If vinegar is a liquid, why are most salt and vinegar potato chips covered in a powder? Here’s a little food science to help you understand your weekend snacks.
When you fry potato chips at home (and who doesn’t?), you make salt and vinegar potato chips by soaking the raw potatoes in a mixture of vinegar and water before cooking them up. That’s not always an option for making the chips on an industrial scale, and the flavor isn’t as sharp as many people prefer. The best way to make salt and vinegar flavored potato chips is the best way to make any kind of potato chips: flavor powder.
So to flavor their chips, food scientists had to turn a liquid into a powder. They do it using maltodextrin, which is an ingredient you have absolutely seen on many of your food containers. In the food world, maltodextrin is the combination workhorse and ninja. When you want to turn caramel and olive oil into a powder, you use maltodextrin. When you want to bulk up peanut butter without affecting the taste, get maltodextrin. When you want to make beer denser and give it a more stable head, add maltodextrin.
Maltodextrin is what you get when you use acid and enzymes to snip the bonds of the long carbohydrate molecules in starch. The process will work with corn starch, wheat starch, or rice starch. What you get is an incredibly fine, very slightly sweet, powder that sucks up any liquid in its vicinity. Even if you’ve never had any food with maltodextrin in it (you have), you’ve probably eaten out of packages dusted with maltodextrin to absorb water.
Potato chip makers pit liquid vinegar against maltodextrin powder in a battle of the substances, knowing that maltodextrin is going to win. They spray the powder with acetic acid (or a collection of other acids, depending on the flavor they want), and let the vinegar be absorbed by the powder. What they have, after that, is a dry powder that can be mixed with chips but that will taste incredibly strongly of vinegar.
If you’re frying at home and you want to imitate the technique of a major brand, you can buy maltodextrin. That being said, you can use the stuff to make Nutella powder, so flavoring your chips with mere vinegar seems like a failure of imagination.
Top Image: Evan Amos