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.