Snack companies are always scrambling to figure out what the next hot flavor is, because The Market demands ever-changing options even though the perfection of sour cream and onion is right there. Chip and pretzel and puff makers experiment with making things pickle-y, or spicy, or putting spice on top of the other flavors, or making snacks taste like completely other meals, like pizza. But the latest trend isn’t a flavor at all. It’s a method, which in many ways leads to the absence of flavor, but which also is for many exactly the point. Get excited to buy burnt chips.
A few brands have made inroads into the overcooked market, to the thrill of anyone who explicitly scours a bag of potato chips to find the burnt bits at the bottom. Better Made may have started the trend with its “Rainbow” chips, which it first started mass-producing in 2005. The first potato chips, it says, used to look a lot more like Rainbow chips, but as potatoes with less sugar content became favored in chip production, the dark, caramelized color became rarer. “Better Made would collect the rejected dark chips and package them as ‘Rainbows’ but the supply was very limited and we were unable to meet the demand for them,” the company says in its product description. Eventually, it worked with farmers to develop a potato that would create a darker chip.
Herrs, Utz and Cape Cod have all introduced (or re-released) “dark” russet kettle chips in the past few years, which Utz describes as having a “deep, robust flavor” that highlights the natural caramelizing of the sugars in the potato. The approach isn’t limited to potato chips. Utz has also made “extra dark” pretzels, as has Unique. “We left our classic special sourdough pretzels to cook just a little bit longer for all our dark pretzel fans,” says Utz in its product description. “The Utz Dark Specials have a bolder kiln-fired taste and an extra, satisfying crunch.”
Cheez-It introduced an “Extra Toasty” line of snacks “after years of fan requests.” According to Allyson Borozan, senior director of innovation at Cheez-It, the company heard from people who always sought out the burnt bits in the box, so it created one where all of them were “cooked a little bit longer than our regular Cheez-It crackers,” though she didn’t specify how much longer. It must not be much, given that some reviews point out inconsistency in the batch: some boxes, people say, end up more toasty than others.
Marcia Mogelonsky, director of insight at market research company Mintel, says burnt flavors are on the rise, riding the coattails of “barbecue” and other smoky flavors. Also, kettle cooked chips have been popular for years, positioned as a more “old-fashioned” way to make chips, with a method that brings out the caramelized flavors and crunch. (Some argue that the crunch aspect of kettle chips takes over, negating any trade-offs in desirable burnt flavors — former Eater writer Jenny G. Zhang called them “too hard, too edged, too committed to a brutality of texture to deliver a balanced gustatory experience.”)
Similarly, any “overcooked” chip is made for those who enjoy some brutality, whether it be the carbon char of a blackened corner, or the sacrifice of some flavor for a hard crisp. But what it seems to boil down to (or cook up to) on the business side is that “cooked a little bit longer” is an easy way for any brand to create a new product. You can capture all the people who scour the bottom of their fry order for the burnt ends by basically doing less.
This is neither the first nor the last time that brands will monetize what many people consider accidents (remember Fail Chips?), and honestly the extra crunch and browning does often improve most mass-market snacks. Given that Cheez-It also recently introduced some limited-edition flavors to its Extra Toasty line, “burnt” seems poised to become one more tool brands can use to make it always seem like they’re coming up with something new. Can’t wait for it to swing around to undercooked chips — aka just a pile of semi-raw potatoes in a bag.