Salt and vinegar: one of the simplest flavor combinations, and it’s certainly not a subtle one, but it has a lot more poke than, say, salt and pepper, or sage and onion. For the British, salt and vinegar reaches an apotheosis with fish and chips – if you don’t put salt and vinegar on them they’re hardly worth bothering with.
This topic was only vaguely on my mind when I bought, from an all-American supermarket, a pack of Tim’s Cascade Style Potato Chips, “extra thick and crunchy, sea salt and vinegar,” and gluten free (you don’t say.)
Yes, there’s a lot of writing on the pack. I think “cascade style” simply means they come from Washington state – but the company’s address is 1150 Industry Drive North, Algon, which doesn’t in itself summon up images of mountains and volcanoes. Also it turns out that Tim’s is actually a subsidiary of Birds Eye. And wait a minute, what’s that printed on the pack, black on blue so it’s barely legible “artificially flavored”?
Turn to the list of ingredients on the back and you’ll find they include vinegar powder and malic acid. Vinegar powder, I now know, from the pack and elsewhere, is “maltodextrin and vinegar.” You could argue about how artificial maltodextrin is. Yes, it’s a food additive, a polysaccharide that is a thickener and improves mouth feel, but then again it is derived from starch. As for malic acid, that’s a naturally occurring organic compound found in certain fruits and it gives them a sour flavor - quince is pretty much the magic-acid queen. So you might think that was vaguely natural, though it does have an E number, E296.
Anyway, Tim’s potato chips tasted fine. It’s true enough that they were thick and crunchy, and the tartness didn’t strip the inside of the mouth the way some salt and vinegar flavor does.
OK, now I had the bit (and the salt and vinegar) between my teeth. I bought some Kettle Brand Sea Salt and Vinegar Chips “great taste … naturally” – the packaging seems to suggested they’ve managed to trademark both “kettle” and “naturally.”
These were noticeably harsher tasting than Tim’s. Flavoring here included, of course, vinegar powder “(Maltodextrin, White Distilled Vinegar),” Maltodextrin on its own, and citric acid.
It’s hard to see that this version of “natural” is so very different from the “artificial” flavor of Tim’s, though the pack says, “non-GMO project verified” – which would obviously please some people a lot more than it does me.
And then I bought another pack, the last for a while. I mean frankly, 3 largish packets of salt and vinegar chips go quite a long way. This time I tried some Boulder Canyon Malt Vinegar and Sea Salt, Kettle Cooked Chips:
and do you see that proud boast on the pack, “authentic foods”? We’ll save our book- length discussion of “authenticity” for another day.
These chips tasted the best to me, the subtlest and most complex flavor, with a hint of something lemony. And how did they arrive at that flavor? Malt vinegar power (maltodextrin, food starch modified, malt vinegar), then white vinegar powder (maltodextrin, distilled white vinegar), fructose, some more maltodextrin, and then malt extract. Is that artificial? Is that authentic? Beats me.
This incidentally is (part of) the Vinegar Joe referred to in the title: