Crunchy, salty, and corn-forward, tortilla chips are beloved. But which brand is best?
Published Aug. 23, 2022. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 16: Fish Tacos and Fried Shrimp
Americans love salty snacks, so it’s no surprise that tortilla chips are the second most popular salty snack food in the nation—right behind potato chips—with more than $5.3 billion in sales annually. Tortilla chips are “a big sector of overall packaged snack food [and have been] growing the past several years,” said David Walsh, vice president of membership and communications for the snack-industry trade association SNAC International.
Tortilla chips were first popularized in the United States in the 1940s by a Mexican American woman named Rebecca Webb Carranza who ran a Los Angeles tortilla shop. She cut up and fried some misshapen corn tortillas instead of discarding them—and they were an instant success (see “Who invented tortilla chips?” below for more information).
In the test kitchen we love tortilla chips with salsa and dips, for layering in nachos and casseroles, for topping bowls of chili, as a binder in black bean burgers—and maybe most of all, just for eating out of hand. To find our favorite tortilla chips, we researched top-selling national brands as reported by the Chicago-based market research firm IRI and tasted them plain and with salsa. To assess whether they could hold up to a sturdy dip, we also dragged each chip through guacamole and rated their scooping ability. Here’s what we learned.
All the chips we tasted were made of just three main ingredients: corn, vegetable oil, and salt. So why were they so different in flavor and texture? To find out, we spoke to an expert in snack processing: Dr. Mian N. Riaz, professor of food science and technology at Texas A&M University. He said that while the overall method of making tortilla chips is established, even the smallest changes at “each step will affect the quality.”
The (very simplified) process is this: Corn is nixtamalized (soaked in a mixture of hot water and calcium hydroxide, also called pickling lime), ground into a paste called masa, rolled into thin sheets, cut into chips, baked briefly to set the shape, deep-fried, salted, and bagged for sale.
Everything from the corn to the bag is a variable that affects the final flavor and texture, Riaz said: the variety of corn; how much starch and moisture it contains; how it’s cooked; the type, quality, and quantity of the pickling lime; and even whether the manufacturer starts from whole corn or purchases prepared masa. Grinding is also a factor: Steel rollers can grind more finely than traditional stone (brands will brag that their corn is “stone-ground” on their labels, Riaz said; two of the products in our lineup were stone-ground, but those chips wer...
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Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.