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How a potato becomes a salty, tasty snack

June 06, 2003|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

We've had a few soggy picnics over the past couple of weeks, but we've tried to make the most of each one. At least we haven't had to spend much on sunscreen and insect repellent. (I think even the bugs are too wet to bother.)

Snacks that I don't normally keep around the house - brownies, candy, potato chips - have been making their way into my grocery cart as we attend one end-of-year party after another.

Perhaps my children are involved in too many activities ... but that's a topic for another column.

Invariably, there are leftover snacks for the next day, much to the delight of my children.

At a recent lunch, my son was carefully examining a chip and wanted to know what was in it. When I said it came from a potato, he gave me a no-joke look.

"But how do they get from the potato to the chip?" he asked.

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I told him I'd try to find out.

The first step is selecting the potatoes, says Kathy Stehr, quality assurance manager for Snyder of Berlin in Berlin, Pa.

Atlantics or Snowdens are favored by Snyder, a chip and snack product manufacturer located 70 miles east of Pittsburgh.

"We don't use red potatoes because they have a high sugar content," says Stehr, noting that the sugar can cause them to turn brown when fried.

It takes about four pounds of potatoes to make one pound of potato chips.

The potatoes are washed at farms or at the plant and put into a bin. Then they are transported up to a peeler by means of a water flume system.

(Sounds just like an amusement park ride, eh?)

The peeler is a tube about 3 feet in diameter that contains abrasive rollers. The rollers are coated with a grit material, Stehr says. As the potatoes move over the rollers, the peeling is removed.

The peeled potatoes are inspected for defects. Potatoes with scars, green spots or sprouts are discarded.

Potatoes that pass inspection are transported to a storage hopper. From there, they are taken to the slicer and then the fryer.

The slicing unit is a circular ring, about one foot across, that looks like a cylinder, Stehr says. There are eight knives that are as sharp as razor blades positioned evenly around the ring.

As the slicing unit quickly spins, the potatoes are dropped in and forced against the blades. The slices then fall into a washing unit where starch is removed.

The washing unit is like a big tub that is filled halfway with water, Stehr says. The potato slices are tumbled in and out of the water in an action that is similar to clothes going around a dryer.

After the starch is removed, the slices are fed onto a conveyor, sprayed again with water and then blown dry with hot air.

(These potatoes get the treatment. First an amusement park ride. Then a trip to the salon.)

The slices are placed in the fryer. A blend of oils, set at 385 degrees, is used. Potato slices are in the fryer for five minutes.

Potatoes are more than 75 percent water. The finished potato chip is less than 2 percent water. In the potato chip frying process, the water is replaced with oil.

If a chip contains too much moisture, it loses its crunch and gets stale faster. At the Berlin plant, potato chips are fried from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. On humid days, the plant has to get the chips in the bags faster.

Once fried, the slices are sprayed with salt. The finished chips are conveyed to the packaging machine where they drop down onto a scale and are placed in a bag. The bags are sealed, coded, dated and boxed for delivery.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com.

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