ATK Reviews
The United States of BBQ Chips
I tasted 30 regional barbecue chips from across the United States to bring you my favorites.
10-08-2021
Kevin Pang

The number of things our country can agree on dwindles by the week. Let us celebrate the fact that barbecue chips ain’t one of them.

I have yet to meet one human who thinks, “Barbecue chips are awful.” That’s because they are objectively not awful: crispy deep-fried potato slices dusted with sweet, tangy, savory, and smoky flavors. As if that’s not reason enough to eat an entire bag by itself, barbecue chips are versatile, too, great shingled in a sandwich or eaten as a side dish.

My love for barbecue chips knows no bounds, and I mean that in a geographic sense. Beyond the national brands available in most supermarkets (Kettle Brand, Lay’s, Pringles), there exists a world of regional potato chips—relatively unknown brands beloved in their hometowns but often hard to find outside them. That has been my mission this past month: to find my new favorite barbecue chip that most Americans will have never heard about.

To do this, I solicited chip recommendations from a place with no shortage of opinions and hot takes: Twitter. Much to my shock, my one simple Twitter callout yielded 463 replies. Interestingly enough, roughly 75 percent of recommendations were for chip companies in two states: Ohio and Pennsylvania. In particular, Pennsylvania is arguably the cradle of potato chip production in the United States. (It’s due to a combination of fertile soil ideal for potatoes, the farming tradition of the Pennsylvania Dutch, and the area’s prevalence of pork products and lard that chips are fried in, according to NPR.)

The BBQ Chips Selection Process

The hard part was picking which chips to include in this survey, knowing it was impossible to include every recommendation. Should I taste-test only crunchy kettle chips or include continuously fried chips (thin and crispy, like Lay’s) or rippled chips? Do I count only traditional barbecue flavoring (in the brown, molasses-y, KC Masterpiece sense), or do I include honey barbecue and spicy barbecue flavors? What about other regional genres of barbecue, such as vinegary North Carolina-style? I knew my final lineup of chips would yield complaints of “You didn’t include my favorite brand of barbecue chips, so your taste test is garbage.” Fine. 

The criteria for which chips made the cut was mostly: 1) It had to be a brand most Americans likely have never heard about, and 2) It could be delivered to my home in a week. Any brands with national distribution were out. (Regrettably that meant excluding Zapp’s, the much-loved Louisiana chip company, which would likely have placed high in the rankings but could be easily found in stores coast to coast.)

Did it matter that most of these chips were available only within a 100-mile radius of where they were manufactured? To me, that’s a plus. There’s something charming about a family snacks company making potato chips in its hometown for decades. Perhaps that perception plays into my enjoyment of it all. Plus, thanks to the internet, the days of regional-only availability are over. In the end, I tasted 30 brands of barbecue chips, from Hawaii and Ohio to Alaska and Maine.

The 30 BBQ chips we taste-tested from across this great land

How Much We Paid

Let’s be honest: Of all the food products that can be shipped to your front door, potato chips aren’t the most cost-efficient. When something that normally costs $4 gets packed in an insulated box, travels aboard an airplane, and is then trucked to your home, it ends up costing way more than $4. To make financial sense, most of the chips I ordered came in multiple bags. If it came from a third-party seller on Amazon, I expected a premium built into the cost. All in, I paid between $20 and $50 for each box of chips, containing anywhere from two large bags to 30 snack-size bags.

Yeah, that's a lot of BBQ chips.

How We Taste-Tested BBQ Chips

The methodology for tasting these barbecue chips was straightforward. I’d taste each chip, jot down thoughts, cleanse my palate with water, and repeat the process with a new bag 29 more times. 

Of all the traits I sought out, flavor was most important. I broke flavor down into three components: flavor from the spice mixture, the potato, and the frying oil. 

Texture was also critical, and this depended on the style of the chip. If it was kettle-fried, how much of a crunch did I experience? Otherwise, did the crispness of the thin and lacy "continuously fried" style crackle between my teeth? Did the rippled versions provide a sturdy and satisfying crunch?

Once I tried all 30, I narrowed down the list to a dozen finalists. I needed a day to try the final 12 with a refreshed palate, and from there I narrowed it down to my six favorites (listed here in alphabetical order).

Alaska Chip Company

alaska company chips

Style: Grizzly Barbecue Potato Chips

Price: $34.00 for four 8-oz bags (shipping included)

Ingredients: Potatoes, sunflower oil and/or corn oil, barbecue seasoning (dehydrated cane juice, salt, spices, onion powder, tomato powder, garlic powder, citric acid, natural smoke flavor, extractives of paprika, and spice extractive)

Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska

Where to Buy: You’re in luck if you live in Alaska. Everywhere else, you can mail-order the chips through the company store.

Comments: Of all the chips sampled, this Anchorage-based brand offered the deepest potato flavor (there are some chip brands with potato flavors that are barely present). Could it have something to do with it being made with Alaska-grown potatoes? I don’t know, but they’re delicious. (I was told they use a proprietary potato, one that’s similar to a russet but with a lower sugar content.) There’s a heavy coating of spice mix, with a well-rounded balance of sweet, savory, and smoky and a rich aftertaste. The crunch is strong (the chips are fried in either corn oil or sunflower oil). This is a complete, all-around grade-A potato chip.

Deep River Snacks

deep river crop chips

Style: Mesquite BBQ Flavored Kettle Cooked Potato Chips

Price: $10.95 for four 2-oz bags (shipping included)

Ingredients: Potatoes, sunflower oil, sugar, brown sugar, salt, tomato powder, natural extractives of paprika, citric acid, onion powder, natural smoke flavor, garlic powder, paprika, and spices

Hometown: Deep River, Connecticut

Where to Buy: Specialty grocery stores may carry this brand, depending on where you live. Otherwise, Amazon is your best bet.

Comments: These chips glow orange, heavily coated in BBQ spices (the visual of this tricks the brain into making the flavor more pronounced). In my tasting notes, the word I jotted down in all caps is “SWEET.” Makes sense: The third ingredient listed is sugar, and the fourth is brown sugar. There is a good hit of mesquite smoke, too. These chips are not too thick but are exceptionally crunchy; it was a small sample size, but my bag seemed to contain a lot of extra-crunchy fold-overs.

Gibble's

gibble's chips

Style: Home Style BAR-B-Q Flavored Potato Chips

Price: $40.89 for four 8-oz bags (shipping included)

Ingredients: Potatoes, prime lard, salt, seasoning (sugar, dextrose, maltodextrin, yeast extract, onion powder, hydrolyzed corn gluten, autolyzed yeast extract, extractives of paprika, spices, garlic powder, annatto extract, natural flavors, thiamine hydrochloride, disodium inosinate and disodium TBHQ added to protect flavor)

Hometown: Chambersburg, Pennsylvania

Where to Buy: If you live in south-central Pennsylvania, you should have little trouble. Everywhere else, Amazon is easiest.

Comments: You eat with your eyes before your mouth. Gibble’s chips positively radiate, not far from a safety-cone orange, and it previews flavors to come. Everything about this chip is turned up to 11: Fried in lard, it gives a savory aroma and leaves a pleasantly rich aftertaste. The assertive seasonings balance the fry-oil flavoring: Here, you get good sugar, salt, paprika, and onions, the spice mix finely ground and generously coated. This is a strong, proud barbecue chip.

Great Lakes Potato Chip Co.

Style: Kettle Cooked Barbecue Potato Chips

Price: $45.00 for twelve 8-oz bags (shipping included) 

Ingredients: Potatoes, sunflower and/or canola oil, sugar, salt, paprika, spice, garlic powder, smoke flavor (maltodextrin, natural hickory smoke flavor), less than 2% silicon dioxide added to prevent caking

Hometown: Traverse City, Michigan

Where to Buy: Found in stores across Michigan, the Great Lakes region, and online(Note: The Great Lakes’ online store does not ship to California.)

Comments: The snacking pride of Grand Traverse County, Michigan, the Great Lakes Potato Chip Co. has gained a foothold in fancier sandwich shops across the Great Lakes region, where I live. It’s the favorite potato chip of many in-the-know chefs. One taste of these crackly crunchy chips and it becomes self-evident: It tastes like something a fine-dining restaurant would cook in small batches and serve. Skin-on potato slices are cooked kettle-style. The seasoning is well-balanced, leaning sweet with a subtle smoky linger. It’s an exquisite chip.

Middleswarth

Style: Hand Cooked Bar-B-Q Flavored Old Fashioned KET-L Chips

Price: $31.39 for four 8-oz bags (shipping included)

Ingredients: Potatoes, shortening (containing one or more of the following: tallow, soybean, coconut, canola and/or palm oil), salt. BHA and BHT added to help protect flavor. Barbecue seasoning contains: Sugar, wheat flour, soy grits, salt, monosodium glutamate, onion powder, spice, torula yeast, corn oil, garlic powder, extractives of paprika, natural flavor (including hickory smoke flavor), and not more than 2% silicon dioxide added (as anticaking agent)

Hometown: Middleburg, Pennsylvania

Where to Buy: Available in groceries in central Pennsylvania or shipped around the world via its website or from Amazon. The real gem, though, has to be its souvenir gift shop.

Comments: Even though Middleswarth is advertised as hand-cooked and kettle-fried, the texture is closer to halfway between kettle and continuously fried. There’s a rich, beefy aroma, thanks to the tallow it’s fried in. Because of the beef fat, there’s a smoked-meat richness to the aftertaste that other chips don’t offer. Add to it notes of sweetness and spice, Middleswarth’s Bar-B-Q has the most unique barbecue chip flavor of any in this sample. It’s also the most aesthetically pleasing of the bunch: Feast your ocular nerves upon this bag design, perhaps the most gorgeous potato chip bag ever drawn. Even when you open the bag and peer inside, the chips appear uniform and unoily.

Wachusett

Style: Barbecue Artificially Flavored Potato Chips

Price: $22.44 for twelve 1-oz bags (shipping included)

Ingredients: Potatoes, cottonseed oil, salt, sugar, dextrose, maltodextrin, torula yeast, tomato powder, dehydrated onion, monosodium glutamate, extractives of annatto, turmeric and paprika, citric acid, natural flavor, spice extractive

Hometown: Fitchburg, Massachusetts 

Where to Buy: Though the company was sold to snacking giant Utz a decade ago, Wachusett is still a fixture at Massachusetts groceries and convenience stores. The easiest way to buy Wachusett chips outside New England is through Amazon.

Comments: Being that most of the America’s Test Kitchen staff is Boston-based, the Wachusett Potato Chip Company—its factory sits in the shadow of Mount Wachusett in central Massachusetts—received much love in our informal in-house survey. These barbecue chips are airy and crispy (continuously fried–style) and are expertly seasoned—good salt, but not salty. There’s also touches of sugar, paprika, tang, and smoke in the chip. It’s an understated and perfectly satisfying barbecue chip.

RECIPE

How to Make Smoky BBQ Kettle Chips

We've developed a recipe so that you can enjoy exceptionally crunchy barbecue kettle chips at home. Members can get our exclusive recipe now.

 

Other BBQ Chips We Taste-Tested

Did we miss your favorite BBQ chip in our taste test? Probably.

Footnote: What Happened to the Rest of the Chips?

There were a lot of BBQ chips left over from our taste test. Fortunately, they didn't go to waste. I donated nearly 200 bags of chips to two food pantries close to where I live in Illinois: the Wilmette Food Pantry in Wilmette and the Hillside Food Pantry in Evanston. As one of the food pantry directors told me: "We do give our families healthy food, but they also enjoy receiving special items like potato chips."

If you're reading this, consider a financial donation to either food pantry.