The Great Chip-Off

Twelve chippers, seven chips, two dips. That was the scene yesterday morning at the offices of, where the "Mighty Appetite Chip-Off" took place. staffers Christian Pelusi (rear), Troy Witcher (near left) and Rocci Fisch (right) hard at work. (Kim O'Donnel)

It was early for chips -- 10 a.m. -- but that didn't stop these connoisseurs. There was important business to cover, and as one chipper argued, a bagel-and-cream cheese breakfast is likely to be nutrionally comparable to this chip-n'-dip buffet.

The objective: To identify the "best in show" supermarket brand of plain potato chip, just in time for Super Bowl Sunday.

The methodology: A blind taste test, taking several criteria into consideration, including: salt quotient, crunch, mouth feel, dip-ability, freshness and authentic potato flavor. Chips were divided into two categories -- ridged and regular.

Panelists evaluated each chip individually, then rated them, in numerical order -- #1 representing "first place" and so on.

For the purposes of this taste test, plain, unflavored chips were evaluated. This was a discussion strictly for potato chip purists, so flavored varieties, reduced fat, fat-free and any other chip bells and whistles were excluded from this exercise.

In addition, chips were selected for their accessibility and availability in either regional supermarkets or national chains. I perused the chip offerings in the following stores: Harris Teeter, Giant Food, Target, CVS and Eckerd Drug Store. Of course, one person's Eckerd may be another's Walgreens, but you get the idea. The list below represents plain chip availability here in the Washington area. Had I done this test in my hometown of Philadelphia, just 130-some miles north, I would have had brands such as Herr's and Wise to choose from, for example.

I'm a big fan of chip brands that I can only find in different parts of the country, including Tim's Cascade Style, Pacific Northwest label (but strangely, owned by Bird's Eye Foods) and Zapp's, a Louisiana specialty. But the topic of local chips has enough crunch for its very own blog post, perhaps later down the road.

To rate the chips' dip-ability, two dips were provided: A Velveeta-free queso and an onion dip, minus the soup mix, as detailed in yesterday's blog. (I know, a queso is meant to be served with tortilla or corn chips, but it worked admirably and the panel didn't seem to mind.)

Read on for names and ingredients of the chip contestants and the Chip-Off winners:

Ruffles ("rRRRuffles Have Ridges"), a Frito-Lay brand (potatoes, vegetable oil (corn, cottonseed or sunflower, salt)

The chip contestants. (Kim O'Donnel)

Lay's Wavy, also a Frito-Lay brand (potatoes, sunflower oil, salt)

Utz Ripples, made by Utz of Hanover (potatoes, cottonseed oil, salt)

Utz "Crisp, all natural potato chips" (potatoes, cottonseed oil, salt)

Cape Cod Potato Chips, "old fashioned kettle-cooked" (potatoes, canola oil and salt)

Lays Classic (potatoes, sunflower oil, salt)

Terra Golds original potato chips (Yukon gold potatoes, canola oil and/or safflower, and/or sunflower oil, salt)

The results were fascinating. First, let me give a whopping high-five to the chippers, who took their job seriously and expressed enthusiasm as well as passion for the subject.

Based on their evaluations, there is no clear-cut stand-alone "best in show" chip. However, there are a few brands that the chippers advise staying clear of. The losers, in the panel's assessment, include both Utz varieties, considered "very generic, run of the mill, greasy and rancid."

I believe the words from one panelist were: "Utz is getting its butt kicked." It might behoove Utz to join the trans fat-free brigade with their competitors and stop using cottonseed oil, a hydrogenated oil used in snack foods, and yes, a dreaded trans fat.

The other big loser was the Terra Gold, made from Yukon gold potatoes. Although most were intrigued by its golden color and larger size, the vote was nearly unanimous that this chip tasted awful. "This chip is suspect," one panelist wrote. "I don't know what it would go well with." I overheard one panelist say, "This chip is wack."

As a whole, this group is partial to ridged chips, and of the three on the list, the chip pendulum swayed more in the direction of the Lays Wavy.

"This is the blue collar worker chip," one panelist wrote. "Its primary job is dip transportation," which I interpreted as function over form, or in this case, flavor. Others praised its thick ridges, which were described by one panelist as "wide-wale corduroys." However, many wished that the Lays Wavy was a bit saltier, like its cousin Ruffles.

Of the flat-surfaced chips, the clear forerunner was the Cape Cod kettle chip. However, many said that this chip was suited more for a sandwich than in a dip, and everyone seemed to love its crunch and mouthfeel.

Now, it's your turn. Vote for your 'best in show" or "worst in mouth" chip, ridged or plain. And for now, hold off on those flavored varieties as well as corn and tortilla chips. We'll tackle that universe later in the season.

Have a great weekend!

By Kim ODonnel |  February 2, 2007; 10:46 AM ET Taste Tests
Previous: Hold-The-Velveeta Queso | Next: Five Ways to Forget the Cold


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I still like the regular Utz chips. Utz to you guys!

Posted by: Snyder | February 2, 2007 11:43 AM

Wow. Terra is one of my favorite chips ever. I can eat an entire bag if I don't pay attention. (In a later test, you may want to consider Terra's sweet potato chip. It's definitely different than a regular potato chip.)

I'm not one for the ridge chips, even though I like the thickness, because those tend to irritate my mouth. More surface area, more chances for tiny cuts and stabs.

Posted by: Edward | February 2, 2007 12:03 PM

who is that old guy on the right? I thought websites were supposed to be filled with young, hip workers....

Posted by: jf | February 2, 2007 12:09 PM

you probably should have checked the sell by dates. Best chips are GrandMa UTZ kettle cooked, cape cod chips are number 2. best regional chips are Kitty Clover in the mid west

Posted by: chet | February 2, 2007 12:40 PM

Terra chips are wonderful! Maybe you should have tried a flavored variety (not sure I've had the plain ones) -- the salt & vinegar and green onions & yogurt flavors are both big winners.

Posted by: Silver Spring | February 2, 2007 12:52 PM

I love the Kettle Chips brand. They're huge, tasty, and mega crunchy. They have them at Trader Joe's, and I've seen them recently at Giant.

I dunno how they are for dipping though. They seem more like sandwich chips.

Posted by: b | February 2, 2007 12:52 PM

Hey! What about Pringles? They may be a bit "un-natural," but they are addictive. They'll even hold dip if you double-stack them, but I prefer them by themselves.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 2, 2007 1:15 PM

Not sure if this meets your qualification for plain chips, but I recently bought a bag of UTZ Classic Russets Gourmet Dark Potato Chips off the shelf at Giant. They are made with peanut oil, zero trans fat. They reminded me a little of Wise potato chips only darker, with even more of a burnt taste. This could be an acquired thing? Anyway, the UTZ Classic Russets were the best sinful pleasure I've had in a potato chip in a long, long time.

Posted by: jj | February 2, 2007 1:28 PM

Yes, I think comparing kettle chips to "standard" Utz chips is a bit apples & oranges. Compare to Utz Classics kettle chips, or the Classics dark previously mentioned.

Posted by: bc | February 2, 2007 1:40 PM

Probably isnt available there, but Mike-Sells Wavy is much,much better than Lay's or Ruffles. If you ever get a chance try Mike-Sells.
This is the oldest continuously operating chipper in the country. Daniel Mikesell delivered chips in a wagon, or a bicycle. When it broke down, he went to the Wright Brothers, who lived down the street. Today the Dayton plant produces almost a million pounds of potato chips a week. They are fried in 100% peanut oil which gives them a distinctive flavor.

Posted by: Frances Spencer | February 2, 2007 1:42 PM

Cape Cod chips are fabulous! Best eaten naked (no dip), alone or with a sandwich. Balances a strong but not overwhelming blend of salt and oil flavors against the potato base. They're one of my "guilty pleasure" buys for a special weekend. (Note that a weekend can count as special if it's sunny out. Or cloudy. Or raining. You get my drift.)

Posted by: Baltimore | February 2, 2007 1:42 PM

Another vote for Kettle Chips -- Lightly Salted are my favorite. And I don't even usually LIKE potato chips.

Posted by: ecp | February 2, 2007 1:45 PM

Maybe these are just a regional (Midwest) thing, but I highly recommend Golden Krisp chips. Plain white bag, nothing fancy -- only 3 ingredients: potatoes, lard and salt. Yep, I said lard. I may die early from heart failure but I'm going down with my tastebuds singing!

Posted by: atrober | February 2, 2007 1:47 PM

Another Utz (with ridges) fan here. But I do agree that Terra chips taste awful. Don't like Cape Cod either. Seems like the more expensive chips get, the worse they are. Chips have become an occasional treat - the strange thing is, I don't miss them much at all. Same for bacon and even ice cream. Very surprising.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 2, 2007 2:21 PM

But the Grandma Utz chips actually taste like the baconfat in which they're fried.

Posted by: hi | February 2, 2007 2:23 PM

They're not grocery store chips, but Rt.11 brand chips (made in VA) are to die for. The dill pickle flavor is the best!

Posted by: Anonymous | February 2, 2007 2:34 PM

Not only are the Cape Cods my favorite, but check out their 40% reduced fat chips - I think they are every bit as good as the standard chips. Another fav but very dangerous are Gibbles (do they still cook them in lard?).

Posted by: docmaxx | February 2, 2007 2:34 PM

I LOVE Wise potato chips. Might be a Northeastern thing.

Posted by: chips ahoy | February 2, 2007 2:57 PM

Charles Chips in a can! We used to have them delivered to our house and it was always the highlight of the week.

Posted by: Carolcha | February 2, 2007 3:24 PM

This is all so individual, I guess. I really disagree w/ your tasters. I HATE ridged chips, and don't much care for the Cape Cod brand regular chips.

Like some of the other readers, tho, I DO like Utz. I also like Wise and Herr's, both of which are fairly widely available in the DC Metro area (in Giant and/or Food Lion, for instance).

Yes--the plain Rt. 11 chips are excellent, as someone else noted.

Kim, I definitely think you need to revisit this taste test w/ more varieties. (Dirty Chips?) Also, who were the testers? I mean in relation to age and sex. That can make a difference. I will gladly offer my services as a taster for a future taste comparison!

Posted by: sen | February 2, 2007 3:33 PM

This is bogus. The best chip is a tortilla chip. I love the Tostitos Scoops. They are strong and hold dip very well (even Velveeta dip)!

I can't remember the last time I ate an actual potato chip. Bleh.

Posted by: elle | February 2, 2007 3:36 PM

I'm a transplanted Northerner, and a Louisianian at heart. I never thought I'd find a better chip than Zapp's. But Cape Cod chips rock, especially the Robust Russets. Numero Uno, far and away

Posted by: Rollo | February 2, 2007 3:48 PM

Didn't Utz win best potato chip from Food magazine in 1986? They certainly make the best round tortilla chip anyways. And Grandma Utz's are awesome.

Posted by: Matt | February 2, 2007 3:52 PM

Poore Brothers' Jalapeno Chips. We used to have them shipped to our house by the case. Yum, yum, yum.

Posted by: WMX | February 2, 2007 3:53 PM

I've never been much of a chip person but I can't help but be impressed by your dedication to potato chip testing/tasting! It's almost enough to make me go try your top 3 and see what my preferences are. :)

Posted by: Ari (Baking and Books) | February 2, 2007 3:59 PM

Route 11 are the best chips around, and should be available locally. A trip to the Route 11 factory is great fun, too.
Cape Cod is my second choice, and I do like the Lay's Wavy for the ridged variety, if I had to have one. Better than Ruffles, those ridges are too close together and narrow.
I've never had an Utz of any variety that didn't taste stale and nasty.

Posted by: sjm | February 2, 2007 4:04 PM

utz = delicious.

Posted by: matthew | February 2, 2007 4:45 PM

Kettle Chips are absolutely the best, hands down! If you're looking for something a little different than the plain salt-variety, but aren't really a fan of out-there flavors (powdered cheese and whatnot), go for the Salt & Pepper

Posted by: Kimberly | February 2, 2007 4:47 PM

I too am a BIG fan of Grandma Utz. I wish they were in the survey.

Posted by: Keith | February 2, 2007 5:18 PM

The Terra chips are good EXCEPT for the Yukon Gold. I was very disappointed in them because I love Yukon Gold potatoes. The chips are too thick, they don't bite well.

Posted by: Wheaton | February 2, 2007 5:40 PM

I buy my chips at Trader Joe's -- the Hawaiian Style chips are yummy, but the new low-salt ripple chips (in a red bag)are crunchy, trans-fat free and delicious.

Posted by: Teri | February 2, 2007 6:42 PM

I grew up loving Wise, but they are not what they used to be. After a long and fat filled search for that former flavor a few years ago I found Cape Cod's Robust Russet. It is a guilty pleasure I have to save until I visit New England. Unless someone knows where they can be found around here??

Posted by: rjp | February 2, 2007 7:16 PM

Another vote here for Utz regular chips. And also for Herr's and Snyder's. I'm from VA, but those PA chipmakers do the best job. Utz tostados chips are also the best. Lays??? Your chip tasters need better taste...

Posted by: Anonymous | February 2, 2007 7:49 PM

For plain old nationally available chips, I think the Lay's Classic are ... classic. Thin and crispy and perfect. I've also not had bad Utz, so I'm not sure what the deal was with your bag. Maybe you got one that was beyond date.

That said, I am a glutton for chips and also believe that Ruffles make a damn fine dipping chip (especially for onion dips). Terra chips are nice right out of the bag, but it's kind of like cooking with a vintage Bordeaux - do you really want to use your best wine in a braise? They're pricey for dipping chips, don't you think? Better to eat them without any embellishment.

For non-dipping chips, Dakota Chips used to make the best sour cream and onion chip (next to Tim's, which are the best), but Dakota doesn't make these anymore, which is a shame. I recently discovered the Buffalo and Blue Cheese chips by Kettle Chips and now am kind of addicted to them. Also, Utz Carolina BBQ chips are awesome - like salt and vinegar, but with a hot pepper sauce kind of taste to them.

Posted by: kgirl | February 2, 2007 8:34 PM

I'm personally a HUGE fan of the Utz chips that are cooked in peanut oil. SO is everyone else in my house.

Posted by: G'burg | February 2, 2007 8:51 PM

I never liked potato chips, and we ALWAYS had chips in the snack drawer when I was growing up in the Chicagoland area--either Jays, Lays, or Peerless. Peerless, btw, are fried in vegetable shortening...ewww! My dad's absolute favorite chip.

Then in my 20s, I vacationed on Martha's Vineyard and tried my 1st Cape Cod Chip. Well, I finally found a chip that was delicious!! Cape Cod Chips made their way to Chicago in the 90s, and boy, was I excited.

Now I live in Long Beach, CA, and guess what? No Cape Cod Chips here. They used to have em, but recently they have been fazed out in favor of Tim's Chips. I will say that Tim's will do, but there's nothing like a Cape Cod Chip! I even like the ones w/o salt...that's how good they are!

Posted by: gobears | February 2, 2007 9:14 PM

Those kettle chips from Trader Joes taste yummy but they're so greasy. Have you ever looked in the bag at all that grease? I agree that those Cape Cod 40% reduced fat ones are great. You wouldn't know they're reduced fat unless someone told you. A guilty pleasure of mine would be Ruffles Sour Cream and Cheddar. They're so tasty with all that fake cheese powder. When I eat them, I carefully seek out the orangest most powder covered ones. Ruffles Sour Cream and Cheddar, unnaturally delicious.

Posted by: missychippy | February 2, 2007 9:30 PM

So when's the corn chip taste test?

Posted by: Cosmo | February 2, 2007 10:50 PM

I agree with the person above who said Pennsylvania makes the best chips. So true! Herr's, Wise, Utz, Snyder's, and yes, I too remember Charles Chips delivered in the tin can. If you are ever in western PA, look for Gibble's. Don't know about their regular ones, but no other red hot chips can hold a candle to theirs! As for Terra chips, try the blue ones. Love them. Can eat a whole bag in the blink of an eye.

Posted by: supergirl_sf | February 2, 2007 10:53 PM

Silly mainlanders. Kitchen Cooked o Maui no ka 'oi! Potatoes, Soybean Oil, Salt, that's it.

Posted by: Kili | February 2, 2007 10:59 PM

does the potato chip of the month club still exist? It was a great way to try regional chips.

Posted by: mall employee | February 2, 2007 11:26 PM

I agree with the poster who said Utz Grandma chips taste like the bacon fat they were cooked in. Really awful stuff. Kettle cooked is definitely my preference, and Utz Classics and Cape Cod chips are my favorites.

And my guilty pleasure is dipping kettle chips in Tostitos chile con queso. Absolutely delicious.

Posted by: Tony | February 2, 2007 11:37 PM

I live in Central PA, the home of Middlesworth, Gibble's, Snyder's, Herr's, Utz, etc. But for my money, Lay's is the most consistently good chip. No burns, no greasiness, no trans fats. Always crisp, always a perfect golden brown, always great flavor. And now they have low-sodium chips that taste just as good-- I don't miss the "extra" salt at all!

Posted by: Don | February 2, 2007 11:56 PM

For pure potato flavor, you cannot beat Wise. Very similar to the Granny Goose chips of the 60's.

Runnerup - Cape Cod.

Sadly missed - Steak and dill chips.

Posted by: Tupac Goldstein | February 3, 2007 12:21 AM

I hate greasy and salty potato chips, so Pringle's remains number one with me. In Pennsylvania, there is Snyder's of Berlin and Snyder's of Hanover. Snyder's of Berlin chips are tolerable, difficult to find, but Snyder's of Hanover, easy to find, are greasy and salty. I recently discovered a nice chip in Galion, Ohio, very local, very crisp, with little salt and little grease. Anything made by Fritolay has too much salt.

Posted by: Elizabeth Moore | February 3, 2007 12:36 AM

Wonderful chat, kim. Very civilized and kind. Kudos!!!

Posted by: Anonymous | February 3, 2007 9:39 PM

Wow, I wish I could have partaken in that experiment! Love the potato chips. I especially love Kettle chips which are perhaps not 'supermarket brand' but at least in the Bay Area are sold at supermarkets. The salt and pepper variety are truly addictive.

Posted by: nicole | February 5, 2007 2:39 PM

I have to pipe in for Gibbles as well they are easier to find in Frederick near the plant but worth trying if you come across them. Much like a kettle chip.

Posted by: colette | February 5, 2007 4:55 PM

colette, I'd nearly forgotten about Gibble's! I grew up in Frederick County, and Gibble's Popcorn used to be my treat when I "helped" my dad go grocery shopping... thanks for the memory.

Posted by: klou | February 5, 2007 6:25 PM

FWIW, you can get Zapp's chips at Wegmans (Dulles and Fairfax).

Personal preference: Utz ridged for plain chips. My favorite flavored chips are a British brand--Walker's Prawn Cocktail. I believe Walker's is the British Lay's.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 6, 2007 12:00 PM

Elizabeth, the chip you had in Galion, OH may have been a Ballreich's chip, from nearby Tiffin, OH. Grew up with them and they are delicious.

Posted by: jam | February 6, 2007 12:54 PM

Take it from an ex-Pennsylvanian, you have to go south for the best chip - Curry's Kitch'n Cook'd of Staunton - plain or barbecue. A super regional chip.

Posted by: Ken | February 7, 2007 12:28 AM

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