It ain’t easy being cheesy. Mr. Cheetah first made this sage observation back in the ’80s, and it certainly still applies to the manufacture of his favorite bright-orange snack. Turning a hunk of cornmeal into a knobby Cheeto may take only a few minutes, but it requires a fine-tuned industrial dance that leaves no room for error. Frito-Lay’s quality-control folks will not tolerate anything less than maximum crunchiness.
0:00 to 1:00
Gritty cornmeal stored in a silo is pumped about 100 yards through a pneumatic tube into a Cheetos manufacturing plant. (Frito-Lay has 14 fried-Cheeto plants in 11 states.) The cornmeal then enters a giant hopper , where it awaits its rapid transformation into one of America’s most beloved snacks.
1:00 to 1:10
Gobs of cornmeal are fed into an extruder , which rubs the meal between two metal plates. The friction melts the starch in the corn and causes the moisture to heat up. When it passes its boiling point, the meal “pops,” creating the Cheetos shape. The craggy bits are then spit out of the extruder, flying 3 feet at high velocity before hitting a safety cage and dropping onto a conveyor belt.
1:40 to 2:40
The Cheetos move through a piping-hot pan of vegetable oil, much like an amusement-park log flume. The oil not only imparts a fatty flavor but also fries the snack’s moisture content down below 2 percent—a key to crunchiness. Once suitably cooked, the pieces go back on a conveyor belt .
8:00 to 9:00
The puffs hit a tumble drum, where strategically located nozzles spray a mixture of oil and powdered cheese onto the Cheetos from all sides. The cheese, which Frito-Lay buys pre-spiced in 50-pound sacks (the company won’t say from whom), looks like the stuff used in boxed macaroni-and-cheese products.
9:00 to 19:00
The pieces are dropped onto a last conveyor belt, where any remaining moisture steams off as they cool to room temperature. The finished Cheetos are then moved toward the packaging area, to be
bagged, boxed, and shipped .
Every half hour, an in-house lab analyzes the chemical composition of samples pulled from the cooking line to verify that the Cheetos have the right density and nutritional content. Then, every four hours, a four-person panel convenes to inspect and taste the snacks, comparing them to perfect reference Cheetos sent from Frito-Lay headquarters.