This Is Why McDonald's Hash Browns (and French Fries) Taste So Good

The secret is in one ingredient!

If you've ever eaten a McDonald's breakfast, we're guessing one of the sides stands out in your mind. There's no denying there's something extra special about McDonald's hash browns. Somehow, these shredded-potato patties manage to be both crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with that perfect golden-brown color we can never seem to achieve at home. It's no surprise that the McDonald's corporate office once revealed customers' top request was for breakfast all day long. (Unfortunately, the pandemic halted McDonald's All-Day Breakfast, which started in 2015, so you'll have to head out early to snag those hash browns.) McDonald's refers to its hash browns as "breakfast royalty," and we won't argue with that honorific.

So what's the secret behind the restaurant's incredible hash browns? Credit an ingredient added to the oil used to fry the hash browns—and those famous french fries—partway, before freezing them and shipping them to restaurants.

One McDonald's hash brown cut in half and stacked on top of each other
Image courtesy of McDonald's.

In the restaurant's early days, McDonald's relied on a mixture of cottonseed oil and beef tallow for frying; this blend was still in use when breakfast items were added to the menu in the 1970s. Although the combination was delicious, it was also unhealthy—beef tallow is a form of rendered fat, which gave the fries and hash browns a high amount of saturated fat.

McDonalds-French-Fries
Image courtesy of McDonald's.

In an effort to make their fried menu items a little healthier, McDonald's switched to cooking their potato sides with vegetable oil in 1990. But the fast-food joint wasn't willing to sacrifice that signature flavor: McDonald's added natural beef flavoring to the oil to preserve the taste customers had come to love. (You can find it on the list of ingredients for both their hash browns and fries.) This change is why you might've noticed that McDonald's fries started tasting a little different in the 90s, and why some people remember McDonald's fries tasting better when they were children.

What is Natural Beef Flavoring?

This question is a little trickier to answer because it involves some complicated food chemistry. Basically, according to the McDonald's menu, their natural beef flavoring uses hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients.

To create natural beef flavoring without beef, food scientists singled out the amino acids that give beef its flavor. Since it would be way too expensive (and wasteful) to extract the amino acids from beef without actually using any of the meat, scientists then figured out a way to recreate the same flavors with more common ingredients like wheat and milk. (Are McDonald's hash browns vegetarian then? Perhaps, since this flavoring is inspired by meat, not extracted from it. But vegan? No.)

How Hash Browns Are Made

Of course, more than just beef flavoring goes into making McDonald's hash browns. It starts with fresh potatoes, which are inspected to make sure they meet McDonald's standards. Then they're washed and peeled before being checked again for blemishes or imperfections. The approved potatoes are then sent through a mechanical cutter, which slices the potatoes into strips.

Next, those strips are blanched in hot water for a few minutes, then dried and cut into the hash brown-sized pieces that make up the restaurant's signature patties. The pieces are mixed with salt, pepper, cornflour, and potato flour, formed into McDonald's oval shape, and partially fried in vegetable oil and beef flavoring before being frozen and shipped to restaurants.

You'll still get fresh-fried hash browns at your local McDonald's, though. When an order for hash browns comes in, the cook will finish frying them, so they arrive to you hot, crispy, and fresh. Are hash browns good for you? Not particularly, as nothing fried really qualifies as healthy. But they're certainly delicious—and a worthwhile indulgence every now and then.

Biting into these crispy potato patties, you'd never guess there's so much effort and history behind McDonald's hash browns or the french fries. Now, the next time you're skimming the Dollar Menu, you can bring a new level of appreciation for those ultra-addicting hash browns and fries.

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