Kettle chips are basically any sort of potato chips that are cooked individually in batches rather than in a continuous flow machine, which is the industry standard for the mass-production of most “regular” versions. Originally, the kettle process was reserved for home cooks and was one of the only ways to successfully create potato chips at home. Today, the method has been streamlined by a number of commercial manufacturers. At carnivals and small local events, it is sometimes still possible to find chips made the “old fashioned” way, but most products bearing the “kettle” name are in fact mass produced, just through a slightly different process.
Whether commercial or homemade, the thing that sets kettle chips apart is the “batch” method in which they are cooked. The main idea is to fry thin potato slices slowly at low heat, presumably in a large, cast-iron kettle full of oil. Batches can in fact be quite large, and whether or not an actual kettle is used is often a question of manufacturer preference. What remains constant is that the potatoes are cooked in relatively small groups that remain together from original chopping through to frying, drying, and eventual packaging.
Once the potato slices have been sufficiently fried to attain a crispy texture, they must be set out to dry on racks. Continuous flow machines tend to dry everything automatically, but this is not usually part of the kettle process. Here, the chips must be lifted from the oil, drained, and ultimately dried — a process that can be mechanized but is nevertheless a bit more complicated.
Perceptions About Production
Snack companies often claim that batch cooking produces a superior product because of the control that is exerted over the temperature, size, and overall quality of the end result. Batched versions are commonly believed to be more natural since more care is given to the process. Manufacturers may capitalize on these perceptions by charging significantly more for small batch chips then they do for more mass-produced varieties.
It is true that kettle versions require a different process, but it is not always as natural or even as small as many people believe. Larger companies are often able to produce the same number of kettle and standard chips, and in many cases, ideas about small vats being carefully managed by dedicated technicians is nothing but a fantasy. Simply using the batch method of cooking does not necessarily mean a lesser volume or even a more careful process — it is often just an alternate approach.
Just the same, kettle chips often have a number of distinguishing characteristics from more standard varieties. Most of the time, they are thicker, often to give the impression that they were home-sliced. Some manufacturers will even leave the peel on the potato in order to give a more unusual texture.
When done well, kettle cooking can produce a distinctively crisp potato chip that takes on a rich golden color as the natural sugars caramelize. Most standard versions are not submerged in oil long enough for this to happen, however.
The nutritional value of potato chips made this way varies tremendously, depending on the manufacturer’s individual cooking process. Some are produced with a minimum of artificial or excess ingredients, which both allows the natural flavor of the potato to come through while keeping saturated fat and sodium levels relatively low. Others are cooked with an eye towards taste and little regard to health; many of these products are as bad if not worse than other fried snacks.
Even the most wholesome kettle chips can hardly be considered healthful simply by virtue of their cooking process. Frying potatoes in oil — even if just briefly — tends to leach out their vitamins, and it also adds a lot of calories. While kettle chips may be a more healthful option than other sorts of chips, they should still only be consumed in moderation.
A lot of the variance in nutritional information also depends on how the chips are flavored. Freshly cooked chips are often tossed with ingredients ranging from the standard, like sea salt, to the more gourmet, including such things as blue cheese and exotic herb blends. Most of the time, the flavors are kept fresh with the help of chemical preservatives. Companies selling truly “all natural” products sometimes shy away from these sorts of preservatives, but this is most common in restaurants or home settings where consumption is more immediate. Chips that are not preserved must be handled and packaged with care to ensure that they do not go rancid before they reach the consumer.