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I Tried To Make Cheetos And Discovered That It's Actually Impossible

I set out to replicate one of America's greatest feats of snack engineering in my own kitchen. And I don't regret a moment of it.

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So, I decided to make Cheetos.

I decided this when I was eating Cheetos and marveling at their complexity — light, crunchy, orange, with tingle and tang. Too often we forget the little triumphs of modern living. Everyday inventions get lost in the story of our species. Sure, our species fused atoms and wiped out smallpox. We have built banks and machines and cities. But we have also built big things that seem small: soft beds, safe cars, and snack foods.

With the American spirit of invention burning, I figured that even if I couldn't build a city, I could try to make a Cheeto.

First, I set some ground rules.

1. No internet. No "research." Just one woman, one dream, and a bag of chips. The pioneers didn't have GPS, so why should I have instructions?

2. No substitutions. If Frito-Lay lists it, my Cheetos will have it. Bring on the monosodium glutamate and maltodextrin!

3. I must taste all the results.

4. I only get three tries.

First, I opened up a bag of classic Cheetos and found my muse:

Adrienne Johnson

After careful sorting, I selected the most Cheeto-y Cheeto: ridged, 1.2 inches long, just the right amount of orange.

Then I consulted the back of the bag and assembled my ingredients.

fritolay.com

There are only four main ingredients: Enriched corn meal, vegetable oil, cheese seasoning (the complicated part), and salt.

For the cheese seasoning, I was going to have to either buy or approximate whey, maltodextrin, and monosodium glutamate — aka MSG — as well as "natural and artificial flavors," lactic acid, citric acid, and artificial color.

It turns out Safeway doesn't carry citric acid and maltodextrin.

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But luckily, I only had to take my Cheetos across the street into a home brewing shop called MoreBeer.

MoreBeer is a fantastic name if you want another beer. MoreBeer is also a great name if you want more than beer — say, some Cheetos ingredients. I bought my chemicals, choosing the bigger bag of maltodextrin after the guy working there described it as a “magical chemical that makes your brain go nuts for no reason at all.”

Next, I needed whey.

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I consulted a hippie friend who does things like make her own kombucha and sourdough bread. She explained that I could make whey by pouring whole milk yogurt into a paper towel over a strainer and collecting the liquid that drained out.

The Cheeto is garnish.

Ingredients in hand, it was time to put myself to the test.

I began by making corn mush.

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I mixed corn meal into boiling water until I thought the mush was a texture that could be transformed, somehow, into a crunchy corn puff.

Next up: Cook the cheese seasoning.

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The cheese powder — that magic orange dust — stumped me. How did Frito-Lay do it? Basically, the ingredient list was separated into three categories: corn meal, vegetable oil, and cheese seasoning. The first two categories were obvious. Take corn meal and water mush and fry in vegetable oil. Easy.

But the cheese seasoning was made up of eleven different ingredients and some of them are wet. How can a fine, dry dust be made with oily cheese, canola oil, and whey? How?

I didn't know what to do, so I sprinkled the powders (MSG, lactic acid, citric acid, and whey protein concentrate) onto grated cheddar cheese and baked it all. I drained off the oil every twenty minutes or so and added in the wet ingredients.

I felt dumb draining off the cheese oil and adding canola oil back in but, well, one just has to trust in the power of Frito-Lay.

But how to shape them?

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Like a snowflake or a fingerprint, each Cheeto has its own unique sets of knobs and ridges and crevices and furrows particular to that Cheeto. And the cheese dust settles differently in and on each nook and cranny. So each Cheeto is not only different from all other Cheetos but, in fact, each bite of each Cheeto is different from all other bites.

I assumed that the perfect triangles (Doritos) or wavy discs (Pringles) of other chips were formed by some specially shaped mold and then dipped into oil. I guessed that Cheetos got their knobs by extrusion, somehow, and then by frying in an open vat of corn oil. They would be like free-range Cheetos, swimming around in the hot oil by their own accord and developing an unique, organic shape. Free-range, organic Cheetos.

I extruded the meal through a milkshake straw (very difficult) and pinched and pulled the mush with my fingers. Some did take different shapes as they fried but, mostly, they just swam into each other and splattered grease. I didn't get any knobs and ridges. I got tubular, pinched, larvae-looking rolls of fried corn meal. Tasty, but not a Cheeto.

Delicious???

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I admit, I gave up on the cheese powder halfway through my larvae frying. The cheese wasn't drying. It was burning. And then it was charring.

At least the charred cheese crumbs didn't stick to my fried corn meal. It tasted better than it looked.

I could definitely do better. I started again.

I baked and drained the oily cheese...

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I was vigilant and meticulous and drained the oil every five minutes or so. This time I didn't add in canola oil back in — that seemed dumb. I wanted to make a powder. I could worry about Frito-Lay and their wet ingredients later.

...I pulverized the baked cheese in a food processor...

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It was less of a powder and more of a grain, but the cheese was fine enough that I could press it into the freshly fried corn logs.

The squeezed corn mush also had more character than the last batch: Some were knobby, some were curly, and some even looked kinda, sorta like a Cheeto.

Good crunch, but they tasted like burned cheese and lemonade. Too much citric acid.

...and then I gave up.

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This failure was less fun than the first one.

I felt OK about the fried corn bits. With effort and determination, I knew I could formulate the right mush consistency and pull out the ridges with my fingers.

But the cheese seasoning. The cheese seasoning! How could Frito-Lay list "canola oil" as an ingredient in a dry powder? And how does the powder stick?

At this point, I had questions. I had comments.

So I called the "Questions or Comments?" number on the back of the Cheetos bag. (1-800-352-4477, in case you'd like to chat).

Tina, who answered my call, was a great listener. She let me ask question after question, make comment after comment. Tina explained Frito-Lay's trade secret policy and then listened to me some more. I felt like I could tell her anything. I told her I wasn't sure how the cheese powder stuck, how each Cheeto was so unique, how they tasted so delicious. I felt discouraged. I worried I would fail.

And Tina was there to listen to my Questions and Comments, but not to answer them or comment back. She just listened. It felt, somehow, like a generous kind of friendship.

I did learn that "Cheetle" is the official term for the cheese seasoning. Tina also said that most people called the Questions and Comments desk asking for Chester the Cheetah merchandise like T-shirts, stuffed animals, and tote bags. Tina explained that Chester became the official spokescat in 1986.

Tina was very patient, but I needed real help.

So I called my lifeline: Nicolas, a friend with a Ph.D. in biochemistry. And Nicolas told me that, first, I needed to emulsify my cheese mixture with oil.

Why should I add oil to make a powder? Nicolas explained that by mixing the oil into the whey protein, water, and cheese mixture, the fat from the cheese (which I didn't want) would rise to the surface while the cheese proteins (which I did want) settled to the bottom.

Armed with this information, I felt ready to try one more time.

First, I emulsified.

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I combined water and liquid whey and, while shaking vigorously, I added in the crunched-up cheese powder that I had baked and pulverized. Then, while still shaking the mixture, I added in a few drops of the canola oil.

I didn’t expect this to work at all, but it did! The scum rose to the surface of the cheese powder, liquid whey, and oil mixture.

I skimmed the unwanted scum off the top.

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The remaining liquids were a mixture of water and proteins. Nicolas explained I should slowly double boil that mixture to evaporate the liquids.

Double boiling seemed simple enough, but took forever.

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I simmered the protein-water for an hour or so and, finally, got impatient enough to just drain out most of the liquid.

The resulting cheese “crumbs” were very, very strange.

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They weren’t crumbly. They were a mix of goo and rubber — not quite wet, not quite dry, and definitely not Cheetle. I patted them dry and microwaved them.

And then I made Cheese by the Foot.

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I cycled through the dry-bake process a few times until I got this. I never thought cheese could look like this: stretchy and clear, like a delicate plastic. Even though I wanted a powder, at least this strange, stretchy thing was dry. I dried cheese! And invented a brand-new snack product.

It wasn't working, so I went back to the emulsification stage to try again.

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I diced the Cheese by the Foot into little pieces but, still, it was not at all powdery. I returned to my scum margarita and shook the whey, water, baked cheese powder, and canola oil again. I skimmed the scum off and just drained out the water instead of double boiling it. Then I dried the wet crumbles overnight.

Once the crumbles were dry, I crushed them.

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The diced, crushed Cheese by the Foot is in the left shot glass. The mixture on the right is the wet/dried nonboiled crumbles and...it's sort of a powder! It's still grainy and coarse, but close enough.

(I don't know why I have a Harvard shot glass. Nothing personal, promise.)

I developed a sophisticated frying technique.

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I made three different corn meal mixtures — wet, medium, and dry — to see if they would fry differently. The drier mixture fried more irregularly, but was harder to mold into ridges beforehand.

Finally, I settled on a serrated apple corer. By pressing the mixture against the sawtoothed edge, I could get some ridges and then drop, from chin-high, into the frying oil. The drop elongated the Cheeto without messing up its edges. Oil splattered everywhere, but I needed those knobs and ridges.

The moment of truth: They tasted like...

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…burned cheese, lemons, and fried corn meal. They weren’t disgusting, really, just not good. Too oily, too lemony, too burned. Pride made me eat a whole plate.

I had sort of, almost, made a Cheeto. But so what?

Obviously, Cheetos are made with sorcery. Try as I might, I couldn't even get [Yellow 6] to look more tangerine than Trump. And as for the Cheetle? It is fairy dust. The worries I shared with Tina had all come true: My process was inefficient. My methods were misguided. My Cheetos were ugly and misshapen and not very tasty.

We live in a complex world. Very few of us have any idea how an airplane can crash-land in water or how skyscrapers sway with high winds or how oil can dry into powder. It's daunting. It's bizarre. And it's easy to feel alienated when you realize a cheese-flavored corn snack is near impossible to produce without a factory and a team of experts.

And yet! This silly (failed) experiment reminded me how inspiring that complexity can be. Sure, I still have no idea how to make a Cheeto, but at least I can imagine how I might make one. I can imagine a factory where corn meal is frying, cheese is emulsifying, and proteins are made into powder: where the bits are bagged and labeled and trucked and priced.

Later, we go into a store. We trade a piece of paper or pledge upon a piece of plastic and then, as we all know, we pop open the shiny plastic bag. Within the silver aluminum lining, we find those delicious, dusty orange strips of corn and Cheetle — the thing we've been looking for all along.

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