What’s Really in a Twinkie?

Local cookbook author Todd Wilbur cracks the culinary code on your favorite restaurant dishes

When words such as “pink slime” and “carbon monoxide” start making headlines for being common food additives, it’s time for a hero like Las Vegas resident Todd Wilbur to swoop in and save us from the hidden evils of processed food. A self-proclaimed “food hacker” skilled in the art of so-called “clone cuisine,” Wilbur is perhaps less Batman and more Mr. Wizard in the way he has dissected, analyzed, tasted and re-created countless restaurant dishes and grocery items, which he has documented in his Top Secret Recipes book series.

Artificial preservatives—such as the dreaded pink slime—is a silent partner that fast-food chains allowed to reside in dishes. McDonald’s recently announced that it would no longer use ammonia-treated beef in its burgers. When Wilbur reverse-engineered the Big Mac more than two decades ago, he never could have imagined that there would be a potentially toxic additive. He recently Tweeted, “Apparently pink slime is the secret ingredient that’s been missing in some of my clone recipes.”

Wilbur is not a food scientist, nor is he a chef or a chemist. He has held jobs as a television reporter and videographer. His first successful clone was Mrs. Fields chocolate-chip cookies in the ’80s. Next came the Big Mac. Since then he’s written nearly a dozen books, many of them in his home with his family in Summerlin, where he’s broken down snacks such as Twinkies and Girl Scout cookies. The Southern California native not only writes the recipes, but draws the blueprint-like schematics himself, employing some training he had as an artist. His first book, published in 1993, launched to the New York Times best-seller list. Eventually Wilbur found himself cloning his recipes on Today, Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Dishes including Krispy Kreme’s original glazed doughnuts, McDonald’s french fries and Drake’s Devil Dog, were picked apart, their secrets unlocked and presented for your cooking pleasure to make in your own home at a fraction of the cost.

Top Secret Recipes became a TV show on CMT last year, taking viewers through the process of cloning recipes with the savory sleuth. Wilbur would have three days to figure out the recipe such as a Cinnabon roll, using undercover operations into restaurants, a mobile food laboratory and help from food scientists.

While Wilbur in his books was concerned with simply replicating the flavor profiles, on the show the dishes had to look exactly how they would be served at the restaurant to fool a panel of judges. “The best recipes [were] on the show because I had so much more information,” Wilbur says. “I would duplicate it, reverse-engineer it, as close as possible to the original to look and hold up to a taste test.”

The taste test is what matters in the long run for home cooks, and it’s an opportunity to enjoy these dishes without any additional guilt. Wilbur recently appeared on an episode of The Dr. Oz Show to re-create Kentucky Fried Chicken’s original recipe with fewer calories and half the fat.

The best side effect of his process is that home cooks can control exactly what is going into a dish. “I’m not trying to make anything better for you, but when you do make something at home, you’re leaving out preservatives, so that it does end up being better for you because it’s fresher.” Maybe Wilbur should tackle the Big Mac once again.

Outtakes

On his newest e-book, Super Duper Totally Authorized Top Secret Recipes

“These are all recipes from Season 1 [of Top Secret Recipes]. There are 450 recipes. It’s ‘super duper totally authorized’ because there are all these .pdf files of books from various sources [elsewhere on the Internet] that are not good recipes. It’s not their job to do this like it’s mine. These are all my recipes, guaranteed that this is the real deal.”

Surprise ingredients

“A lot of these foods are made with thickeners or gels or gum. When I first made a Cinnabon in 1995, I would just make the filling with margarine, brown sugar and cinnamon. But there’s something that holds it in the cinnamon roll and it’s one of those gums: xanthan gum. It’s something that’s used in ice cream—it keeps it from melting during shipping. When it refreezes it crystallizes—nothing that’s bad for you.”

Wish List

Dishes or foods that Wilbur hasn’t had the opportunity crack yet include Bush’s Baked Beans, since the company features its “family secret” so heavily in marketing campaigns, and the Butterfinger candy bar. “It’s one of those that’s hard to do if you don’t have a machine to do it. I think that’s how they get the peanut butter so flaky.”

MSG is A-OK

“Another common additive is MSG. It’s an amino acid with a salt attached to it. It became this urban legend that it was bad for you when it’s not. It’s based on a bad report from the ’60s, so now you see all these ‘No-MSG’ labels.” In reality, MSG is naturally occurring in many ingredients, producing that savory umami flavor that is beloved.”

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