Why McDonald's burgers are so delicious

Burger chain McDonald's is the number one ranked fast food restaurant in all of United States, according to QSR magazine. McDonald's, which raked in over $21 billion in sales in 2018 alone, has a pretty extensive menu. Yet and still, they have always been known first and foremost as a burger and fries joint. The chain is famous for selling approximately 75 burgers every second, which means that the fast food giant must be doing something right when they sandwich one of their signature all-beef patties inside a bun. McDonald's hamburgers are also one of the brand's original menu items, which sold for only 15 cents when they debuted in the 1940s.

So what is it that makes McDonald's burgers so well-loved, in spite changes in attitudes towards meat consumption, and fast food in general? It turns out that there is more to it than burgers that simply taste good.

Mashed dug into the process behind the famous McDonald's hamburger, which has gone through a serious evolution over the years. So, go on and order a cheeseburger combo and get ready for a deep dive into the reason McDonald's burgers are so delicious.

McDonald's burger patties are 100 percent beef

Contrary to the popular false facts that McDonald's burgers are made with "pink slime," all of their patties are actually made from 100 percent USDA-inspected beef, McDonald's confirmed. Prior to 2011, like many other fast food chain restaurants in the United States, McDonald's did use the meat-based filler commonly known as pink slime in their burgers. The substance in question was beef, but only technically. Pink slime is actually made from finely-textured beef trimmings that are then treated with ammonia before being ground up into a pink paste. Is it gross? Yes, but thankfully pink slime is no longer an ingredient in McDonald's hamburgers. 

As part of a widespread effort to debunk the negative consumer perceptions that surrounded their beef products, the company hired former MythBuster Grant Imahara to prove to customers that their well-known claim to serve all-beef patties was true. Imahara went to the Cargill processing plant in Fresno, California to see for himself what goes into a McDonald's "100 percent" beef patty. In the end, he found that McDonald's patties are, indeed, 100 percent beef as claimed.

McDonald's burgers are made with specific cuts of beef

You may have heard that McDonald's burgers are made from entire cows that are put through a meat grinder — including the nastier bits like the eyeballs, lips, snouts, and brains. However, many media outlets, including Tastemade and Snopes, have gone on to prove that this is not, in fact, the case. According to the McDonald's website as well as a Business Insider report that gives a behind-the-scenes look into their US processing plant, Cargill, the process could not be more different from what the public might perceive. 

McDonald's makes their patties out of a few specific cuts of beef, which is crucial to ensuring that their products are of a high enough quality to compete in today's market. While you won't find any of the fanciest butcher's cuts in your McDonald's takeout burgers, they do use the trimmings from cuts like chuck, round, and even sirloin to create the familiar flavor profile of their signature beef blend. And while they don't boast their meat as being grass-fed, the cows they use are for the most part fed on grass for the first half of their lives, before being finished on a diet of grass, minerals, and grain.

McDonald's standard burger patties are flash frozen for optimal freshness

Immediately after the ground beef blend is formed into patties in the processing plant, there's another important step that contributes to the classic flavor we've come to know and love from the Golden Arches. The standard McDonald's burger is flash-frozen immediately after shaping in order to ensure that it is as fresh as possible when it hits the grill at your local restaurant. According to the company (via Business Insider)"Flash freezing helps ensure the quality of our burgers when they are cooked in our restaurant."

Unlike slower freezing processes, which can cause larger ice crystals to form in foods, flash freezing can chill foods to temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit in just a matter of a minute. The flash-freezing process has changed the way Americans eat. It was developed by Clarence Birdseye, the founder of Birdseye frozen foods, in 1924 and is responsible for much of the convenience food we enjoy today. 

As McDonald's explained, it typically takes between two to three weeks from the day a burger patty is formed in a processing plant to the day it is served to a customer. As such, flash freezing is one way that McDonald's ensures they're serving hamburgers that taste as fresh as they possibly can.

McDonald's Quarter Pounder burgers are made with fresh beef

Even though flash freezing is a very effective way to get fresh tasting, delicious burgers in the hands of customers, it is not without some serious drawbacks. Over the years, McDonald's has come under fire multiple times for the practice. Rival fast food burger chain Wendy's has repeatedly taunted McDonald's for their use of frozen beef patties in ad campaigns, first with a 2016 spoof website featuring ads for "freezy diskz" and again in 2018 with an emoji-laden video spot that accused McDonald's of selling "0% fresh never frozen beef."

In an effort to combat the negative perceptions about their burgers, and to compete within the "better burger" space pioneered by higher-end fast food chains like Shake Shack, McDonalds made a commitment to make all of their Quarter Pounders with fresh beef that is cooked to order by mid-2018.

The reception to the change was overwhelmingly positive, with even Food & Wine saying that the freshly-made Quarter Pounder patty is surprisingly good. Just one year after making the change, QSR magazine reported that McDonald's had sold over 40 million more Quarter Pounders than the previous year.

McDonald's burgers are seasoned on the grill

McDonald's really prides itself on the fact that their burgers — both fresh and frozen alike — are made with beef, salt, pepper, and absolutely nothing else. But they don't stop at a short list of ingredients, they actually take things a step further. At McDonald's, seasonings aren't added at all until the burgers reach their local grills, where the cooks add salt and pepper as the patties are grilled to order. According to McDonald's, this "[brings] out all that great beef taste."

Interestingly, there's some leeway in how McDonald's restaurants season their signature burgers. McDonald's representative Eunice Koekkoek told Business Insider that they actually adjust the seasoning based on the country that the burgers are being served in, because "some countries like more salt than others."

Unsurprisingly, American customers have a tendency to like their fast food on the salty side. Reuters reported that one order of McDonald's chicken nuggets served in the United States contains 1.5 grams of salt, compared with only 0.6 grams of salt in the U.K. The salt content in burgers doesn't vary nearly as much, though. "Overall, fast-food burgers served up an average of 1.3 grams of salt (or 520 grams of sodium) across all countries, with only small national differences," Reuters revealed.

McDonald's makes an effort to use relatively local beef in its burgers

McDonald's makes a serious effort to use locally-produced beef whenever it is possible. According to the fast food chain's website, the beef used in the burgers served in the United States come from a handful of producers within the country. This practice is what makes the fast food giant one of the largest purchasers of USDA-inspected beef in the entire country. However, they also supplement their stock with meat from USDA-approved producers in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.

As Eunice Koekkoek, a McDonald's representative, told Business Insider, the company also works hard to ensure that the cows they use for meat are slaughtered in their country of origin as this helps to reduce the need to transport livestock across long distances. This practice also helps keep a focus on locally-sourced ingredients. In Germany, for example, 40 percent of the beef used in their burgers is sourced from Germany, with the remaining 40 percent coming from neighboring countries like Poland and the Netherlands.

McDonald's uses different buns for different burgers

At McDonald's, a burger bun is more than just a vehicle for a great sandwich, it is also a critical part of ensuring burger perfection. Take the chain's signature Big Mac, for example. Oftentimes, when you are served a burger that contains two or even three patties (like Sonic's Quarter Pound Double Cheeseburger or any of the burgers in Wendy's double- and triple-decker offerings), you are still only going to get two pieces of bread. The imbalance between bread and meat in a larger burger can easily lead to what Business Insider writer Hollis Johnson referred to as "beef overload."

The Big Mac is different from its competitors' mega burgers thanks in part to the "club" bun — that third piece of bread sandwiched between the Big Mac's double patties. Like McDonald's other deluxe-style burgers, including the Quarter Pounder and Double Quarter Pounder, the bun is toasted and topped with sesame seeds.

However, not all sandwiches get the sesame seed treatment. The chain's standard Hamburger, Cheeseburger, and Double Cheeseburgers are all served on a regular toasted bun, as are some non-burger sandwiches, like the McChicken. The Filet-o-Fish, on the other hand, is in a league of its own, with its plain steamed bun.

McDonald's has perfected toasting burger buns

Some people might think that a toasted bun is one of the unchanging hallmarks of a McDonald's burger, but that has not always been the case. In the 1990s, McDonald's stopped toasting their buns altogether as part of an overall effort to increase the speed of service, according to The Motley Fool. Skipping the toasting may have seemed like a minor recipe change, but customers were unimpressed with faster burgers if it meant soggy buns. So, in 1997, the company reversed their decision. That change required each store to install $7,000 worth of equipment, all to just toast some bread!

As part of a larger brand overhaul in 2015, McDonald's announced yet another change to the way they prepare their buns. In order to ensure juicier, hotter burgers, the chain decided that they would toast their buns for an additional five seconds, which would lead to their burgers being fifteen degrees hotter overall. Another change came along with the addition of fresh beef to the Quarter Pounder, which gets a bun that has been toasted for a total of approximately 22 seconds.

McDonald's holds its vendors to strict quality standards

The components that make up a McDonald's hamburger, such as beef patties and buns, are not made on site in local stores. Because of that, the company has to rely on a select few trusted vendors to produce ingredients for them. Since their production is so spread out, not only across the United States but all over the world, the chain requires vendors to adhere to a long list of strict quality control standards that help to ensure a consistent product, according to Business Insider. Each box of frozen patties, for example, is labeled with such a high level of detail that they can trace any individual burger back to the cow it came from.

Burger patties even pass through metal detectors before getting packaged and sent to stores so that vendors can make sure there are no foreign objects in the patties. That also means that no loose items are permitted inside of the processing facilities, including jewelry and plastic pens.

The company details an extensive food safety and quality management system, including how they hold their vendors accountable, on their website. And, according to The Orange County Register, there are no second chances for vendors whose work isn't up to snuff. "There's too much at stake for us not to do everything we can," Todd Bacon, head of the fast food chain's U.S. supply chain management, told the publication.

This is the only item that contains a preservative on a McDonald's burger

McDonald's has been taking major steps to make their menu seem appealing to a more health-conscious demographic for years. In 2016, the company announced that they were planning to remove high-fructose corn syrup from all of their buns, replacing it with sucrose, according to Business Insider. Even though sucrose is just the scientific name for plain white table sugar (which is not all that much different from high-fructose corn syrup), the change in ingredients added to the perception that McDonald's was getting healthier.

That same year, according to Fortune, McDonald's also removed artificial preservatives from their chicken nuggets. Then in 2018, McDonald's announced that they were finally going to make changes to their burgers. How? By removing all artificial ingredients — including potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate — from their burgers.

Although this in itself doesn't make a McDonald's burger a "healthy" choice, removing artificial ingredients is an important step to take in terms of both consumer perception and food quality. As of this writing, the company proudly states on its menu that the only component of the burgers that contains any artificial ingredients are the pickles, advising customers to "skip [the pickle] if you like."

Burger toppings are carefully crafted at McDonald's

At any given McDonald's restaurant in the United States, there are a total of nine hamburger variations from which to choice. So it should not come as a surprise that people are passionate about which ones they like best and which ones they would not be rushing to eat again. Yes, people love to rank McDonald's sandwiches, citing the subtle differences between the classic hamburger and the classic cheeseburger, and whether or not a Big Mac is better than a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

The main difference between the burgers, aside from the fact that the Quarter Pounder series is made with fresh beef, resulting in a thicker patty, is the toppings. Even a cursory glance at their menu will show you that a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese is very, very different from a Big Mac. While the Quarter Pounder with Cheese boasts ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, and cheese, the Big Mac swaps out ketchup and mustard for its signature Big Mac sauce, and adds shredded lettuce for extra crunch.

The variations in toppings are so important that there's a cheat sheet for cooks to reference, that way the customer never ends up with a burger that's missing their favorite component.

McDonald's tests its burgers for quality

At this point, you might think that McDonald's has a tendency to micromanage the production of their burgers — and that would not be too far from the truth. In fact, the fast food giant is so obsessive about making sure their burgers will have the consistent great taste their customers expect, they actually build replica test kitchens at their processing plants in order to further monitor quality control, according to Business Insider.

Before a batch of burgers can be sent off to its destination, someone at the processing plant is tasked with cooking up some of the patties in the replica kitchen. There, a series of comprehensive tests for quality are conducted, including ensuring optimal fat content and flavor. Once the patties have passed the test, they're cleared to be sent to your local McDonald's restaurant.

This is just one component of the chain's overall commitment to quality. According to McDonald's, some of the other steps the chain is taking include a commitment to sustainably-sourced beef, rigorous policies concerning the use of antibiotics in livestock, and a "back to basics" approach that manages to stick to the company's roots without eschewing innovation. And, for the customer, that all just means a more delicious burger.