Potato chips, popcorn and pretzels


The Grey Cup just ended, but the Rose, Cotton, Orange and Super Bowl are still to come. It therefore seems apt to delve into a subject with which I have a great-deal of hands-on experience: the Three Ps of snack food, potato chips, popcorn and pretzels.

Potato chips were invented in a Saratoga, New York, restaurant in 1853, when millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt complained that his fried potatoes were too thick. Annoyed, the cook cut the next batch paper-thin. Vanderbilt loved them, and “Saratoga Chips” became hugely popular.

Today, potato chips are made in factories, not restaurants. When the potatoes arrive (and one out of every eight or nine harvested goes to a potato chip factory), their skins are scraped off by machine, then they’re washed, hand-trimmed, machine-slice, washed and dried, then floated down a long trough of oil, sizzling at 190 degrees Celsius. They’re ready for salting in minutes.

Thicker kettle-style potato chips are stirred by hand in smaller troughs at a somewhat lower temperature (because the operator et the finished chips out in time if the oil is hotter).

Pringles and other “fabricated chips” are made from dehydrated potato flakes and water, formed into a dough. Disks are stamped out of the dough, fried between curved screens, salted, then packed in airtight canisters (which protect the chips better than ordinary bags).

Like potatoes, potato chips supply some vitamins and minerals. Thirty grams, for example, could provide about 10 percent of the daily requirement of Vitamin C. However, that same 30 grams supplies 10 grams of fat, responsible for 90 of the 150 calories. The only good thing is that very little of the fat is saturated. (Kettle-style chips have slightly less fat.).

Chips also provide salt, though not as much as you might think: they seem saltier than they are because most of the salt is on the surface. Thirty grams of chips provides about 1/15th of a teaspoon of salt. Some breakfast cereals contain more.

Pretzels have three times as much salt, but almost no fat. They’re simply flour, water and vegetable shortening formed into a dough, covered with an egg glaze and baked. Pretzels were originally made by German monks to reward children who said their prayers: the shape represents a child with his arms folded.

If you want a snack with little fat OR salt, and few calories, your best bet is popcorn, provided you don’t cover it with oil, salt, butter, caramel or white-cheese powder.

Popcorn pops when the moisture inside the kernel is rapidly heated. This softens the starchy endosperm; eventually the pressure created by water turning to steam breaks open the kernel, and the softened endosperm bursts out and then solidifies again. (Kernels that fail to pop have traditionally been labelled “old maids” and “widows,” although in these politically correct times, one company has taken to calling them “flopcorn” instead.)

Before popcorn is ready to pop, it has to be dried, its natural level of about 16 percent moisture reduced to 13.5 or14 percent–but no more. Moisture content is vital to good popcorn. That’s why the best way to store it is just like Orville Redenbacher does it: in a tightly sealed glass jar at room temperature. Keeping it in a freezer or refrigerator dries it out.

Popcorn can be popped in oil, which adds lots of fat but helps seasonings stick to the corn and improves its “mouth feel,” or popped in hot air, which results in a low-calorie, low-fat snack that’s hard to season because the salt or spices keep falling to the bottom of the bowl. You can also pop popcorn in a microwave, but you need the right container; otherwise you risk melting plastic or burning paper. Commercial microwave popcorn is encased in a brick of fat, which means commercially packaged microwave popcorn is about as high-fat a snack as potato chips or any of the other snack foods you’re planning to indulge on New Year’s Day or Super Bowl Sunday.

But perhaps you’ll choose to forego popcorn, pretzels and potato chips for something even tastier: hot dogs. So let me tell you about hot dogs…

On second thought, maybe I won’t.

Why spoil your appetite?

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1993/11/potato-chips-popcorn-and-pretzels/

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