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What’s the Perfect Structural Integrity for a Weight-Bearing Chip?

How do you know which can safely take a big honkin’ load of guac without getting it all over your shirt?

Forget Thanksgiving. The most gluttonous day of the year is Super Bowl Sunday, where bowl after bowl and paper plate after paper plate is filled with finger-food bacchanalia that would make even the mad genius responsible for the TGI Friday’s appetizer selection blush (and certainly the ancient Romans). And so, all week leading up to game day, we’ll be offering up our own menu of scientific investigations, origin stories and majestic feats of snacking that not even the biggest sporting event of the year can top. Read all of the stories here.

Few things in life are more frustrating than a chip that can’t do its job. Like, obviously, many things actually are, but in the moment when a chip splinters and shatters, salty shards littering the salsa and ruining it for subsequent dippers, it feels like nobody has ever known such agony. 

Mouths need dip, so chips need strength. How, then, does one determine a chip’s structural integrity?

Building Materials

If the story of the Three Little Pigs taught us anything, it’s that material matters. You might be the best builder in the world, but a house made of straw won’t protect you from anything. The two most common materials for chips are potato and corn.

On the potato side of things, there are three types: regular-ass chips, kettle chips and fabricated chips. Regular ones are cooked continuously, while kettle chips are made in batches — this means they take a bit longer to cook due to temperature drops whenever new potatoes are added. This extra time means the starch within them absorbs more moisture, resulting in a far sturdier, thicker chip. Continuously-cooked chips are floaty light and gossamer-thin, and will shatter to pieces if they’re even in the same room as a reasonably chunky guacamole. Newer technologies like pulsed electric field (PEF) treatment can also be used to increase a potato chip’s strength — by increasing water diffusion through the potato’s tissue before it’s fried, it becomes more flexible, ultimately leading to a stronger end result. 

“Most kettle-cooked potato chip varieties bring extra strength along with wiggly, irregular shapes that can be good for scooping up a dip,” says Jeremy Selwyn, Chief Snacks Officer of snack-review behemoth “Rippled chips can bring additional strength, but it’s really a case-by-case basis, depending on lots of things, including the shape and size of the ripples, how thick the potato is cut, how it’s cooked and which oil is used. Wider ripples generally bring more strength than the very narrow ones. The Ruffles brand in particular has tried many different ways to deliver extra-strong rippled chips.”

There are also fabricated chips, made from ground-up potatoes formed into a dough, like Pringles. These respond differently to hydration than others — a 2018 paper in Food Structure found that fabricated potato chips ended up separating and dispersing in water while traditional chips stayed intact. 

However, when it comes to dip-bearing, potatoes take second place to corn chips. Corn chips are made by a process called nixtamalization, which consists of soaking, simmering, drying and rehydrating kernels into a dough called masa, which is then rolled into sheets, toasted and fried. These stages allow manufacturers more control over the finished product, picking and choosing different traits for different purposes — dipping, nacho-fication, eating on their own, etc. Bon Appétit’s Dawn Perry suggests “heartiness and heaviness” are the key things to look for in tortilla chips, as chips famed for their crunchiness and crispiness just won’t take the weight. 

Too Much of a Good Thing

There is, of course, such a thing as a chip with too much structural integrity — if you can’t bite through the motherfucker, it’s too strong. In 1995, a Pennsylvania couple, Carl and Diana Grady, sued Frito-Lay, the parent company of Doritos. They claimed Doritos were “inherently dangerous” and had damaged Carl’s throat. They brought along a scientist, Charles Beroes, who demonstrated Doritos’ indestructible nature by pressing them against a scale to prove how much force was necessary to break them, and showed how long a chip would have to be soaked in saliva to soften. The case took eight years, but was eventually thrown out on the grounds that anyone eating Doritos would assume they required chewing. In fact, Beroes’ methods were described by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as “smacking of a high school science fair project.” 

Engineering Techniques

Chip engineers spend a lot of time honing the processes used in tortilla chips, with new breakthroughs (both minor and major) happening all the time. A 91-page patent from 2001, for instance, details one particular method for controlled surface bubbling, analyzing how much of a tortilla chip’s surface should be bumpy and bubbly, and when the line is crossed from adding a bit of dip-gripping texture to a too-big bubble becoming fragile and reducing structural integrity. 

And, as it also points out, a flat chip and a thin dip is a bullshit combination. “Because of the randomly shaped nature of the chips, consuming tortilla chips that have been dipped in salsa can create a very messy eating experience for consumers,” the paper states. “The chips do not adequately hold or contain the dip after it has been put on the chip; this is especially true for the fluid portion of the dip. Because most tortilla chips do not have a defined dip containment region or ‘well’ capable of holding fluid dips on the chip, the dip or a portion thereof can readily flow off the surface of the chip, often landing undesirably on clothing or household furnishings.” 

The solution to this is not having completely flat chips, and in the two decades since that particular patent-holder’s complaints, technology has moved on. Case in point: Heat and Control is a manufacturer of tortilla chip-making apparatuses such as the Masa Maker, and they’re adamant that “tortilla chips for dipping [can be] produced with a curve to pick up dip more easily.” 

“In some cases, tortilla chips are engineered into shapes intended for dipping,” says Selwyn. “These include Tostitos Scoops and many knockoffs of them. But the natural curvature of many triangular or round tortilla chips can also bring dipping capacity and strength.”

While less common than triangular ones, and offering a less obvious grab-point, round tortilla chips may possess more structural integrity than their three-cornered brethren. Andrés Figueroa, in-house chef at tortilla brand Siete Foods, told HuffPost: “Round chips have more structural integrity than triangles. So if you’re really loading up nachos and putting meat and other toppings and stuff on there, it’s really easy to just bog down the triangle and crack a corner. So the rounds hold up very well and are usually a little bit sturdier.”

To that end, what traits are you looking for if seeking out a chip that will happily hold a honkin’ great load of dip? You need an element of curvature so everything doesn’t just slip off. A bit of texture for grip — maybe bubbles, maybe ripples. And somewhere to hold the bastard. 

All in all, taking every factor into account, it kind of sounds like God wants you to eat Tostitos Scoops. They’re the real super bowl.