Fun fact: McDonald’s french fries aren’t vegetarian (in the United States).
For most individuals who enjoy trips to Mickey D’s this knowledge changes nothing, but when a friend innocently informed me of the ingredients of Ronald’s scrumptious potato morsels I was crushed. The third ingredient in McDonald’s ‘World Famous Fries’ is none other than “Natural Beef Flavor,” making them neither vegan or vegetarian friendly. I felt like a fool. Were the past eight years of vegetarianism a lie? I was left questioning both my sanity and my new spot for late night fast food until my friend pointed out I still eat gummy bears. After she reminded me of my glaring imperfections my anger towards fast food clowns subsided a bit, but I became curious about others who have made this discovery, and I fell down the rabbit hole of fast food french fry faux pas.
McDonald’s menu and recipes are notoriously resilient but even they were targets of the late 20th century’s war on dietary fats. Fast food establishments were obvious first scapegoats for America’s health concerns, so after enduring years of lobbying and public scrutiny, in 1990 McDonald’s made the decision to modify a recipe that had not changed since the 1950s. They switched from cooking their fries in beef tallow, rendered beef fat, to frying in vegetable oil. The decision received mixed reactions. Many diehard fans were enraged that their once flavorful fries were neutered by corporate appeasement, but vegetarians and individuals who abstain from eating beef rejoiced that they could finally partake in a famed piece of potato product history.
Unfortunately, it was too good to be true. In 2001, McDonald’s found themselves in legal hot water after a Hindu American discovered the truth about the ‘natural ingredients’ in Mcdonald’s fries from an India West newspaper article. McDonald’s circumvented adding beef or beef flavoring to the french fries’ ingredients list by using ambiguous labeling and lumping together flavorings and additives. Several individuals took legal action and in 2002 McDonald’s settled a class action lawsuit, awarding 11 named plaintiffs $4,000 each. They also donated $10 million to Hindu and other organizations, made an official statement on their website, and vowed changes in their labeling policies. Now at the bottom of the McDonald’s online menu you can find the fine print message, “We do not promote any of our US menu items as vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free.”
Apologies to anyone who can no longer enjoy McDonald’s fries in good conscience, but there is an alternative: Make your own fries. Creating a product that stands up to something out of Ronald’s kitchen may seem daunting at first, but with the wisdom and scientific approach of culinary legend J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, anyone can cook like a clown.
- 2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼ inch by ¼ inch fries
- 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
- Kosher salt
- 2 quarts peanut or other neutral flavored, high heat oil
To prevent oxidation, keep the cut potatoes submerged in cool water until ready to use. First, combine potatoes, vinegar, and 2 tablespoons of salt in a saucepan with 2 quarts of cool water. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook for 10 minutes or until the potatoes are tender, but not falling apart. Carefully drain the fries and lay them out in a single layer on a paper towel to dry for at least 5 minutes.
Heat your oil to 400°F in a Dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pot while waiting for the potatoes to dry. Ensure your frying vessel is large enough so that the oil level is not above half before the addition of your potatoes. Once the oil is heated, cook your fries in three batches total. The oil temperature should drop to about 360°F after adding a batch of fries. Cook each batch for approximately 50 seconds before removing to a paper towel lined plate or baking sheet to cool and drain. After letting the fries cool to room temperature, either fry them immediately, or freeze them for up to 2 months before final fry.
To finish the fries, heat the oil to 400°F and fry until crisp and golden brown, about 3 ½ minutes. Fry in two batches and keep the oil temperature around 360°F after adding the fries. Remove the fries to a paper towel lined plate or bowl and season immediately with salt to taste. Enjoy your vegetarian fries hot and fresh!
Recipe adapted from Serious Eats – The Perfect French Fries Recipe
Cover photo courtesy of Heather Christo