I recently stood in the aisle of my supermarket and was dazzled by the vast array of potato chips. Whether they're plain or rippled, traditional or flavored, potato chips are America's favorite snack food. The variety of flavors is mind-boggling.
You can buy barbecue-flavored chips, with or without mesquite flavoring, or choose from an ever-increasing variety of flavors, including sour cream and onion, vinegar and salt, cheddar cheese and onion, or chips dusted with Old Bay seasoning. These chips aren't so unusual. But there are some out there in snack land that are downright weird.
Would you eat a chip that tastes like a hot dog with mustard, especially if you're munching on the real thing? How about a chip that purports to taste like a grilled steak with onions? Since pickles are a traditional condiment with cookouts, do you want a potato chip that tastes like a kosher dill? Or - get this - one that tastes like a sausage pizza?
These chips are manufactured by Snyder's of Hanover. I was anxious to question the company about its flavored chips, but no one was available to speak to me.
My husband, Edward, and I held a potato chip tasting, and after days of munching agreed that when it comes to chips, our taste is traditional. We prefer them straight - no ripples, no flavors. The odd-flavored chips, like
steak or hot dogs, smelled like meat or mustard, but didn't really taste like beef from a steakhouse or a hot dog from the ball park.
What I found funny is that the "U" symbol, followed by the word ''dairy," appears on the bags. There is no meat in the hot dog, sausage pizza or steak chips. They get their meat flavor from soy products. So if you're a strict vegetarian or give up meat during Lent, you can munch these with a clear conscience.
If I were to choose a tasty-flavored chip, the Old Bay by Herr's came in first. Old Bay seasoning is traditionally used in shrimp boils and for steaming hardshell crabs. How do potato chip manufacturers get ideas for these newfangled flavors?
"Sometimes our flavor suppliers give us ideas," said Daryl Thomas, director of marketing for Herr Foods Inc. in Chester County. "We have been making Old Bay chips since 1987. Old Bay was owned by the Baltimore Spice Co., which was later sold to McCormick's. A sales representative from the Baltimore Spice Co. suggested we produce a chip flavored with Old Bay. We then got the exclusivity.
"We constantly get calls from seasoning companies, sometimes 100 at a time. We are constantly testing for taste."
Potato chip companies have close ties to spice manufacturers because barbecue chips, the first flavored chips, have been around since the '50s. Herr's potato chips, which debuted in 1946, are sold in nine Northeastern states. The company is the leader in Philadelphia, with a 30 percent share of the market. Thomas keeps close tabs on the potato chip industry.
"Some companies will try anything when it comes to new flavors," he said. ''It's sort of like throwing something against the wall to see if it sticks. It's a real roll of the dice when inventing new flavors."
Food trends and America's taste for hot and spicy are also taken into account when experimenting with flavors.
"The Cajun craze and Southwest mesquite craze a few years ago came and
went," Thomas said. "Crazes come and go. At the outset, you've got to be on top of the craze because of the big investment in product development, design and packaging and marketing. If you make a mistake, you're stuck with it."
Thomas said America's taste in chips isn't odd when compared to Canada and Europe. The British call potato chips "crisps," and french fries "chips." It's traditional to sprinkle malt vinegar on french fries in Canada, England and parts of upstate New York, so it wasn't unusual to make a chip with this ingredient.
In the U.S., Thomas said, regular chips are No. 1, followed by ripple (the surface, not the wine!), sour cream and onion, barbecue, salt and vinegar, cheddar with sour cream, and Old Bay.
According to the Snack Food Association, the potato chip is the No. 1 snack food in the United States. Of all the snacks we enjoyed in 1994, 30.6 percent were potato chips, compared with 22.1 percent tortilla chips and 11.8 percent pretzels. Americans ate 6.6 pounds of chips per person, spending a staggering $4.7 billion.
For many years, potato chips were called Saratoga chips because they were
invented by a hotel chef in Saratoga, N.Y., during the mid-19th century. It seems that a regular hotel guest complained that his potatoes weren't crispy enough. "The Joy of Cooking," that old, reliable cookbook dating from the '30s, still calls them Saratoga chips.
Homemade potato chips, flavored or straight, deep-fried or baked, are a snap to prepare and a lot of fun, but they make a mess of the kitchen stove.
There are two important things to remember when making your own potato chips: The potatoes must be sliced as thin as possible, and the oil must be kept at 375 degrees, a temperature just before smoking.
When the first batch of chips is draining on paper towels, wait a few moments for the oil to heat up again. As soon as foods are dropped into hot fat, down goes the temperature.
You can achieve thin potato slices by using the thinnest slicing blade for a food processor, which costs about $30 to $40; using a mandoline, a nifty, hand-held contraption which runs between $12 to $140 (the $40 version is standard); or an ordinary vegetable or potato peeler, which sets you back about a buck or so.
Have a big bowl of ice water ready and plunge in the potato slices as you work. This way they won't turn a nasty brown. When you're ready to fry, make sure the potatoes are thoroughly dry. Paper towels are OK, but I prefer kitchen towels because they absorb more moisture.
Peanut oil is excellent for frying because the potatoes won't absorb as much oil when they cook. If you don't have peanut oil, any vegetable oil will do. Don't use olive oil because the taste is too strong. However, if you're making baked potato chips, olive oil is fine.
Don't forget sweet potatoes when making homemade chips. These were made popular locally by chef Jack McDavid, owner of the Down Home Diner and Jack's Firehouse. I first ate McDavid's sweet potato chips seven years ago and found them deliciously different.
As for flavorings, you can be classic or create your own. Rummage through your spice rack and pull out Old Bay, garlic powder, onion powder, dry mustard, cumin, turmeric, paprika and celery salt for sprinkling on the still- warm chips as they drain on paper towels.
Adobo, the spice mixture used in Puerto Rican cooking, is another tasty alternative. Be inventive with spices, mixing and tasting. If you want to use dried herbs such as oregano, tarragon, basil, etc., grind them into a powder in a food processor. Even though the flakes are tiny, they won't stick very well to warm chips. You can sprinkle by hand, but I find a shaker much easier to use.
Should you have any leftover chips, store them in an airtight container.
Here are some recipes for homemade potato chips. The recipe for Fried Potato Curls comes from "The Perfect Potato" by Diane Simone Vezza. The recipes for Oven Fried Potato Chips with Thyme and Rosemary Potato Chips are
from "The Best of Gourmet Tenth Anniversary Edition."
HOMEMADE POTATO CHIPS
1 pound baking potatoes or sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup peanut oil or vegetable oil
Salt or your favorite flavor topping, to taste
After the potatoes are sliced, place them in a large bowl of ice water. When ready to cook, drain and dry thoroughly.
In a large skillet, wok or deep fryer, heat the oil to 375 degrees. Fry the chips in batches until brown and crisp, about 2 minutes or so.
Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt or seasoning. Repeat until all the potato chips are fried. Serves 4.
FRIED POTATO CURLS
2 large baking potatoes, peeled
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled
Peanut or vegetable oil
Salt to taste
With a vegetable peeler, peel paper-thin strips from the potatoes and drop the strips into a large bowl of ice water as you work. The curls can be made ahead up to this point.
In a 12-inch-deep skillet or large saucepan, heat 1 inch of the oil to 400 degrees. Remove the potato strips from the water and pat dry with paper towels. Drop a handful of strips into the hot oil. Fry until crisp and golden, about 2 minutes.
With a slotted spoon, remove the potato strips to paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining potato strips. Sprinkle with salt and serve.
OVEN FRIED POTATO CHIPS WITH THYME
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 russet potatoes, about 1 1/2 pounds
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme, crumbled
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and brush 2 large baking sheets well with some oil.
Peel potatoes and with a mandoline or other hand-held slicing device cut lengthwise into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Immediately arrange potatoes in one layer on baking sheets and brush with remaining oil.
Bake potatoes in middle of oven until golden, 12 to 15 minutes, and while still warm, transfer with a metal spatula to racks. Sprinkle with thyme and
salt to taste.
Chips may be made 3 days ahead. Cool completely and keep in an airtight container at room temperature. Serves 4.
ROSEMARY POTATO CHIPS
2 (8-ounce) russet potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1/16-inch-thick slices, patted dry
1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves or 2 teaspoons dried, crumbled
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly grease non-stick baking sheets.
Arrange potato slices in 1 layer on the prepared baking sheets, brushing both sides with oil. Sprinkle potato slices with rosemary, and salt and pepper to taste.
Bake, turning once, until golden brown, about 15 to 18 minutes. Cool potato chips on baking sheets and transfer to a serving dish. Potato chips may be made 3 hours ahead and kept at room temperature. Makes about 3 cups.