Article 1, Twinkie Technology
Fresh out of college in 1965 with a master’s degree in food science, I landed my first big job in the laboratory at Paniplus. A subsidiary of Continental Baking Company, Paniplus manufactured additives for bakery mixes. Additives are those chemicals with unpronounceable names listed last on food labels. Bakery mixes are just like those in small boxes on the baking-needs shelf, but they’re packaged in 100-pound bags. Sold to in-store and small bakeries, a 100-pound chocolate-cake mix, baked in different shapes and sizes, can account for much of a day’s production. My main job was quality control – making sure each batch of additives did what it was touted to do.
Then one day, the big Twinkie problem was tossed my way. The problem! Twinkies had too much substance; therefore, the profit margin was low. My job! To figure out how to incorporate more air into the Twinkie batter -- how to maintain the size and shape, but decrease the amount of solid matter.
I designed my experiment, established the base line, and set to work. The first step was to create my own bakery mix based on the actual Twinkie recipe. The laboratory Twinkie mix, formulated in 20-pound lots, contained specific percentages of sugar, flour, etc., all carefully weighed for the best possible control.
Fresh eggs were not used. Frozen egg whites, with known protein, water, and mineral content, were defrosted, stirred, and weighed so that no extra bit of moisture or protein could throw off the experiment. Egg yolks weren’t used” they don’t freeze well, they cost too much, and they would contribute weight to the batter.
With Twinkie mix, egg whites, and an arsenal of chemical in tow, I started to experiment. I baked a mountain of Twinkies, incrementally varying the ingredients, especially the chemicals. Batter was carefully weighed into each pan. Oven temperature and baking time never varied. For accurate results, each cakelette was weighed, measured, and otherwise assessed at exactly the same time after being removed from the oven. Then there was the final test. Someone had to taste each and every batch, very carefully, to be sure that the flavor had not altered. I quickly ran out of volunteers.
Finally, the results were in, the correct amount of chemicals determined and a lighter, fluffier laboratory Twinkie had been manufactured. The final report had been written and submitted, and I could stop tasting Twinkies.
Was it over? Not quite. Off I went, with the boss, across town for tests at the local Twinkie factory. It was a fun field trip, watching thousands of Twinkies traveling along a conveyor belt. There was, of course, a special pan used only for Twinkies. Each pan, automatically filled to just the proper level based on weight, traveled through the oven. After baking, the Twinkies were mechanically flipped from their pans and continued to travel along until they cooled to room temperature.
Finally, the Twinkies were positioned for the filling. A monster machine with three “hypodermic” fingers per Twinkie slid down from the sky, impaled a cake, and deposited the “cream” filling. The finished Twinkies moved on, two by two, to the packaging machine. From there, they were delivered to the supermarket.
Did my work really translate into a lighter, fluffier Twinkie on the supermarket shelf? Can I be held responsible? I really never learned. The project was finished, and it was time to move on to a new problem.
More than a quarter of a century later, I mounted the courage to taste another Twinkie. It looked exactly the same, but it did seem a bit smaller. The taste test absolved me of any long-term guilt. My airy, crushable, melt-in-you-mouth Twinkie was not in that package. This was the product of a much more ruthless chemist than I.
Published in Fine Cooking Magazine, October/November 1994