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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

  • #1: Tostitos Simply Natural
  • #2: Tostitos Original
  • #3: Santitas

It was a few days before the Super Bowl when I suddenly realized, "Holy crap, we haven't done a tortilla chip taste test?!" Shocking, given their popularity and my personal love of them. Nearly every major manufacturer of snack products has their own line of tortilla chips that range in shape from traingles to circles to strips to custom shapes designed to enhance the scooping and dipping experience. It's amazing what new innovations they come up with each year.

But when it comes down to it, aren't we all just after a little bit of corniness? I say, let's forget the strange synthetic lime-dust powders or the neon-orange glow of Doritos. Give me a good, crunchy, sturdy, salty chip that tastes of corn, and let your choice of dip do the flavoring for you.

The Contenders

We picked 12 nationally available brands of tortilla chips for our taste test. For this test, we left out baked chips, as well as any specially-shaped chips (some brands are available only as strips):

The Criteria

Tasters were asked to judge chips based on overall preference, crispness, corn flavor, and saltiness. Salsa was provided for tasters to do a "dip test." Does the chip complement the flavor the salsa well? Does it snap or break as it enters the salsa? Can you use it to scoop?

We've recently had a bit of trouble with certain un-named (or perhaps soon-to-be-named) brands of fancy tortilla chips that are so frustratingly thin that you can't possibly scoop any real dip onto them. Luckily, none of the brands we tasted for this particular taste test suffered from that sort of bad engineering.

The Results:

Turns out that Frio-Lay is the king of tortilla chips. The two versions of Tostitos we tried (both Tostitos Simply Natural and Tostitos Originals) took first and second place, respectively. Third place went to Santitas, Tostitos' more inexpensive line of chips.

What did our tasters like about them? First and foremost, big corn flavor. There was no indication in the ingredients list as to what might make Tostitos chips stand out from the pack, but all three of them ranked high on the corn flavor meter.

That said, corn flavor wasn't enough to win over our tasters on its merits alone. Without a good salt level to draw that flavor out, overall scores were docked. For instance, while Whole Foods' 365 brand was our second highest scoring chip on the corn flavor meter (between Tostitos Naturals and Santitas), a lack of salt brought its overall score down. The Frito-Lay brand chips took the three of the top four scorers in terms of saltiness (Mission took the fourth).

Moral of the story? When snacking, we want big flavor and salt. Who woulda' thunk it?

The good news: It's tough to go wrong with tortillas chips. Though we've broken down our lineup into the usual recommended/good in a pinch/not recommended categories, to be quite honest, even the worst of the chips were not so bad that we wouldn't try and cover up their flavor with a bit of salsa if we were invited to watch the game.

Here's the complete breakdown of our taste test:

Recommended

#1: Tostitos Simply Natural (7/10, $.31/ounce)

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Tasters praised its salty crunch, good structure, and corn flavor. At least one taster could pick it out of a blind lineup, saying "That's a Tostito." They are "a little oily, which is nice." The one drawback? Its size. "This is three bites," said one taster. You might have trouble dipping it into a regular salsa jar without dumping it out into a bowl first.

#2: Tostitos Original (6.3/10, $.31/ounce)

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Like their Simply Natural version, the Originals are also a salty bunch with a good amount of corn flavor (though not quite as prominent as in the naturals), and a touch of oiliness. "Good crunch!" These ones, made with white corn, are even larger. "This is the size of my palm." Some tasters noted toastiness, almost like popcorn.

#3: Santitas (6.1/10, $.18/ounce)

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At nearly half the price of our winning brand, Santitas takes the win for best value brand. The size of the chips is a much more reasonable 2 bites per triangle as well, making them ideal for grabbing and dipping. "Corny and yum"..."Goes well with salsa."

Good in a Pinch

#4: Mission (5.4/10, $.25/ounce)

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The second saltiest chips of the bunch, they were good, but lacked the deep corn flavor needed to bump them into the top ranks. Their flaky texture makes them seem like they were fried from real honest-to-goodness tortillas, and they were crisp and crunchy without being dry or tough, making them great for salsa.

#5: Garden of Eatin' (5.2/10, $.29/ounce)

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Excellent corn flavor—coming in at second place just under our Tostitos Naturals—but seriously lacking in seasoning. A touch of salt would have done wonders, enough that it may have even taken first place. Some tasters complained of a slight dryness.

#6: 365 Everyday Value (5.1/10, $.17/ounce)

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Another low-salt brand with decent corn flavor, tasters noted a distinct toastiness to the flavor, though the biggest complaint was texture: They were dry and a little tough. Some also noted that they are a bit small for scooping a good amount of salsa.

#7: Green Mountain Gringo (5.0/10, $/ounce)

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A mixed bag here. Some praised their scoop-happy strip shape and good corn flavor. Others noticed a distinct old oil flavor. Some called them "very crunchy," while others noted a certain staleness. The most damning comment? "Tastes like gasoline."

#8: Herr's (4.7/10, $.31/ounce)

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A middling brand with no distinct flavor, a little lacking in crispness. The thinnest of the chips we tried, though still thick enough to stand up to the salsa.

#9: Utz (4.3/10, $.42/ounce)

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A little oily in that "tastes like a Chinese restaurant" kind of way, if you know what we mean.

Not Recommended

#10: Snyder's of Hanover 3.9/10, $.22/ounce)

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An example where all the salt in the world couldn't help a lack of corn flavor and a strange "almost honey-ish" sweetness.

#11: Bachman's (3.8/10, $.40/ounce)

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Nearly every taster commented on the flavor of the oil, some calling it "strange", others "rancid," and still others simply "nope."

#12: Trader Joe's Organic (3.3/10, $.17/ounce)

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"Yuck, like crunchy cardboard." These chips scored lowest in saltiness, and second from the bottom in corn flavor. We wouldn't pick this "bland, round thing."

Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample #1 first, while taster B will taste sample #6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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