Plastic-free Cookery: wanna chip bro?
Here in New Zealand, we love our chips. According to Potatoes New Zealand, 71,914 metric tonnes of potatoes were turned into crisps and a further 282,446 metric tonnes of potataoes were turned into chips (meaning french fries and thicker). That’s an insane quantity of snacks that Kiwis have troughed through.
Crisps are a modern phenomenon: a little too complicated for the home cook to waste time and oil over, perfect for street vendors to sell, and when packaged in plastic, the ideal thing to sell to the consumer in supermarkets, dairies, petrol stations, and just about anywhere you could find yourself hankering for a snack. Two of the most recognisable brands in crisps in New Zealand are Eta, founded in 1955; and Bluebird, established in 1953.
In 2016 stuff.co.nz asked New Zealanders to vote for their favourite chip flavour as an influx of new and interesting flavours came to tantalise our tastebuds. Salt and Vinegar and Ready Salted ranked the highest, but some surprises were in store – we were acquiring a taste for chilli, or even along the lines of caramelised onion. My biggest surprise was to see Barbeque poll lower than Chicken flavour, but as you can read in the Spinoff’s ranking of chip flavours, everyone has Opinions.
But it’s crunch time – I made my own crisps. It required purchasing a mandoline and three varieties of potatoes, to test floury against waxy and ‘all purpose’. This is my experience.
Finely slice your potatoes with a mandoline, rinse them, and soak to remove excess starch before drying each individual slice before frying. It’s really important to dry the chips, because water expands explosively in hot oil and can cause bad injuries.
I fried my crisps in canola oil in a deep cast iron pot. They took longer than I expected to cook, around 3-4 minutes per small batch. The absolute success went to the agria potatoes, which fried evenly and had great body to them. The Desiree potatoes were a flop – they absorbed the oil, wouldn’t crisp up (even with ‘drying time’) and became slimy discs of dissatisfation. I was so discouraged I decided against even bothering with the Nadine – the dumb blonde of the potato world – and added my slices to soup the following night in place of noodles.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find any historic recipes for potatoes in my small collection of cookbooks. They’re a pain to make. The legend of the potato chip/ crisps creation harks back to Saratoga Springs in New York, in 1853 where, as the story goes, a fussy customer kept sending his potatoes back to the kitchen, demanding thinner slices until the chef, George Crum, in a fit of spite sliced them so thin and fried them so crisp that he inadvertently delighted his finicky customer. This story has been claimed to be a romanticised lie, with several key facts not aligning. Like many foods, the origins of the potato chip are obscured in time, and likely contributed to and refined by a number of cooks.
The question remains over whether I will quit my chip habit due to their plastic packaging. Proper Crisps now sell a small range in home compostable bags, which I often choose. But while making your own is fiddly and fills your home with the smell of hot oil, I might make a habit of making crisps (outside) for special occasions, to impress my friends just as George Crum is said to have done 150 years ago.