Are gourmet potato chips all they're fried up to be?
Two powerful consumer trends—affordable luxury and natural food (think $4 cups of coffee)—have reached a salty apotheosis in supermarket snack aisles, in the form of gourmet potato chips. For the most part, "gourmet" chips achieve their gastronomic distinction because they are "kettle-cooked" in small batches, sometimes by hand, which means the chips turn out extra crispy. (A representative from Boulder Potato Company, when asked about their cooking instrument, described it as a "huge stainless steel-looking thing filled with oil—but we call it the kettle.") Some gourmet chips also boast no artificial flavors and are thus marketed as "natural." In addition, most gourmet chips are free of unhealthy (but tasty) hydrogenated oils, otherwise known as trans-fatty acids. All this is welcome, of course, but the important question is: Do gourmet chips live up to their name?
To find out, I assembled a panel of 10 snack-food experts—read: twentysomething Americans—to sample the goods. We eschewed diet chips like Baked Lays and the Olestra-fied Wow! chips, but we did test fancier chips such as those made with olive oil and a brand called Terra Frites, which look like French fries, are stocked next to potato chips, and, as it turns out, taste like neither. All chips were of the standard, salted variety. (Though there are many varieties of gourmet chips available, often with amusingly highfalutin names: "yogurt and green onion" chips are the previously déclassé "sour cream and onion." And gourmet chips are never salted; they're "sea-salted.") The chips were served on a succession of paper plates and then rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 indicating detestable and 10 delectable; the 10 panelists' scores were then averaged. Chips were rated on gustatory pleasure alone—panelists were unaware of the chips' packaging, price, or healthiness. Water and Miller High Life were available to cleanse the palate and eliminate inhibitions in the matter of potato-chip-reviewing, respectively. And so, without further ado, here are the chips, from worst to first.
Boulder Potato Company, Original/Totally Natural ($1.89/5 ounces) Cooked in sunflower and/or safflower oil Average score: 4.0 The bag boasts "Thick-Sliced," but the chips taste emaciated: "Too thin and GREASY!" says one reviewer. "Like cardboard with a lot of grease," says another. Indeed, these "very light" and "flavorless" kettle-cooked chips "lack a pleasing crunch" and "leave a ton of grease on your fingers." One unnecessarily mincing panelist calls the chips "a bit too gross" while another demands to know, "What is so gourmet about withholding the salt?"
Kettle Chips, Lightly Salted
Cooked in sunflower and/or safflower oil
Average score: 4.05
Kettle-brand kettle chips, which are "dark with grease," not only look distinctive, they leave behind a distinctive look: "So greasy that you will definitely have to wipe your hands on your jeans," says one tester; "These chips could stain your shirt," another cautions. Although these chips have a "good texture" and a "pleasing crunch," their "flavor doesn't meet expectations raised by the large amount of grease." One dissatisfied panelist sums them up: "Greasy, burnt, and with an offensive and bitter aftertaste," these chips are "not pleasant to eat."
Lay's Natural Thick-Cut Sea-Salted Potato Chips
Cooked in sunflower oil
Average score: 4.3
Although they are not crunchy kettle-style chips, Lay's Natural Thick-Cut Sea-Salted chips, boasting a faux-woodcut on the bag and the ubiquitous "sea salt," are still pretentious enough to qualify for this panel. Unfortunately, these oversized chips "aren't crunchy." "Too soft and chewy!" complains more than one panelist of these "airy," "forgettable" behemoths. Another indelicately notes, "They gave me gas." In general, it's the "ethereal" taste that raises hackles: "Munchos for twice the price. Save your money."
Terra Seasoned Salt Frites
Cooked in canola oil and/or sunflower oil
Average score: 4.67
"Like thinking you're going to drink Pepsi and getting root beer," these "crazy-ass chip-fries" are "very disconcerting." They're small, "supercrunchy," "very seasoned" (the bag lists the ingredients as onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, and the mysteriously vague "spices"), and they exude "a strange beefy flavor." The panel splits as to whether these oddities are "shudder-inducing" or "look and taste gourmet," but the "herbed beef" "raw Cup o' Noodles" flavor—perhaps the seasoned salt?—and pseudo-French-fry mien set them apart, to say the least. As one disgruntled panelist put it: "Dude, this is not a potato chip. I came here to rate potato chips, not piss around."
Terra Red Bliss Potato Chips Made With Olive Oil
Cooked in olive oil (duh)
Average score: 5.35
Everyone agrees that the Terra chips "taste like a potato," but many panelists contend "this isn't necessarily a good thing." "More sweet than salty" with a "significant grease factor," these "earthy" chips "are initially dry and Styrofoam-like but have a great real-potato aftertaste." Though they suffer from "severe textural flaws" (i.e., "not crispy enough"), these "thick" chips taste "similar to a potato side dish"—like scalloped potatoes—which, our panelist notes, may be "not what I want in a chip … even though there is the aura of 'gourmet' about it." And the Carnac the Magnificent Award, incidentally, goes to the panelist who wrote "tastes foreign, perhaps South American." It turns out Red Bliss potatoes are originally a South American crop.
Cape Cod Potato Chips
Cooked in vegetable oil (contains one or more of the following: cottonseed oil, corn oil, canola oil, or sunflower oil)
Average score: 5.75
In Cape Cod's "crunchy and salty" kettle-cooked chips, you "can see the frying bubble." In other words, they're "way too greasy." Though some complain that these chips "lack a regular taste" and "only have an aftertaste," others claim, "You taste the grease before you taste the potato." Several reviewers compliment the "perfect golden color" and the way the "superb flavor of the potatoes permeates each chip." Overall, Cape Cod chips received high marks despite their flaws, handily summarized as "Crispy: good. Insanely greasy: bad."
Lay's Kettle-Cooked Original Potato Chips
Cooked in vegetable oil (contains one or more of the following: corn oil, cottonseed oil, partially hydrogenated canola and/or partially hydrogenated soybean oil)
Average score: 6.0
The only chips we reviewed that contained the evil-yet-delicious hydrogenated oil, Lay's kettle-cooked creation won raves: "the taste and texture a potato chip should aspire to!" Though a plurality of contestants warn that the "hard—way too hard" chip "could slice open your mouth"—seriously, six people expressed concern about bodily harm—most feel that the "super crunch!" is worth any health risk. But one dissenting panelist complains, "It's like eating a mouthful of vegetable oil." Still, this "hearty yet light-in-flavor" chip wins the panel's highest accolade: "not too greasy!"
Kettle Chips, Lightly Sea-Salted Using Organically Grown Potatoes
Cooked in expeller-pressed monounsaturated sunflower and/or safflower oil
Average score: 6.35
"The overcooked thing" works for Kettle's organic line, which crushes Kettle's non-organic offering (6.35 to 4.05). "High on flavor, low on grease," these "very satisfying" chips offer "the perfect level of crunch." Though one panelist thinks "the offensive burnt taste offsets all positives"—there's always a detractor—others describe these as "by far my favorite." One reviewer put it best: "I'd let these chips be the cause of a minor heart attack."
So, did gourmet potato chips live up to their billing? On one level, definitely: None of these chips tasted a bit like regular chips (except the Lay's Kettle-Cooked Original Chips, which are cooked in hydrogenated oil, and the Lay's Natural Chips, which tasted like ersatz Munchos). But tasting different isn't the same as tasting better, and many chips disappointed by being weirdly greasy or too bland. In fact, the scores overall were pretty mediocre—6.35 out of 10 was our highest score, and that ain't too high. The type of oil used didn't seem to matter, although it is worth noting that the chips (Lay's Kettle-Cooked Original) fried in the hydrogenated vegetable oil did better than most of the other chips, which used sunflower or safflower oil. This suggests to me that it's the lack of hydrogenated oils—which taste great, even though they're extremely bad for you—that kept these chips from earning higher marks. The gourmet claims, then, should ultimately be taken with a pinch of sea salt.
Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York magazine.
Illustrations by Nina Frenkel.