One more reason that oil and water don’t mix

Fried egg and baked beans in frying pan on wood
Credit: Photo by Westend61 via Getty Images

There’s nothing like the sight, sound, and smell of bacon or eggs sizzling in the frying pan to signal the start of the morning. But if some new research is to be believed, your fried breakfast might do more harm than just raising your cholesterol.

In a presentation to the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics, a team of scientists from Texas Tech and the University of Utah demonstrated that oil molecules and water droplets can collide in a way that causes the oil to disperse into the air. These droplets can persist in the atmosphere of a poorly ventilated kitchen, causing potential health risks once inhaled.

As opposed to the oil droplets that will jump out of the pan and sting your skin (hence why you should never fry bacon without a shirt on) at lower temperatures, these harmful particles only seem to develop when water and oil collide at a temperature of at least 150º celsius (302ºF). In addition to featuring some sweet slow-motion shots of the violent chaos that happens inside a frying pan, the video the team of researchers put together breaks down the difference pretty succinctly.

According to some of the scientists involved, it doesn’t take much for the potentially harmful reaction to take place. “We've discovered that a very large number of small oil droplets are released when even a single, small droplet of water comes into contact with hot oil,” said Texas Tech assistant professor Jeremy Marston. “You can see the explosive release when the water, trapped under the oil, vaporizes all of a sudden. This causes the oil film to rupture and sends oil droplets flying.”

While chicken and vegetables—especially when stir-fried— are said to be the biggest culprits due to their water content, pretty much any non-dehydrated food that comes into contact with oil could cause trouble. The team of researchers says the subject merits further study, as the health risks of this kitchen pollution remain unknown. For now, though, paranoid hypochondriacs with sufficient patience might want to fry up their breakfast on a lower heat setting just to be save.