Why British and Irish Crisps Are Brilliant
If you type "british food is" into Google, this is what you get:
Clicking on any one of these harsh options will jump you into a world of lively internet debate about the relative demerits of this oft-maligned cuisine. The biggest complaints? It's bland, boring, and under-spiced. Whether you agree with the criticism or not, this is for certain: they aren't talking about British potato crisps.
When it comes to potato chips, we Americans have historically held a pretty straightforward approach: take various chip dips (nacho cheese, Ranch, sour cream and onion, etc.) and turn them into chip-coating powders. It's a chip philosophy that forms the backbone of our snacking culture and I wouldn't change it for the world. However, there's also a strong case for the British approach (which is shared by neighboring Ireland).
The redcoats rummage through their fridges and larders looking for stuff they want for supper, and then re-engineer it in chip form. Roast Chicken? Let's do it. Smokey Bacon? Absolutely. Pickled Onion? Not just for tacos anymore.
And here's where we discover the true brilliance of British and Irish crisps: the flavors are so savory and unctuous that after getting chip-faced on a whole bag, you might actually convince yourself that you ate real food.
Here are a few of my favourite flavours (wink), along with tasting notes*.
*The shoppe in my local Wee Britain sells mostly Tayto brand crisps from Ireland, so that's what we're tasting.
Crush a chicken bouillon cube over a pile of freshly fried crisps and you'd get pretty close to these. The savoriness of the chicken coupled with the crunch of the crisp means that, if you're drunk enough, it feels like you're eating a bag of crispy chicken skin.
Why these crisps aren't in every US convenience store is beyond me (I know there are smaller regional US producers, but they don't have nearly the following as in UK). We like bacon so much nowadays that we put it in desserts. This seems far more sane. And delicious. It should be noted that some brands (I'm looking at you, Tayto) err on the side of over-smoked bacon; I'm still on the hunt for a properly balanced Smoky Bacon crisp.
For foreigners, these are surely the most confusing of the British offering—crisps that taste like shrimp? Not so much. A more appropriate name would be Cocktail Sauce, as neither Walker's nor Tayto contain (or taste of any) shrimp.
Just like with cocktail sauce, flavor varies significantly by brand. Walker's are slightly sweet with a nice hit of acidity, while Tayto crisps are more straightforward sweet tomato. If you think that topping one of these crisps with a cocktail shrimp would be tasty, you wouldn't be wrong.
Worcestershire sauce is vinegary, warm-spiced, and meaty (thanks to anchovies). These crisps are vinegary, warm-spiced, and meaty (thanks to pure monosodium glutamate). If you like the former, you'll like the latter.
Cheese and Onion
Okay, so we've got chips like this stateside, but the real difference is that when the Brits say "onion", they mean it. Onion powder is the first flavoring ingredient and by far the dominant flavor. These will surely give onion lovers the flavor fix and bad breath they so crave.
I'd never tried this flavor before beginning research for this post and they really were the sleeper hit of the group. Sharp upfront acidity from the citric acid gives way to a remarkably fresh-tasting onion flavor. Real magic happens when one of these accidentally ends up in your pie hole alongside a Roast Chicken crisp.
About the author: Dan is an associate editor of Cook's Illustrated and an on-screen test cook for America's Test Kitchen. Dan cut his culinary teeth as a young apprentice in rural Hungary, and has the paprika-stained gut to prove it. He likes food, he likes science, and he likes you. Follow him on Twitter @testcook.