How we tested
With annual sales topping $30 billion, potato chips beat out pretzels and tortilla chips as America's favorite snack food. There are endless chip varieties and flavors, but which bag of plain chips should the purist reach for? We grabbed eight national brands and headed into the test kitchen to find out.
Potato chips are made with three basic ingredients—potatoes, oil, and salt. According to our tasters, starchy white russets and Idahos are the only way to go; products made from other varieties left tasters wondering if they were made from real potatoes.
The type of oil used for frying turned out to be very important. Three of the four bottom-ranking chips are fried in so-called "neutral" canola oil, which made the chips taste "fishy," with a "stale aftertaste." Why? Canola oil has a very high concentration (11 percent) of unsaturated fatty acids (called linoleic acids), which break down at high temperatures and take on a fishy flavor and odor. The other chips were fried in safflower, sunflower, corn, and cottonseed oils, which have much lower concentrations (3 percent or lower) of these fatty acids.
Kettle-style chips finished first and fourth in our tasting. These thick-cut chips are cooked in small batches and spend more time in the cooking oil. A thicker cut means more potato mass—and thus more potato flavor—and longer cooking times result in crunchier chips. Our favorite brand's crunchy chips were the thickest ones we sampled and just salty enough to keep tasters coming back for seconds.