flavour-producing reactions to take place in cooking – the ultimate in culinary chemistry – and we owe it all to leaving food on the heat.

So what is the Maillard reaction? In short, amino acids and reducing sugars get happy together in the pan or oven in a reaction that makes us happy when it turns our food brown and crispy. It’s what gives roasting, toasting and baking its particularly awesome smell, too. It makes it tastier, in many cases more appetising, and turns eating into an opus within one’s head, (subtitles during dinner, then.)

There’s usually a craving for a crispy texture when you’re working your way around a plate of food which is less than brittle. It acts as a unifier and separator at once, offering differentiation between the soft aspects of your plate, and gives your teeth something to really get into.

But anthropology aside, it’s worth admitting that so many crispy foods are also bad for you, and are full of addictive things like salt and sugar that heed endless munching. Yet it’s been suggested that crisp foods may take longer to induce habituation during eating (i.e. boredom) perhaps because of that noise it creates inside your head, or because it’s more work for your teeth. This explains popcorn.

Whatever your take, it’s pretty certain we’ll still be eating crispy foods for another 1.8 million years (should we get there). It’s part of our evolution, seeing us through from a primitive plant diet to sophisticatedly prepared plates of textural foods. Crispness breaks boredom, joins foods together and – unless you’re on a liquid diet – completely makes a meal.

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