Fresh-fried tortilla chips: optimal frying time and temperature

Well, after several posts that struggled to reach the platonic ideal of a tortilla chip, I think I’ve finally found the answer!  It’s nice to get that elated feeling, of “yes, science works!”  In any case, read on for the key to making awesome tortilla chips that are light and crispy just like my favorites, the beautiful and delicious Peppers chips featured below.

In previous experiments, I had noticed that a lot of variability in chip quality was probably due to frying technique.  I kept temperature as constant as possible, and compensated for variations in temperature by not fixing myself to a single frying time- I would wait till the chips were just starting to get golden, and then take them out.  But several things made me want to control temperature:

1) My anal-retentive, detail-oriented personality

2) Chips that began to turn golden brown at the edges were still uncooked in the middle

3) My ideal chips weren’t brown at all, so using “golden brown” as a cue for removing chips would always lead to overcooked chips.

Thus, I snagged a thermocouple (fancy temperature measuring device) from the lab, set my phone to stopwatch mode, and cued myself for an experiment.  Now, to finally answer the question, how do frying time and temperature affect the quality of tortilla chips?

Science equipment put to good use.

What makes an “ideal” chip?

I had a very clear goal in mind- I wanted chips that looked and tasted like the ones from my favorite Mexican restaurant (featured at the top of the post).  This means the chips would be barely browned, but still have a really firm snap to them.

This probably means sticking to a low frying temperature.  Browning is typically caused by the Maillard reaction, which is very likely to happen above 300ºF.  The Maillard reaction can actually occur at almost any temperature, but it’s inhibited by water.  So something needs to be especially dehydrated to brown at temperatures below 300ºF, and even then it can take a while.

Therefore the solution to my goal probably involved frying the tortillas at a low enough temperature that no Maillard reaction would occur, but long enough to completely fry the tortilla to a good crisp.  If such a temperature/time combination even exists was an open question, since longer frying can eventually produce the Maillard reaction even at lower temperatures, so crisping might always be followed by significant browning.

The Experiment

Since we’ve previously found that the type of starting tortilla has little effect on the final quality of the chip (as long as it’s made of corn), I decided to just use the Guerrero brand corn tortillas.  I made a hybrid frying oil of somewhere around 75% Wesson vegetable oil and 25% extra virgin olive oil.

I cut the tortillas into six equal pieces, set the fryer to the right temperature, and then chucked in the tortillas for the necessary frying time.  In all tests, chips were fried one at a time, and flipped half-way through the frying process. Chips were then left to cool and drain their residual oil on a paper towel.

I took a picture of all the chips to quantify browning, then smashed the chips with a pyrex pie bowl to see how crispy the chips were.  I also did some assorted tasting of the chips. You know, for science.

Note that my range of tested frying temperatures (275ºF-435ºF) goes above and beyond the typical recommended frying temperature range for tortilla chips (325ºF-400ºF, based on my internet browsing).

The Chips!

First, I found more browning as frying time increases, as expected.  I also found that chips browned faster at higher temperatures, also no surprise but pretty cool to see how dramatic the effect was.  Temperatures below 350ºF generated no discernible browning for any of the frying times tested here.

The smash test also showed some really interesting results.  Generally, browning tended to correlate with highly brittle chips, but the correlation wasn’t perfect.  For example, the 30-60 second chips at 425ºF browned but did not smash well.  Also, the 180-300 second chips at 300ºF did not brown at all, but smashed into pieces beautifully.

Most importantly, note that there were some chips with no browning that also fractured quite a bit in the break test- just like my ideal chip!  A taste test confirmed that chips cooked at 300ºF for 180 seconds tasted almost exactly like my target chip should taste! There were some other close seconds, the 120 seconds at 350ºF chip was pretty good, and the 90 second chip at 375ºF was decent, but anything beyond that had the desired crispiness but was far too browned.

“frying sweet spot” described above is highlighted in red

Some general rules of thumb

1) No chips cracked at all with only 30 seconds worth of frying.  All these chips were at least partially undercooked. This even holds true for the test at 425ºF: although partially browned, this chip is definitely not crispy.  Generally, higher temperatures tended to produce either unevenly cooked chips or evenly burnt chips.

2) 275ºF is just too low for frying.  Anything below 120 seconds was more of a greasy tortilla than anything else: even the 300 second test produced a chip that you could fold in half without breaking in two.

3) Tastewise, brown generally meant bad for tortilla chips.  Golden brown was ok, but anything noticeably brown had a distinct burnt flavor.

Conclusion

So, to get a perfectly light and crispy chip, it seems the trick is doing a long fry at a temperature low enough to not trigger the Maillard reaction. The best result was 3 min at 325ºF. I’m almost tempted to go back to my original trick of spritzing the chips with water, to see if the additional water content can impede the Maillard reaction, allowing a shorter frying time at a higher temperature.  Five minutes is a long time to wait for each batch of chips, especially when I’m without a true deep fryer.

But I think I’m too fried out to go for another huge fry-a-thon… at least for now.

Anyone else up for the challenge? Are light and crispy chips possible with a shorter frying time?

Kevin Miklasz

About Kevin Miklasz

As a PhD student in Biology at Stanford University, Kevin’s research is on the biomechanics of micro-algae, as he clearly prefers academic obscurity to hot topic, sexy science. Besides cooking and doing science, Kevin also designs educational science games and engages in similarly nerdy interests. Kevin is an editor for Science Fare, and Director for Digital Curriculum at Iridescent.

, , , , , , ,

9 Responses to Fresh-fried tortilla chips: optimal frying time and temperature

  1. Butu January 7, 2013 at 6:54 am #

    You are wonderful!!! I made them a few times but was only able to produce the perfect chip once (by mistake of course). I tried using several different oils thinking that would help prevent (what I now know the true term for) Maillard reaction. Thank you!

  2. Dan May 6, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

    Came across this post yesterday when I was about to fry chips for a Cinco de Mayo party. Sure enough – 3 minutes at 325 is perfect. Thank you, sir!

  3. Dustin Salsberry June 19, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    I think it’s just fantastic that you did this. I went on a tortilla chip journey, too that was comparatively quite pathetic in terms of documentation, but it was no less exhaustive. I came to a different conclusion, however, with regards to the starting material. That is to say, I found no premade corn tortillas were adequately thin, and none of them could be rolled out pressed m thinly enough. Ultimately, that led me down a path of mixing and flattening my own masa dough. For what it’s worth, I discovered that using a pasta roller attachment for a kitchen aid mixer on a setting of 7 and frying the raw strips in canola oil yielded the closest thing to my desire chip.

    • Kevin Miklasz
      Kevin Miklasz June 21, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

      Thanks Dustin! I’d actually love to hear more about your journey and how you ended up at your conclusion- especially the exact setting on the pasta roller and using canola over other types of oil. How did you end up at those conclusions? Would you have any interest in writing up your experimentation for ScienceFare? We’d certainly love to showcase your work here!

  4. Michael July 15, 2013 at 4:11 am #

    The oil you use is very important and may contribute to their browning effect due to the burning point of different oils. Olive oil has a low smoke point when compared to things like canola, vegetable or safflower oil. I do not recommend using olive oil in making your corn chips. Corn chips from a majority of restaurants are deep fried and would never use olive oil because it is expensive and smokes too easily.

    Safflower oil works quite well at higher temps and will allow you to make chips a lot faster at higher temp and still get that wonderful satisfying crispiness you are after. My batches of chips take less than 30 seconds a piece, which is necessary when you are making large amounts in a restaurant setting or a party. Without restaurant equipment you can still do this at home as I do.

    The type of oil, amount of oil (which can allow for more even cooking), temperature, time and to some degree the type of stove you are using can all come into play. In Kevin’s case, the amount of oil in the pictures is not nearly enough. I recommend a larger size soup pot or wok, with a few quarts of oil. Two to three inches should be enough as this allows you to push down and submerge the chips a bit to get the bubbly crispy even frying as well as allow you to use a slotted spoon or other utensil underneath.

    I’m a long time cook/chef from San Diego and Mexican food might as well be the bane of my existence. Living in Shanghai now I’ve had to source a lot of my own products to make decent Mexican food and that includes making my own tortilla chips. Hope this makes it easier and more tasty for you!

    • Kevin Miklasz
      Kevin Miklasz July 28, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

      Hey Michael,

      This is a great add on to the post. I always figured oil probably had an important effect, just never had the time to play around with it. I’m especially interested in the amount of oil used and creating even burning, I was always trying to use as little as possible to conserve my oil, but hadn’t considered that I might be creating problem by doing so.

      Would you be interested in publishing this description on ScienceFare, as a followup to this post? I think if you go into a bit more detail on some of these points, like which oils you have tried and why certain one worked well or not worked well (not just going into the smoke point, but why the chips didn’t come out right). What happens when you use too little or too much oil, how exactly is it more even?

      Would this be of interest to you?
      Kevin

  5. Mark Lemoine November 24, 2013 at 3:02 am #

    Very cool! Thank you. :)

  6. jayhawkdan78 January 9, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

    dude that was an epic tortilla breakdown. thanks much

  7. Marisa February 15, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

    I work at a restaurant where we also fry our own chips. As mentioned above, the amount of oil makes a large difference in how fast the chips cook. I find the more I submerge the chips and stir them, the faster they cook (even at a stable temperature). I do a large handful of chips @350 for 90 seconds and they come out perfectly. At longer cooking times, the chips look more golden brown overall (though too dark) instead of brown around the edges like the ones in your experiment. It was fun to toy around with the temperatures/ times at work a little to test out your results too!

leave a comment and we'll give you a cookie! (well, the internet kind...)