What would it be like to fry in microgravity? Throwing potatoes into boiling oil while floating around in space sounds like a recipe for chaos and third degree burns. Scientists are not interested in that, luckily, but in how cooking with oil might need gravity to be effective. And it turns out that this is not the case.
Frying is a delicious (albeit unhealthy) way to cook food. Humans have been doing it globally for centuries. The hot oil or fat transfers heat much faster, which is often seen as a preferable outcome, and it leaves a crispy crust and a moist interior. So, it’s a win for both taste and convenience.
But if we look in detail, especially when something is deep fried, there is a lot more than oil, heat, and food going on. Here on Earth, in the case of fried potatoes, bubbles form on the surface and migrate upwards due to buoyancy.
But it is not obvious that this would be the case in space. Without the pull of gravity, bubbles don’t rise, so a steam barrier might form around the potato, stopping the oil from frying the spud. This new research was necessary to show whether this kitchen nightmare scenario could happen.
“Ask any chef and they will confirm that the physics and chemistry behind food is a complex and fascinating subject that bubbles over to other science disciplines,” Professor Thodoris Karapantsios from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, a member of the research team behind the studies, said in a statement.
To test this in safety, a special automated fryer was created. It had high-speed cameras to track the bubbles and it was automated so that it could be operated safely. Two experimental runs were conducted on a European Space Agency (ESA) parabolic flight, where weightlessness is created by a peculiar flight pattern in a plane.
The experiment measured the temperature of the oil, of the potato, and how the bubbles moved. The very good news is that in microgravity, the bubbles still easily detached from the surface of the potatoes. So yes, astronauts on long-duration missions (maybe to Mars) can have fries with that. And that is not all.
“Apart from nutrition and comfort, studying the process of frying in space could also lead to advancements in various fields, from traditional boiling to producing hydrogen from solar energy in microgravity,” concludes lead author John Lioumbas.
The study is published in the journal Food Research International.