From spicy new flavorings to premium ingredients, potato chips are cashing in on a whole new image these days.
"What's been happening lately is there are more companies pushing interesting recipes," says Jeremy Selwyn, who follows the snack food industry for his website Taquitos.net.
Chips are packing heat -- jalapeno and 3-alarm chili flavors are a trend -- and taking on a sophisticated air; plain Jane salt and vinegar has been reborn as balsamic vinegar and sea salt. Barbecue is as popular as ever, but it's no longer just barbecue. Now it's hickory barbecue, honey barbecue, and so on.
"There's a lot of new things going on," says Steve Sklar, executive vice president of marketing for Inventure Foods, the team behind a number of snack chip brands, including Boulder Canyon, T.G.I. Friday's and Burger King.
Yes, there are Burger King potato chips, including a Ketchup & Fries flavor.
Boulder Canyon aims for the artisan touch with natural ingredients and interesting flavors such as hummus and red wine.
"We find when you're snacking, people want to have a distinctive flavor," notes Sklar. "We have jalapeno cheddar, which has got good balance, but it clearly is spicy."
Meanwhile, there's been an effort to simplify ingredients and make chips, if not a health food at least one that's less bad for you. As such, many manufacturers have switched to better quality oils and are working on reducing sodium.
At Frito-Lay, the company several years ago began promoting the fact that its plain potato chips contain just three ingredients -- potatoes, oil and salt. "There was an opportunity to tell the story about what goes into a potato chip. It's not this heavily processed unnatural thing that we're creating. We actually use potatoes," says Chris Kuechenmeister, a spokesman for Frito-Lay.
According to potato chip lore, the snack was created in 1853 when a picky customer annoyed a chef in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., by complaining that his french fries were too thick, says Selwyn. The chef decided to cut the potatoes REALLY thin and "what he ended up doing was inventing potato chips because the customer really liked them."
Selwyn has tried a lot of chips, from mainstream to off-the-wall -- Cajun squirrel, anyone? Anyone?
While the main chip action is in flavors with shelf appeal -- like better barbecue -- he expects the quest for quirkier combos will continue.
"Whatever crazy flavor you can think of," he says, "someone will try to make a chip out of it someday."
DRESS-YOUR-OWN POTATO CHIPS
Making your own potato chips takes this much-loved snack food to a whole new level. It also let's you add the flavors you like. In this recipe, use Yukon gold, russets or even sweet potatoes. We've added some suggestions for how to season the chips, but the fun is in experimenting with your own combinations.
Soaking the potato slices briefly in salted water helps release the starches from the potatoes, which ensures they will fry up crisp. Just be sure to pat them dry before frying. Note that sweet potatoes will take longer to fry than the other varieties, about 5 to 7 minutes per batch.
Be sure to prepare your seasoning blends before you fry the potatoes; you want it ready as soon as the chips come out of the oil.
Start to finish: 45 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
4 medium potatoes
2 tablespoons kosher salt
4 cups peanut or canola oil
Using a mandolin, food processor or a very sharp knife, slice the potatoes into very thin rounds. Be sure to slice them as evenly as possible. Rinse the potatoes under cool running water.
Place the slices in a large bowl, then add enough cool water to cover. Add the salt, stir to dissolve, then let sit for 30 minutes.
When ready to cook the chips, place the oil in a large saucepan. Heat over medium until the oil reaches 325 degrees.
Drain the potatoes and, working in batches, use a towel to pat the slices dry. Carefully add a quarter of the slices to the oil and fry until golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes depending on the thickness of your slices. Use a slotted spoon to remove the potatoes from the oil and set on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Sprinkle with one of the following seasoning blends (or your own), then serve.
Recipe from Alison Ladman