THE SCIENCE OF CRUNCH
Covering the increasing culinary significance of potato crisps, why chefs suddenly want to be the loudest crunch in the room, and how to make your own.
We eat with our ears, not just our mouth. Dr Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford and author of Sensehacking (2021), says sound is ‘the forgotten sense’.
In his field of cognitive neuroscience, sound is acknowledged as playing a role in the overall multisensory experience of eating and drinking. In 2008, he even won the Ig Nobel Prize for his breakthrough Sonic Chip experiment, in which electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip crunching in the mouth changed the enjoyment and satisfaction levels of those eating it. The louder, the better.
Science-based chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli always had it that “cooking is a multi-sensual art”. And Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck collaborated with Dr Spence for over ten years to enhance the diner’s experience (hence his Sound of The Sea course, for which diners held an iPod inside a conch shell to the ear, listening to waves coming in to shore, while eating shellfish).
Some researchers say our love of the crunch is evolutionary – that a good crunch indicates that dead insect you found at the back of your cave is fresh. Others say loud noises take us out of our own heads for a minute, and that we use the sound of crunching through a bag of chips as a de-stressor.
As Charles Spence has said, “sound affects the experience of food”. The noise draws attention to the mouth in the way something silent does not. “A crunch will draw your attention to what you’re eating, making you concentrate on it. Noisy foods make you think about them.” (And did you know that potato chip manufacturers deliberately package their chips in noisy bags, to enhance that perception? Of course you did).
IS THIS WHY EVERYONE IS SERVING POTATO CRISPS RIGHT NOW?
Yes, it is. Chefs are doing their own potato crisps because they’re lighter than crackers, crisper than bread, and strong enough to dip into dips or slather with pate.
In Sydney, check out the gorgeous new Bar La Salut from the team behind Love Tilly Devine, Ragazzi and Dear Saint Eloise. Chef Scott McComas-Williams sends out Spanish Pafritas crisps in a bowl of mussels with guindillas peppers and plenty of smoky paprika, ready to slather in a slurry of Fabricca Hot Sauce, inspired by super-cool Barcelona vermuteria Morro Fi’s patates gruixudes.
At the equally new Odd Culture in Newtown, James MacDonald and Jesse Warkentin’s chicken liver pate comes out in a moat of caramelised fish sauce and a bunch of house-made crisps stacked and splayed over the top. It’s a mind-bending collision of creamy richness and salty crispness; soft give and hard crack. It reminds me of banh mi, in the way it reflects sweet Asia and fat France.
Melbournites, keep an eye on Marion Wine Bar in Fitzroy, MoVida Aqui in town and Kazuki’s in Carlton, all of whom have done the chippy thing in the past. See Kazuki Tsuya’s beautiful beef tataki with anchovy dressing features in Gourmet Traveller magazine here.
In more crunchtastic news, Melbourne chef Harry Stevens has launched his own kettle-cooked potato crisp business, Chappy’s. Good move, and I like the idea of the Dill Pickle flavour variant.
You can also get some amazing Spanish brands such as Torres, Patates Fritos and Pafritas, while home-grown Kettle Original with South Australian Sea Salt has just the right crunch-to-salt ratio, taking me back to the halcyon days of Colvan.
Doing the chippy thing is fun to do at home.
Especially if you’re in a groove (rut) of always serving the same crackers or breads with dips and charcuterie. See below for how well potato crisps go with Victor Churchill’s butter-clad chicken liver parfait, sent to me to celebrate their extraordinary new boutique butcher opening in High Street, Armadale (thank you kindly). Their parfait is rich and creamy enough for textural contrast, yet light enough to be spread on a chip. Chips go with dips such as taramasalata, hummus, and chippy-chop things like steak tartare and tuna tartare.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN POTATO CRISPS
1/ Use a good, floury spud such as Coliban, or all-rounders such as Sebago or Desiree, choosing the longer, rounder shapes. Peel with an eye to not leaving rigid lines that will spoil the roundness of the sliced potato, or trim into a rounder shape after peeling.
2/ Finely slice on a mandolin, electric slicer or with a very sharp knife, about 3 to 4mm thick.
3/ Pat dry and deep-fry in hot oil, or place on a baking tray lined with baking paper that you have brushed with olive oil. Lightly brush the tops with oil and bake on a high shelf at 190C for 10 minutes, then check at 5-minute intervals until golden (watch them like a seagull, they have a tendency to burn).
4/ Transfer to a wire rack, and scatter immediately with sea salt while hot, then allow to cool (I said, allow to cool, stop eating them) and store in an air-tight container.
They cook unevenly, which might upset the purist, but you’re not making Pringles here. They’re proudly home-made and hand-made, not robotic, extruded and perfect.
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Special thanks to my right-hand man, Terry Durack, for slicing the potatoes while my little finger is in a tiny and very appealing splint to help it straighten out a bit.
I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands and waters upon which I work, live, cook and play; the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I fully support the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice to be enshrined in Australia’s Constitution.