If you were born before the 1990s, you likely remember how McDonald’s French fries used to taste. You’ve probably also wondered why they don’t taste the same anymore. Keep reading to find out what happened.
A History of McDonald’s French Fries
Before we get to why McDonald’s fries taste different today, we first want to give you a little background information on how they were originally made. According to an article published by MSN, French fries were this fast food giant’s main attraction from the beginning. “The McDonald’s French fry was in an entirely different league,” franchise founder Ray Kroc explained in his memoir, Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s. “They lavished attention on it. I didn’t know it then, but one day I would, too. The French fry would become almost sacrosanct for me, its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously.”
So, what exactly made the fries the main attraction? Beef tallow (93 percent) and vegetable oil (7 percent). Kroc used this blend — known as Formula 47 — along with a unique curing process (storing them in warm temperatures for a few weeks), to make his fries crispier and more flavorful than his competitors’. He also hired an electrical engineer to develop a “potato computer” to determine the optimal cooking time for the beloved French fries.
-Ray Kroc got the idea for his world famous fries from a hot-dog stand on the North Side of Chicago called Sam’s. The stand used a technique known as “the Chicago method of cooking fries,” which involved cooking them in animal fat.
–Formula 47 got its name from the cost of the restaurant’s “All-American meal” at the time, which included a 15-cent burger, 12-cent fries, and a 20-cent shake.
-The name “McDonald’s” came from brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, who owned a drive-in hamburger stand in San Bernardino, CA, that Kroc would later go on to build a franchise from.
What Makes McDonald’s Fries Taste Different Today
According to famed author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell, it was a change in the oil used to cook the French fries that led to the difference in taste. In 1990, McDonald’s “went from frying them in beef tallow to frying them in some combination of vegetable oil,” Gladwell said, according to BUSINESS INSIDER. That’s because health conscious individuals, namely business mogul Phil Sokolof, were concerned about saturated fat in fast food, and McDonald’s thought that if they didn’t do something soon to make its food healthier, it would spell the end for them. But, according to Eat This, Not That, the change didn’t make the French fries any healthier. In fact, it made them worse! “Neither animal fat nor vegetable oil is good for you, per se. However, vegetable oil can have high levels of trans fat, which is widely considered to be the worst kind of fat. Too much of it can cause weight gain, digestive issues, and a whole list of cardiovascular diseases,” Eat This, Not That wrote on its website. So, in short, “not only did they destroy the French fry, they gave us something that was worse for us from a health perspective. So everything about it was a mistake,” Gladwell said, according to BUSINESS INSIDER. If they had any guts at all, they would admit they were wrong and bring back the old cooking method, he added.
-In 1966, 43-year-old self-made millionaire Phil Sokolof suffered a heart attack. This life-changing event inspired him to found the National Heart Savers Association to campaign against cholesterol and fat. The campaign’s main target was, you guessed it, McDonald’s French fries. Sokolof spent several decades and $15 million attacking the fast food giant by placing full-page ads against McDonald’s in newspapers, among other things. The fast-food giant finally caved and announced in 1990 that they would replace the beef tallow with 100 percent vegetable oil. It was the first time they made any major changes to the fries since they were added to the menu in the 1950s.
-McDonald’s has swapped the oil its fries are cooked in several times since the 90s, including when they began using a soy-corn oil blend in 2002 and when they switched to trans fat-free oil in 2007 and 2008.
-“Natural beef flavor” is one of the ingredients currently used, but the company says it’s made of wheat and milk derivatives, not actual beef.
-After McDonald’s made the announcement about switching from beef fat to vegetable oil, its stock fell 8.3 percent.
-Even with all the changes, McDonald’s French fries are still the most popular menu item served at the chain restaurant. In fact, McDonald’s sells about 9 million pounds of French fries a day worldwide!
What Else You Should Know
You can still enjoy them. No, not at McDonald’s — although it’d be nice if they brought them back. But, you can make them –or at least a similar version — at home using one of the recipes for making fries with beef tallow online. Here’s one from LifeHacker.com:
-frozen French fries
-1/4 cup of beef tallow, plus more as needed
-2 tablespoons fine sea salt
-1 tablespoon MSG (optional)
Combine salt and MSG in a food processor or spice grinder and pulse to combine. Christen it “umami salt” and set aside. Heat the fat over medium-high heat in a large stainless steel or cast iron pan. Once it starts to shimmer a little, place a single test fry in the oil. If it immediately begins to sizzle, place as many fries as you can fit in a single layer in the pan. If not, let the fat heat a little longer before adding the rest of your fries. Then, let the fries sizzle and cook, gently swirling and flipping them with a spatula or tongs in the hot tallow until they are a pale golden brown and crispy — approximately 6-8 minutes. Remove them from the beef fat with tongs or a slotted spatula, place them on paper towels to drain. Season with umami salt, and serve immediately.
If you want to cook them using fresh potatoes, you can follow the recipe from Granny’s Vital Vittles. For that, you’ll need a bag of potatoes and a tool to slice them with. Make sure to wash them first. You’ll likely have to adjust the cooking time since they’re fresh and not frozen. Either way, you’ll need to cook them until they are golden brown.
So, what do you think? Did McDonald’s fries really taste better years ago? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!