There's nothing like eating 19 different kinds of potato chips to give a person some perspective on how a potato chip should taste. And, simply put, it should taste like a potato--not like the oil in which it was cooked. And it should look like a potato slice, and not be puffed up, dried out or toughened by the process that was used to cook it, whether it was fried, baked or kettle cooked.
In a test in which all brand names were hidden, our tasters sampled the chip in its purest form: the classic, plain salted snack, in a bag, not in a can, and without barbecue, sour cream and onion, vinegar or any other complicated seasonings. Though sometimes the tasters were sharply divided, the following salty, greasy generalizations were made: Ridges are for kids. "Kettle-cooked" potatoes (whose makers emphasize that their chips are made in small batches and therefore are crunchier and more evenly cooked) don't necessarily live up to those claims. And last: Potato chips are not health food: A good chip has to have oil and salt. If you're going to eat them, deal with it.
Kettle Chips Lightly Salted Natural Gourmet Potato Chips, $1.77 per 5-ounce bag. A surprise performer, these Oregon chips available at some specialty stores were pungent, appropriately greasy and looked and tasted like potatoes with the skins still on.
Lay's Deli Style Potato Chips, $1.49 per 5 1/2-ounce bag. A clear favorite of some testers since the taste of potato came through with a good balance of oil and salt.
LOVED 'EM, HATED 'EM
Cape Cod Old Fashioned Kettle-Cooked Potato Chips, $1.89 per 5 1/2-ounce bag. The group was split: half liked the mild taste from the canola oil; half found not a hint of potato and wanted more salt in these specialty chips.
Grandma Utz's Handcooked Potato Chips, $2.49 per 11-ounce bag. This is the only chip we tasted made with lard (rather than vegetable oil) and therefore the only one with cholesterol. Its fans--and they are ardent--picked it out instantly and embraced it. Others said they felt as if they were eating bacon grease.
Route 11 Lightly Salted Potato Chips, about $2.49 per 6-ounce bag. These chips--made in nearby Middletown, Va.--looked like potato slices, and their golden color stood out. Yet some tasters found them to be more crispy than tasty and to have an unpleasant aftertaste.
MIDDLE OF THE PILE
Herrs Pennsylvania Dutch Style Potato Chips, $1.49 per 5 1/2 oz. Very acceptable though very salty.
Ruffles the More Potato Potato Chip, $1.49 per 5 1/2-ounce bag. Younger testers liked their heft--a good vehicle for dips. The older crowd deemed them "benign."
Super G Potato Chips, 99 cents per 6-ounce bag. The Giant Food house brand was very light and thin; the chips were deemed too small for dips.
Utz Ripples Crisp All Natural Potato Chips, Ripple Cut, $1.49 per 5 1/2-ounce bag. Light, straightforward, smallish chips, with a mild aftertaste.
Utz Crisp All Natural Potato Chips, $1.49 per 5.5-ounce bag. Very light and airy.
ONLY ON A BAD NIGHT
Dirty Potato Chips, Lightly Salted, $2.38 per 6-ounce bag. The makers of these chips brag that "dirty" chips don't have the flavor washed out of them as mass-manufactured chips do. But these dark chips were curled up and tough, and the overpowering flavor was that of peanut oil, not potatoes.
Lay's Classic Potato Chips, $1.49 per 5 1/2-ounce bag. Too light, too thin, too wan.
Ruffles Naturally Baked Original Potato Chip, $1.99 per 5 1/2-ounce bag. Okay, they have 3 grams of fat per serving, less than many other chips. But they tasted papery and dry, more like the chips that come stacked in a can.
Utz Kettle Classics, $2.49 per 11-ounce bag. Think of the intense flavor of peanut oil and loads of salt.
Wavy Lay's Original Potato Chips, $1.49 per 5 1/2-ounce bag. A big heavy chip that would best be drowned in onion dip.
Wise All Natural Potato Chips, $1.49 per 5 1/2-ounce bag. A texture almost like a cornflake and a slightly burned taste.
WE'LL PASS ON THESE
Boulder Potato Company Totally Natural Potato Chips, 99 cents per 5-ounce bag. Tough as boulders with a bad oil taste, these chips from Colorado sank like a stone.
Cape Cod Yukon Gold Potato Chips, $2.18 per 5-ounce bag. Yukon golds are supposed to be the gems of the potato world. Cape Cod claims that vacuum cooking makes chips with more flavor and 50 percent less fat. But with a greenish color these tasted and looked like cast-offs, and all we tasted was a distinctly stale oil.
Utz Home Style, Kettle-Cooked Potato Chips, $2.49 per 11-ounce bag. Ack! Their phony, oily taste lingered unpleasantly.