The secret is in one ingredient!

By Andrea Beck
Updated January 30, 2020

If you’ve ever tried them before, you’ll know there’s something special about the hash browns at McDonald’s. Somehow they manage to be both crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with a perfect golden-brown color. And while we’ve covered all the little details that make McDonald’s Coke taste so much better than all the others, there’s just one secret to making the best hash browns.

Image courtesy of McDonald's

The trick is an ingredient added to the oil used to partially fry the hash browns (and those famous french fries) before freezing them and shipping them to restaurants. From the very beginning, McDonald’s used to fry their french fries and hash browns (when breakfast items were added to the menu in the 1970s) in a mixture of cottonseed oil and beef tallow. It’s a delicious combination, but since beef tallow is a form of rendered fat, it’s also unhealthy and made the fries and hash browns very high in saturated fat.

Image courtesy of McDonald's

In an effort to make their fried menu items a little healthier, McDonald’s switched to frying their potato sides with vegetable oil in 1990. But in order to give their hash browns and fries the same delicious taste as frying in beef tallow, they added natural beef flavoring to the oil. You can find it on the list of ingredients for both their hash browns and fries. This change is also 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.

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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 (which unfortunately means the hash browns and fries aren’t vegan).

Related: McDonald's Is Adding Donut Sticks to Their Menu for a Limited Time

To create natural beef flavoring without beef, food scientists have singled out the amino acids in real beef that give it its flavor. Since it would be way too expensive (and wasteful) to extract the flavor from beef without actually using any of the beef, scientists then found a way to recreate the same flavors without using beef, and instead using more common ingredients like wheat and milk.

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 quality criteria. Then they’re washed and peeled before being inspected again for any blemishes or imperfections. The next step in the process is a pass through a mechanical cutter, which slices the potatoes into strips.

Related: How to Make Homemade Hash Browns

After cutting, the potato strips are blanched in hot water for a few minutes, then dried and sliced again into the hash brown-sized pieces we’re used to munching on. Before taking on their distinct shape, the potato pieces are mixed with salt, pepper, cornflour, and potato flour. Then, once they’ve been shaped, the hash browns are partially fried in vegetable oil and beef flavoring before being cooled, frozen, and shipped out to restaurants.

You’ll still get fresh-fried hash browns at your local McDonald’s though—and since they’re on the all-day breakfast menu, you can order them at any time. When an order for hash browns comes in, your restaurant will then finishing frying them, so they arrive to you hot, crispy, and fresh.

Related: 5 Fast Food Restaurants That Are Vegetarian-Friendly

Biting into them, you’d never guess that there’s so much effort and history behind McDonald’s hash browns and french fries. But now, the next time you’re skimming the dollar menu, you can have a new appreciation for those ultra-addicting hash browns and fries.

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Comments (3)

jackies7303664
March 9, 2019
My family will disagree with that assumption. I take and make Hash browns and french fried from scratch and they and others who have tasted them will say they are better than they can get anywhere. When I make my hash browns I cut them in quarters lengthwise and then soak them in water for at least 4-6 hours. (If I am making them for breakfast I peel and put them in water before going to bed.) I will get up a hour earlier and drain the potatoes and allow them to dry for about 1/2 hour. I then will use the food processor and grind them how I want to make them and then fry with both some bacon fat and butter. I fry them and then put them in the oven until ready to serve. I also make my own hash with my hash browns. I made ham has and the kids raved about it and my son does not like hash. But I can make it with corned beef, ham, beef, chicken or turkey and they gobble it down. The trick is to let them soak at least 3 or 4 hours to get all the starch that you can from the potatoes. They fry up crunchy and delicious
kchamb1206851015
March 9, 2019
As a youth I worked at McDonalds part time. Made about 600 lbs of french fries a night. Back then we peeled them in an automated peeler, diced them one potato at a time in a press, washed them 3 times in cold water to get the starch out, blanched them and then fried them. It was back breaking work. No shiny truck came in and unloaded pre-made fries. They do not taste the same as they did when they were fried in old fashioned lard.
kchamb1206851015
March 9, 2019
I was an analytical chemist most of my life but if I had it to do over again I would be a food chemist. The chemistry of food amazes me. As a youth I fried probably a thousand tons of McDonald's french fries. We had an auto peeler which helped but I peeled, diced, triple washed, blanched and fried about 600 lbs a night. It was back breaking. I still eat them occasionally but I sure miss that oil taste and heavy salt that made them so good.