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Lo the humble potato chip… they are the most popular snack food in North America. And, in my equally humble opinion, it’s no wonder. If you who have read my previous blogs you know my fondness for all things fried. And you probably also know I love the starchy goodness of potatoes. For me, potatoes, whether baked, mashed or scalloped, are already close to perfection. But, when you bathe them in boiling oil, they are elevated to a category all their own. They are my ambrosia. Now, I must admit that french fries are my favourite, but potato chips are a close second. And, just like my fries, I like them best with salt and vinegar.
I take considerable comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my affection for a good crisp chip. According to a Statistics Canada study the average Canadian consumed 2.55 kilograms of potato chips in 2003. That’s 51 bags of chips per year per person! Just to put that into perspective, that’s the equivalent of 11.42 kilograms (25 pounds) of fresh potatoes. A USDA study found similar results with Americans purchasing 1.9 kilograms (4.2 pounds) of chips per year per capita. No matter how thin you slice them, that’s a lot of chips.
So how did this ubiquitous snack find it’s way into our supermarkets and our hearts? The story is a fantastic bit of culinary lore. The potato chip was invented in 1853 at a posh resort in upstate New York. French fried potatoes were a popular menu item, but on that fabled day, a diner sent his fries back to the kitchen complaining that they were cut too thick. The chef, a fellow named George Crum, was offended and resolved to teach his complaining client some manners. Crum decided to slice the potatoes so thin and cook them so crispy that they could not be picked up with a fork. However, the last laugh fell to the customer and his dining companions who loved Crum’s chips. And so culinary history was made. It seems we owe debt of gratitude to a curmudgeonly cook and a picky patron.
Today there are dozens of brands, several styles and even more flavours of potato chips to choose from. You can find them thick and thin, flat and rippled, fried and baked, prepared in “continuous processing” systems or kettle fried in batches. As testament to their popularity, most supermarkets devote considerable swaths of real estate to display potato chips. As I mentioned my favourite flavour is salt and vinegar, but other Canadian favourites include ketchup, barbeque and, for the completely indecisive customer, all-dressed. Australians are particularly fond of chicken chips. I was skeptical but they were pretty good. Like any food, flavour is a highly personal preference, but so is texture. I like my chips, not just crisp, but hard. Fortunately for me, the latest trend is in “old-fashioned” kettle chips. Sliced thin and fried at a low temperature (under 3000) they are the perfect chip for me. But I have a friend who likes her chips thick and not quite so hard. A good ripple chip is her ideal. And who doesn’t appreciate a chip that demands to be dipped. Then there is the pressed potato pulp we know as Pringles. When Pringle first appeared on the market I was smitten. Perhaps it was texture, but I think it retrospect it was the novelty.
Of course, chips don’t have to come from a bag. If you have a potato, a pot of oil and a mandolin (or really good knife skills) you can make potato chips. Always willing to take on the challenge of creating my store-bought favourites at home, I pulled out my favourite pot and a spider and went to work.
I didn’t start with instructions but thought all the basic frying principals should apply. Keep the product dry, the temperature level and salt while still hot. I chose a russet potato for its texture and relative dryness. I sliced them about 2mm thick and patted the slices dry before they took their oil bath. The oil was at a medium heat, about 3500.
I fried about ½ a medium potato per batch and salted with sea salt as soon as they came out of the pot. Then I did the same thing with a yam.
I’m happy to report that the results were great. They are not quite as crisp as my favourite kettle chips but in line with a regular chip. The yam chips are really tasty but prone to over browning. You will have to watch them closer and keep them moving in the oil to cook them evenly.
For those of you who are uncomfortable with deep-frying, you can bake your chips. Just brush oil on both sides of your potato slices and cook in a 5000 oven until they begin to brown around the edges, about 18 minutes. Your oven chips are no healthier, but they are easier and you can use butter or olive oil or other oils that have a low smoke point and are inappropriate for frying.
Whenever I make things that I usually purchase I feel compelled to do a quick cost-benefit analysis to decide if I would do it again. Corned beef was a definite no, but potato chips are a qualified yes. Although I really love chips, I rarely eat them. Instead of a bag a week as is the national average, I’m more of a “bag of salt and vinegar kettle chips every couple of months” kind of girl. I don’t plan for my occasional indulgence. I just buy them when it strikes me. So, home-made isn’t really an option for that kind of consumption. However, I would absolutely make a batch of yam chips or salt and chipotle pepper chips for game day.
Once again, a blog assignment has brought me closer to the foods that I love. I never gave potato chips a second thought except to know my favourite brand and flavour. Doing a bit of research and frying my own chips has made me consider the source of my food, the suitability of ingredients and the process of production. It’s still just a potato chip but I appreciate them a little bit more.
By the way, my favourite chip, the Hardbite, is a truly local product for us Vancouverites. The potatoes are grown in the Fraser Valley and the chips are fried and packaged in Maple Ridge. Potato chips that fit into the 100 mile diet… you gotta love that.