Forget Thanksgiving. The most gluttonous day of the year is Super Bowl Sunday, where bowl after bowl and paper plate after paper plate is filled with finger-food bacchanalia that would make even the mad genius responsible for the TGI Friday’s appetizer selection blush (and certainly the ancient Romans). And so, all week leading up to game day, we’ll be offering up our own menu of scientific investigations, origin stories and majestic feats of snacking that not even the biggest sporting event of the year can top. Read all of the stories here.
There’s a majesty to the seven-layer dip. It’s a glorious thing, as much objet d’art as foodstuff; its beautifully contrasting layers reminiscent of sedimentary rock or those exciting Post-It pads that come in a bunch of colors. It’s impressive.
Generally, there’s some sort of salad on the top, then cheese, then a sour-cream mix (sometimes sour cream mixed with mayonnaise, often with taco seasoning or spices mixed in) and then salsa and guacamole, with refried beans at the bottom. Whites! Greens! Browns! Olives and shit!
But are we doing it wrong? Is there a perfect, exact order? There certainly doesn’t seem to be a consensus — here’s a lo-fi analysis of seven seven-layer dips, from Brown Eyed Baker, Mel’s Kitchen Cafe (no relation), Food Fanatic, Dessert Now Dinner Later, Savory Sweet Life, My Latina Table and Texas Cooking:
Of the seven seven-layer dip recipes, only four have seven layers. One has six, two have eight. What a mess. There should be 49 layers, but there are 50. It’s a complete shambles. The clue’s right there in the name. You dumb bastards.
While there’s no clear accord on an order, this very light analysis does make a few things clear: Beans are always on the bottom, and if onions or olives are present, they’re sprinkled on the top, more of a scattered addition than a full-on layer. The beans are immediately followed by sour cream in four of the seven, but beyond that it’s a lawless, anarchic free-for-all, the dip equivalent of Mad Max: Fury Road.
There is also a mystery: On Delish, the recipe clearly states it goes refried beans, guacamole, salsa, sour cream, but the image shown is manifestly different, with salsa at the top with only salad above it. What the fuck, Delish? What the goddamned fuck?
The nightmare scenario for a seven-layer dip would, of course, be placing ingredients on adjacent layers that reacted with each other, turning your pile of deliciousness into a grotesque chemical slurry. Molecular gastronomists study this at the teeny-tiniest of levels, looking at how the chemistries of different foods interact, as well as experimenting with corralling these interactions into gnarly futuristic ways of eating.
“My best guess is that [optimum layering] is about color,” says chemist and molecular gastronomist Martin Lersch. “Both refried beans and tomatoes/salsa are red, so it seems natural to separate them. Apart from the visual appearance I can’t really see how the order should have any effect on taste once you start helping yourself.”
Right. Maybe less complicated than we thought. The correct — and, really, only — way to eat seven-layer dip involves shovelling as much of it into your mouth as possible using tortilla chips, so it does all blend together. Does this, then, mean the order is completely irrelevant?
David L. Katz, co-author of How to Eat and founder of True Health Initiative and Diet ID, Inc., thinks it could be. “There are a lot of ingredients,” he says, “but absent added sugar or citrus, there seem to be three main flavor elements — savory, salty and umami. Some people eating the dip might perceive all of the components, but most would probably just perceive the net effect. Bear in mind, some baked goods have many ingredients too, yet still impart a single, salient sensory experience.”
And so, if it’s all just going to smoosh into one monstrosity, practicality becomes the chief concern. Robb Walsh is an authority on Tex-Mex food, author of The Hot Sauce Cookbook and founder of the Austin Hot Sauce Festival. “Go by density, so it’s easy to keep the layers separate,” he advises. “Beans first, because they’re hard to spread on top of anything else. Guacamole next, then salsa, then sour cream, then sprinkle the chunky stuff like black olives or scallions. Cheese on top.”
Sounds magnificent. It might be more about what feels like it makes sense than chemical reactions on the atomic level, sure, but when you really think about it, maybe shoveling layer after layer of delicious goop into your nacho-crumbed mouth isn’t a science. It’s an art.