Cheetos, cheese puffs, funions and Cap’n Crunch! The puffiness of foodstuffs is so commonly associated with childhood nostalgia, and even still a guilty pleasure when we grown ups sneak a treat. However, over the last ten years, three star michelin kitchens have been swapping the omnipresent foams of 2003 for the texturally rigid crunch made available by puffing up various ingredients.
The concept is actually quite similar to foaming. A medium traps bubbles. Nothing magical. For a foam, you can whip a protein and/or fat emulsion up, trapping air in protein and/or fat in the process, or you can force air out into a proteinaceous liquid. The common denominator is protein. In the case of foams, you need to start with an emulsion (protein, fat, or protein and fat, and or sugars and or minerals, or whatever), but the bubbles are created by YOU. However, when you PUFF something, you need to rely on the action of vapor to create, and basically cook your bubbles. Foaming and Puffing is the difference between composing and cooking. A foam is a composition. When you puff, you are cooking. And not just properly cooking, but you also need to prep perfectly. To achieve the ideal bubble inflation calls for the proper technique, as well as timing. Remember, once inflated, the puff is done and there’s no going back. On the molecular level, water turns to vapor and the vapor tries to escape a “net” of protein, creating gelatinous bubbles, and when the trace water left behind evaporates, those bubbles solidify. The bubbles need to expand without popping or solidifying early. This part is managed by using the proper amount of heat applied for the proper amount of time.
In certain circumstances, a deep fry in oil is employed. Generally the larger the item, the deeper the trapped water vapor, the lower the temperature of the oil, and the longer you need to achieve maximum expansion. Sometimes, the ingredient being puffed is thin enough that this can be achieved using a microwave. However, because of the uneven nature of microwave heating, large items will often burn in areas before maximum expansion is achieved. In commercial operations this is achieved not only through the application of heat, but in the lowering of the air pressure surrounding the object to be puffed, either through high pressure extrusion, like in a “Funyun”, or through vacuum chambers, like in an “Aero bar”. In both cases it is the relative changes in temperature and pressure that achieve the puffy, but firm results.
Try this, it’s SUPER easy, is guaranteed to amaze everyone, taste great, and take about 3 minutes total from start to finish:
A quarter inch thick slab of Parmigiano Reggiano rind (or grana or parmesan, but just the rind)
Cut it into sticks about a quarter inch wide. In a professional kitchen, this is a precise term called a “batonette” cut.
Place it on parchment (use a plate, too, if you like) and place into the microwave for about 1 minute. You can go longer for lower powered microwaves, or shorter for higher powered microwaves, but shoot for a minute and regardless of any of that stuff, it will still work.
Let them cool (or shape them as soon as they come out, if you have fingers that can handle high heat), and serve.
The best way to complicate this, like in any endeavor, is to overthink it. Just follow the directions and see what happens. It doesn’t take that long, the ingredient is inexpensive, and you can learn a lot more through trying it once, then researching it or thinking about it more than a couple of seconds. Just do it.
It’s the perfect cheese stick for those atkins/paleo/caveman dieters. No carbs, all protein. It’s just cheese.