Potato chips are not poor man’s food. They’re rich man’s food. And if you’re reading this, you can be rich man too. Or even just rich. If you have a stove and a fridge, you have all the ingredients for making potato chips at home from scratch. You can follow recipes or invent your own; either way, it’s easy and fun.
This is a blog about the process of making potato chips from scratch, with lots of pictures and text to help explain what’s going on behind the scenes.
But the potato chip is not “poor man’s food”, and a potato chip maker is not a factory.
Potato chips are made, like all foods, from ingredients by people who like to cook, who enjoy the work that goes into cooking, and who find the results satisfying.
The ingredients include potatoes, vegetable oil, salt, and other flavourings. What makes potato chips special is that they are crunchy: they have a crisp edge with just enough resistance to give them their characteristic feel. A crisp-edge potato chip is an object of desire to many people: it has been described as an aphrodisiac.
Potato chips are “created”, not “grown”. The potatoes grow in fields, but they’re harvested and processed in factories.
There is a restaurant in New York’s West Village that serves potato chips made with potatoes grown on the restaurant’s farm in upstate New York. And there are potato chip companies, like McCormick and Company, that produce potato chips all over the world. There are also potato chip shops, like this one, which claim to sell “authentic” potato chips made from potatoes grown on their own farms in upstate New York.
There’s a natural tendency to take this as evidence that it is somehow possible to get a superior potato chip by growing your own potatoes and doing things the hard way. But for most people, this kind of thing is a sign that you can’t trust them. If a restaurant can grow its own potatoes and make better-tasting potato chips than its competitors, it must be making use of tricks that make it impossible to tell where its potatoes came from. And if it’s selling exactly what tastes like an authentic version of a potato chip, how can we be sure they really are?
Potato chips are not “poor man’s food.” To the contrary, they are one of the most expensive foods on the American market. In fact they were among the first mass-produced packaged foods ever invented.
Potato chips use about as much oil as a hamburger and weigh about the same. A single serving of potato chips contains about the same amount of fat as a single serving of French fries. Potato chips are not “poor man’s food.” But they are made out of potatoes, so they help you stay full, which is something that makes sense if you consider that one potato has over 4 calories and each chip is about 60% more filling than french fries. Furthermore, potato chips have a lot less sugar than french fries (or even most desserts), because the sugar in a potato is found in the skin and not in the flesh.
Potato chips also have a lot less salt than french fries. A medium-sized order of crisps contains no more than 150 milligrams of salt per 100 grams, which is less than half the amount found in a large order of french fries.
Some potato chips, especially the ones in supermarkets, are made of potato starch, salt, and a long list of chemicals. They’re not food, they’re chemicals. And they aren’t cheap.
Potato chips do have some cheap ingredients. Salt is one of them: it’s free. But salt is not the main reason potato chips are so expensive. To make a pound of potato chips, you also need oil and sugar. Both are relatively expensive: the oil costs nearly $1 per pound, and the sugar nearly $10 per pound. That’s why fast food companies don’t make potato chips for their own restaurants; if fast food prices were easier to compare with what you’d pay at a restaurant, people might be more willing to try fast food at home.
The main reason potato chips cost so much is that they are made in factories. Making potato chips requires a lot of specialized equipment, most of which is manufactured by one company: ConAgra Foods in Omaha, Nebraska. There are only about a dozen factories like this in the United States: most of the other factories process wheat or corn or soybeans into flour or corn syrup or soy protein isolate or something else that doesn’t need cooking before it can be eaten. People who want to make their
What makes potato chips so popular? The “chips” part. Chippies are actually not that different from the way we make most other chips, which are made from corn, or rice, or soybeans.
We start with a raw potato. The potato is sliced into long strips, cut into smaller strips, and then those small strips are chopped up into tiny pieces. Those tiny pieces are put in a big vat of oil and cooked over high heat until the potatoes turn translucent. Then they’re scooped out of the oil and dried on a conveyor belt.
Maybe you’ve seen a commercial where they’re crushing tomatoes in a giant press (also called a crusher), squeezing out their juice, then pouring it into a giant vat of oil to make ketchup. What’s happening there is very similar to what’s happening when you make potato chips—except instead of tomatoes, it’s potatoes being cooked in oil.
Today we have machines that can do just about everything for us—oil-crushing, tomato-squeezing—so we don’t need to be doing any of that ourselves. But for hundreds of years before the invention of the machine, the people making processed food were still mostly humans like us: adults working full time
Potato chips are just another kind of snack. There are many things you can make in the kitchen that don’t involve a deep understanding of chemistry. But it’s critical to understand that the oils used in potato chips are the same ones used in salad dressing and mayonnaise, and they’re not safe to eat.
Potato chips need fat, lots of it. That’s why chip makers use vegetable oil instead of animal fat. Most vegetable oil is made from soybeans, and there’s a lot of soybean oil in any given batch of chips. In fact, some people think that potato chip manufacturers use too much soybean oil.
So what’s wrong with using too much vegetable oil? Soybean oil has a high smoke point, or temperature at which it burns without being destroyed by heat. Potato chips cook at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which is high enough for the oils in them to burn without getting destroyed by heat. The amount of soybean oil does not matter; you can use as little or as much as you like and still get good results.