The truth about McDonald's Big Mac sauce

There are few fast food items so iconic that everyone knows their name, and even fewer that have their own economic index. But that's the thing about the Big Mac: It's been around for over 50 years, and it's still one of the chain's most popular items (second only to french fries), with over 1 billion sold in 2017. Most of us can recite the jingle by heart on command (two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions — on a sesame seed bun), and there's even an entire museum in Pennsylvania dedicated to enshrining the iconic sandwich. 

What makes the Big Mac worthy of our attention? The burger itself isn't really anything special — there are no gourmet components, and it's not made with specialty beef. The toppings aren't exactly adventurous, either, but the sauce somehow stands out. It has the tang of ketchup, the unctuousness of mayonnaise, and a sweet and crunchy finish that has us all hooked. The formula may not be a secret anymore, but it turns out it's not just a Thousand Island knock-off — there's more to McDonald's Big Mac sauce than you thought. Dive into the truth behind the chain's most popular sauce, just don't become as obsessed as this self-proclaimed Big Mac-aholic who eats the sandwich for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It does not, in fact, have all the major food groups in it.

The original Big Mac ads didn't call it Special Sauce

In the original 1968 commercial, McDonald's never mentioned a "special sauce." They called their new creation "secret" sauce, and as they slowly build the two-patty, three-bun burger, the narrator describes the ingredients with pizzaz. "Pure, beef hamburger — sizzling hot — a slice of cheddar blend cheese, and some crisp, fresh lettuce" make their appearance on a lightly toasted bun. Then, there it is: Their "own secret sauce" is generously spooned onto the burger. And by generous, we mean a massive amount of sauce. No wonder they needed the middle bun to keep the burger patties from sliding out.

The sauce looks nothing short of amazing, even in the old film. It's not thick like ketchup or neon-colored like mustard. The pale, pinkish-colored sauce looks a little bit like tartar sauce, but less mayonnaise-like and more spreadable. As they finish building the burger, they add "a little more sauce, just for good flavor" (which, of course, means another massive dollop). With that, they announce their newest sandwich: The Big Mac, "for the bigger-than-average appetite."

With a new slogan came a new name for the Big Mac sauce

McDonald's didn't use the term "special sauce" until they introduced the now-famous Big Mac jingle in 1974. While it's unclear why they shifted from referring to the sauce as "special" instead of "secret," we do know they originally developed the campaign for print. McDonald's aimed to place the list of ingredients as one long word in college newspapers. 

Mark Vieha (who later went on to contribute to the soundtrack for Teen Wolf) put the slogan to music, and McDonald's challenged the world to recite the mouthful of a slogan. It might have been difficult to remember back then, but we'd wager a guess that most people today can recite it on command. McDonald's trotted out the jingle from time to time in their ad campaigns, and in 2008 the chain teamed up with MySpace to give younger audiences a "contemporary version" of the classic ad. They asked fans to create a new jingle using the same famous words in a "Big Mac Chant-Off" to celebrate the sandwich's 40th anniversary, and received more than 1,000 entries before selecting 29-year-old Jason Harper as the winner.

There were two versions of Special Sauce used on the original Big Macs

The Big Mac wasn't invented in a boardroom: It was created by Pittsburg franchise owner, Jim Delligatti, in 1967. In an interview with Pittsburgh Magazine, Delligatti's son admits that McDonald's initially wouldn't let his father sell a bigger burger. He "kept after it and he kept experimenting" until he developed "The Aristocrat," the burger we now know as the Big Mac. That'd be pretty hard for a franchise owner to do today considering McDonald's has chefs and test kitchens for developing new products. 

Despite their original apprehension, the sandwich was such a success that McDonald's launched it nationally in 1968. There was only one problem: The sandwich's signature creamy sauce wasn't on any other menu item. As they were fine-tuning the formula for the Big Mac Special Sauce, McDonald's franchises were actually using two different versions. Both sauces performed well, and the company didn't want to alienate customers who had a taste for either one. They ended up creating a mash-up of the two to eliminate inconsistency and called it Big Mac Sauce "72". We wonder how different they really were.

McDonald's has changed the Big Mac sauce recipe a few times over the years

The original Big Mac sauce reportedly took two years to develop, and it remained unchanged for over 20 years, when, according to McDonald's, the recipe was "tweaked in 1991 and remained that way until 2004." Around that time, the company's stock prices were declining and profits were falling, so McDonald's new CEO called Fred Turner, the company's original operations officer and former CEO, out of retirement. According to the Chicago Tribune, Turner could "taste" the reason that McDonald's was in trouble: Over the years, they had changed the Big Mac Special Sauce to cut costs. Unfortunately, the original recipe had been lost, but Turner remembered the original California supplier. They worked together to recover the recipe and returned to making "a hamburger the way [they] used to make a hamburger." 

That's not the only change they've made to the Special Sauce over the years. In 2018, McDonald's made some big ingredient changes. To increase quality, they removed artificial preservatives, artificial flavors, and added colors from artificial sources from their classic burgers, and that meant removing artificial preservatives like potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, and calcium disodium EDTA from the Big Mac Special Sauce. We can't imagine Jim Delligatti using artificial ingredients back in the '60s, so these changes might have brought the recipe even closer to its original iteration. 

The ingredients in the "secret" Big Mac sauce aren't that secret anymore

For years, McDonald's protected the ingredients list of the Big Mac Special Sauce like a closely-guarded government secret. Although there is no shortage of copycat recipes available online, McDonald's Executive Chef Dan Coudreaut demystified the process when he answered a customer-submitted question and made the sauce on YouTube in 2012. "Quite honestly," he explains, "the ingredients have been available in the restaurant or… on the internet for many years, so it's not really a secret."

Coudreaut walks us through a version of the Big Mac sauce made with store-bought mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish, classic yellow mustard, white wine vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika for both color and flavor. Whisk it all together in a bowl and voila: homemade Special Sauce made with ingredients you can find at your grocery store. Unfortunately, Coudreaut didn't provide measurements, and we're not even sure how authentic this sauce really is. While a lot of the ingredients are similar to the ones listed on McDonald's website, we're missing quite a few things, like soybean oil, salt, sugar, turmeric, and unidentified "spices," which surely contribute to that one-of-a-kind flavor. Coudreaut's version is also missing a few unsavory sounding items — not that you'd want to add high fructose corn syrup, propylene glycol alginate, vegetable protein, caramel color, or soy lecithin to the mix in your home kitchen.

McDonald's Big Mac sauce isn't actually a Thousand Island copycat

For a long time, many consumers of the McDonald's Big Mac thought its Special Sauce was a knock-off of good old Thousand Island, a tangy dressing made with mayonnaise, ketchup, pickles, and onions (amongst other ingredients).  

According to McDonald's ingredients list, though, the sauce isn't the same as the popular dressing because it doesn't contain any ketchup — or any tomatoes at all, for that matter. The pink hue of the sauce likely comes from the addition of turmeric, paprika, and caramel color. Some copycat recipes stay true to this, adding paprika to give the sauce its characteristic color. Others add in a touch of sugar to mimic ketchup's sweetness, or include French dressing (which, by the way, contains ketchup). All the recipes seem to use mayonnaise and pickle relish, though, so at least we can all agree on one thing.

Big Mac sauce is delivered to McDonald's in sealed containers

What's the best way to prevent your employees from stealing your secret sauce recipe? Operate on a need-to-know basis. According to Inc (via Grunge), fast food restaurants even make those who are in-the-know about what goes into their special sauces sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) to keep them from revealing the secret ingredient list.

Before McDonald's went public with a version of the Special Sauce recipe, they held the ingredients tight to their chest. But we still don't know the "real" secret recipe, and we probably never will. That's because it turns out that its not the line cooks who make the sauce — it's actually delivered in sealed containers to the stores, reports the Kansas City Business Journal (via Grunge). Sealright, the company that supplies the Special Sauce, has also had a hand in how much Special Sauce gets put on each Big Mac, as it's their specially calibrated equipment that "dispenses controlled portions of sauces, condiments and dressings." Thanks to these fancy caulk guns, not only do McDonald's cooks not know what actually goes into the sauce, they probably don't even know exactly how much Special Sauce goes on each burger with each squeeze.

McDonald's once gave away 10,000 bottles of Big Mac Sauce (and sold one for a lot of money)

McDonald's is no stranger to giveaways. There were collectible coins to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Big Mac, a Gold Card that entitles its winner to free McDonald's for life (or, more accurately, two meals per week for 50 years), and a whole lot of prizes for those playing McDonald's Monopoly. And in 2017, they announced a big one: That they would give away 10,000 bottles of bottled Big Mac Special Sauce.

The never-before-packaged sauce debuted in Australia in 2016, where it sold out within 15 minutes. Not all of those $5 bottles went to stocking consumer pantries, either; they hit the online auction sites and sold for hundreds of dollars. Halfway across the world, McDonald's created an eBay auction for the UK's first-ever bottle, and it sold for almost $100,000. The money reportedly benefitted the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

What makes these bottled versions so special? Well, they're hard to get your hands on. While you were once able to get the bottles from online retailers like Amazon, searches done at the time of this article yield only out-of-stock results and knock-off alternatives (though there is always eBay, if you're willing to spend a pretty penny). Rumor has it you can buy the bottles in Canada, but the rest of us will just have to wait for the next promotion.

India's Chicken Maharaja Mac has its own version of Special Sauce

The Big Mac is famous for its double beef patty, but that's not going to fly in India. The slaughter of cows is illegal in many states in the country, as the Hindu majority practices a sacred treatment of cows. McDonald's India might be leaving all the beefy options off the menu, but that doesn't mean they don't have their own version of the famous Big Mac: the Chicken Maharaja Mac.

This sandwich still has the look and feel of the Big Mac — with two patties and three buns — just without the beef. It took a while to develop what McDonald's India's supply chain director calls a "complicated sandwich," but chicken patties were the perfect option to replace beef. In some ways, the sandwich sounds better than the American Big Mac: It still has shredded iceberg lettuce, crunchy onions, and a sesame seed bun, but they use cheddar instead of American cheese, jalapeños and tomatoes in place of pickles, and instead of the usual sauce, the Chicken Maharaja Mac gets dressed with a rich habanero sauce, which honestly sounds like it could easily rival the standard Big Mac Special Sauce.

Special Sauce isn't just for the Big Mac

You can find McDonald's Special Sauce on all types of sandwiches internationally. We're not just talking about the different types of Big Macs, either. Sure, the super-sized Grand Mac and the miniature version (Mac Jr.) pop up in the States from time to time, and you'll see different locations riff on their own versions of the Big Mac, like the Giga Big Mac in Japan, the Chicken Big Mac in Australia, and the McKinley Mac found only in Alaska.

No, we're talking about non-Mac sandwiches that get the Mac-sauce treatment. Head to Malaysia to try the Spicy Chicken McDeluxe — crispy fried chicken thigh on a cornmeal bun with (you guessed it) Special Sauce. Then there was the "Manly Man" Mashed Potato Burger in China which not only had Special Sauce, double beef, and double bacon, but they doubled down by putting mashed potatoes the thing.

Then, there are the Special Sauce spin-offs, like Croatia's McCountry which features McDeluxe sauce (a spicier, mustard forward version of the signature sauce). You'll also find something called Crispy sauce in Europe as featured on Italy's Crispy McBacon. As far as we can tell, this aioli-like sauce is a riff on Big Mac Special Sauce that contains capers, gherkins, and a bit of tomato concentrate. Finally, there's the Grand McExtreme Bacon Burger from Spain, that comes complete with McBacon sauce, which The Washington Post describes as a tangy Special Sauce without the relish.