Crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, just salty enough: a perfect hot chip is a thing of great pleasure.
But they’re easy to get wrong. A particular alchemy is required to achieve that ultimate chip experience, and there are few of us who haven’t suffered a limp, soggy, or rancid one in our time.
Consumer NZ research out on Wednesday shows where the cheapest and best value chips in the country are to be found, but with fish and chip shops one of the most ubiquitous sights in New Zealand towns, there’s more to the competition for customers than just whose scoop is the cheapest.
So what makes the perfect chip?
“It would be how we cook it,” said Nicole Gray, “which is we cook it golden and crispy, and in clean oil, and it’s cooked on time, every time.”
Gray should know. The shop where she works, Mr Chips in Masterton, is a three-time winner of the People’s Choice Best Chip prize at the annual Chip Group Industry Awards.
At $4, a scoop at Mr Chips is 40c above the average of Consumer’s findings, and higher than some of its closest competitors (the Wairarapa town has about a dozen options).
But Gray said its loyal customers were more driven by taste and quality than price.
”I think people would pay more for the best chips,” she said. “I think they would pay for the quality rather than look for the cheapest chip.”
Although Mr Chips offers various kinds of chips, including crinkle-cut, kūmara, curly fries, waffle fries, and wedges, the standard chip is a 13mm, A-grade, straight cut chip made from New Zealand potatoes, Gray said.
”It’s crispy on the outside nice and golden, and then soft on the inside. My personal experience would say it is cooked perfectly.”
Our experience of a chip comes from various sources, explained Graham Eyres, a researcher in sensory perception of flavour at Otago University’s department of food science.
“It’s about all the senses working at once,” he said, “from appearance to taste, texture and flavour… There’s a lot that has to come together to give you the perfect scoop of chips.”
There are a number of chemical reactions at play when cooking a chip, including the Maillard reaction, which gives browned, seared and fried foods their distinctive flavour.
“When you’re frying a chip, you want just the right amount of browning during the cooking process to create the caramel aroma compounds,” said Eyres.
Oil should definitely not be old, as that would create a rancid flavour, but also not too fresh, which would be too bland.
“The potatoes themselves are important,” Eyres added. “You have to have the right balance of sugars and starch to get that flavour and texture.”
Also key to the perfect chip was the judicious use of salt.
“Salt is really a flavour enhancer,” Eyres said. “If you taste a fried potato with no salt and you add a little bit of salt – boom, it really lifts the whole flavour profile.”
And there’s the appearance factor. The way food looks is like a “cue” for our taste buds, Eyres explained. We’ve evolved to reject chips that look burnt or rotten.
While there is scope for different individual tastes (whether you like a crispy or a fluffy chip, if you take vinegar or tomato sauce alongside), those primary flavours and textures are pretty universal.
Eyres’ favourite spot is the Tahuna Camp Store in Dunedin. At $3.50 a scoop, it’s as cheap as chips – but that’s not what keeps him going back.