Despite what the image above may suggest, salt and vinegar chips are not made by pouring salt and vinegar into a bag of potato chips (I know, what a bummer). Before vinegar (and it's brow-sweating acetic acid) can be added to a chip, it needs to be processed into a dry foodstuff that will stick to, and more importantly not sog out, a potato chip.
How do chip companies do it? Well, many use a process that involves spraying a thin layer of vinegar onto maltodextrin (a light, slightly sweet, flavorless powder derived from starch) or other modified food starch. Maltodextrin's porous structure absorbs a great deal of vinegar flavor, and the mixture can then be dried into a robust powder. Alternatively, many use sodium diacetate, a 1:1 ratio of sodium acetate and acetic acid, which provides salt and vinegar flavor in a dry mixture.
Salt and vinegar chips were first produced in the 1950s (thanks Tayto brand!) and it's easy to assume that these dry vinegar technologies were born out of the same era—the one that delivered us boxed cake mixes and Cheeze Whiz. In reality, the method of combining starch and vinegar and letting it dry is actually really old. No, I mean really old. Here's a home recipe for dry vinegar from The English Housewife: Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to be in a Complete Woman, published in 1615!
To make dry vinegar which you may carry in your pocket, you shall take blades of green corn, either wheat or rye, and beat it in a mortar with the strongest vinegar you can get till it come to a paste; then roll it into little balls, and dry it in the sun till it be very hard; when you have an occasion to use it, cut a little piece thereof and dissolve it in wine, and it will make a strong vinegar.
So does this mean that there's little new happening in the world of salt and vinegar chips? Hardly.
In compiling this guide, I found that chip makers are using a wide range of flavoring agents and acids to create unique chips. Surprisingly, a couple brands in our line-up opt for citric (citrus fruits), malic (apples), lactic (milk), and even fumaric (lichen) acids to give them pucker and punch! Lactose makes a frequent appearance, often lending creamy, sometimes cheesy, background flavor. And our old friends monosodium glutamate and the free nucleotides show up (in both natural and isolated forms) in a few offerings.
It's a crazy chip world out there, and so I designed this guide to give a peek into the innerworkings of each brand. I haven't ranked the chips but the SE'rs did last year. [See: Salt & Vinegar Chips Taste Test.] Instead, I ranked these on an acidity scale.
Acidity Scale: 1 (extremely mild) to 10 (extremely acid); the brands are listed in descending acidity levels.
Utz Salt 'n Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: lactose, sodium diacetate, malic acid, citric acid, fumaric acid
Tasting Notes: Utz really took the gloves off on this one. By far the biggest acidic punch of the line-up and they achieve it with four different acids: acetic, malic, citric, and fumaric! A little research reveals that fumaric acid is found in mushrooms and lichen and is categorized as the strongest organic food acid in terms of sourness. It sure is.
Humpty Dumpty Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: corn maltodextrin, sodium diacetate, malic acid
Tasting Notes: These definitely got my forehead sweating. Another old school salt and vinegar chip from the days when men could really hold their vinegar.
Kettle Sea Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: white vinegar, maltodextrin, citric acid
Tasting Notes: They use a heavy hand with the vinegar powder, producing a chip that's fit for serious vinegar heads. Citric acid pushes it over the top. Unlike some chips that contain lactose or other sweetener that serves to mellow acidity, these guys are sharp and focused. If you taste carefully, you can feel the generous amount of maltodextrin melt into a vinegar film on your tongue.
Cape Cod Sea Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: maltodextrin, vinegar solids, sodium diacetate
Tasting Notes: Cape Cod's classic, slightly sweet spud laced with a fair shake of vinegar. These feel like direct competition to Kettle Brand in flavor and intensity, but with a with a bit more natural sweetness. Addictive balance.
Walkers Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: glucose, sugar, potassium chloride, citric acid, yeast extract.
Tasting Notes: What's really of interest is the ingredient that isn't listed: acetic acid, in any of its forms. Knowing that I was dealing with tricky British English I even re read the ingredient list a few times to be sure. It's true, all of the acidity comes from citric acid! Can one tell it's not vinegar? It's hard to say considering that I read the ingredients before I tasted them. I see a blind taste test in my chip future.
Wise Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: lactose, sodium diacetate
Tasting Notes: This is a balanced, old-school salt and vinegar chip. Wise seems to fry a little longer than the rest, giving their chips a background of baked potato flavor. It works with the vinegar, which is persistent but manageable. There's some sweetness and creaminess from lactose, and here again we are see malic acid in the mix. My Dad has always loved Wise chips. I'm starting to think the old man was on to something.
Utz Classics Old English Style Salt and Malt Vinegar Chips
Ingredients of Interest: sodium diacetate, maltodextrin, malic acids, apple juice solids, malt vinegar, citric acid
Tasting Notes: These are worlds away from the acidic wallop of Utz's traditional offering, but they still boast a satisfying vinegar snap. Here it's balanced by something slightly creamy (lactose happens to be the third ingredient in the list after potatoes and oil) and a respectable malt flavor.
Tayto Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: malt vinegar powder, lactose, potassium chloride, msg, sodium 5 ribonucleotide, citric acid
Tasting Notes: Considering that these were the guys that started it all back in the 1950's, I kind of expected their ingredient list to be the shortest and simplest--salt, vinegar, and perhaps a bit of well deserved swagger. In the end they turned out to be one of the oddest combinations. There's a respectable amount of acidity from the malt vinegar powder, but the blast of msg and sodium 5 ribonucleotide pulls this flavor train in a very different, very meaty direction.
Lay's Kettle Cooked Sea Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: corn maltodextrin, buttermilk, lactose, sugar, dextrose, yeast extract, citric acid
Tasting Notes: Middle of the road acidity comes from vinegar, buttermilk, and citric acid, but it's well buffered by a distinct creaminess and plenty of sweetener. These guys add an element of umami, here via yeast extract, and the result is a shift from straight salt and vinegar towards roundness and complexity.
Lay's Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: corn maltodextrin, natural flavors, malic acid
Tasting Notes: Like a New England fall, these chips are sweet, mild, fleeting. They use malic acid (found in apples) to boost acidity. These chips feel diplomatic: they won't offend anyone outright, but they're unlikely to develop a passionate fanbase.
Wise Kettle Cooked Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: maltodextrin, sugar, rice flour, citric acid, corn starch, malic acid
Tasting Notes: This is a very different beast than Wise's traditional salt and vinegar offering. They swapped in maltodextrin-powdered vinegar for the sodium diacetate and somewhere in the translation lost the sharp bite. Notably sweet. Arguably a bit confused.
365 Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: fructose, vinegar solids, maltodextrin, malic acid, mustard seeds, citric acid, apple cider vinegar solids, malted barley vinegar
Tasting Notes: Their rather lengthy ingredient list belies a tame vinegar profile. I don't taste mustard seeds or malted barley vinegar, per se, but there is a fair amount going on in the background. If background flavor is what gets you up in the morning, have I got the chip for you!
Tyrrell's Sea Salt & Malt Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: potato maltodextrin, potato starch, dried cider vinegar, dried spirit vinegar, sugar, dried malt vinegar, apple powder
Tasting Notes: These are really unique chips. They taste intensely of potato, but are incredibly mild in the acid department, odd considering the three-pronged vinegar attack: dried cider vinegar, dried spirit vinegar, and dried malt vinegar. They list potato maltodextrin which is pretty cool since most of the maltodextrin that we experience comes from corn. This is potato on potato action!
Laurel Hill Sea Salt & Vinegar
Ingredients of Interest: apple cider vinegar, maltodextrin, fructose
Tasting Notes: This is the salt and vinegar chip for the chip eater that doesn't like vinegar at all, but is pretty into sweet, salty, oddly creamy snacks. Look I know I said salt and vinegar chip preference was personal and should stay that way, but screw it: these things are horrible.