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Dec 17, 2006 11:18 PM

The umami of McDonald’s double cheese burger

Often absence does not make the taste buds grow fonder at the McDonalds. I remember after dieting for a long time, eating a McDonalds burger and thinking “yuck, all this tastes like is salt”.

But I was recently eating a double cheeseburger and it was good. I decided to think about why that was so.

There are three things

First of all, the burger itself has little flavor. It is the vehicle for pulling together all the other elements.

That’s where Wendy’s and Carl’s Jr. make the big mistake ... there is too much burger to condiment/bun ratio. It calls attention to the flavor of the burger ... which admittedly in a fast food burger is a piece of meat with neutral flavor.

With Burger King, that char-broiled, so to speak, flavor of the burger is the focal point. BK makes the mistake of getting the condiments to match the strong char-broil taste ... result ... too much catsup/mustard.

McDonald’s burger doesn’t overdo the catsup / mustard ... just enough for flavor but not noticeable for too little or too much. The Heinz catsup (which is said to have umami) lends a bit of sweetness. The mustard balances with tang.

The chopped onions add another sweet note. They are always perfectly fresh tasting and not too onion-y yet not flavorless. Again, not too much to call attention, but lend support to the entire burger.

It is that bun that always puts McDonald’s ahead. I have never had a stale bun in the decades I’ve been a customer. There’s a background sweetness to it It also holds up nicely, absorbing juices without falling apart.

The fatal flaw with Jack in the Box’s regular burger was always the bun which is tasteless. Lately they seemed to have upped the quality of the bun, but it doesn’t match McDonald’s. BK has a nice enough bun ... lightly toasted on the cut side with sesame seeds on top, but the burger is the focus point, as mentioned, so it gets lost flavor-wise.

The McDonald’s burger itself is juicy, but not too juicy. Let the burger get cold and the juice runs into the bun leaving the burger too dry ... but hot off the griddle it is an unctuous, orgy of juiciness yet not so much it causes your car wheel to get greasy ... a burger that thought went into. I looked closely at the burger ... something I don’t think I’ve done before ... and on the sunny day the juices caught the sun and glistened. Yes, it is salty, but IMO that adds to the umami-ness.

What started this whole examination was there was the flavor of butter in my burger and I wondered what that was about ... it was the melted cheese that gave it taste.

It is the texture that is so great too ... soft and comforting ... saved from being overly so by two crisp pickles that bring occasionally bursts of contrasting texture and flavor with a slight sourish/bitterness.

And there you have it ... soft with crunch ... savory yet with touches of sweetness ... all of the flavor receptors teased ...salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami ... the McDonald’s double cheeseburger.

All this entertainment for $1 before tax.

I was never a fan of the Jack in the Box regular burger and a recent burger confirmed why. Jack went for the classic American burger version ... which is wrong with fast food because it calls attention to everything wrong with a cheap burger ... fresh but tasteless iceberg and tomato ... mayo that makes the bun too soggy. The pickle is not crispy and now I’m noticing the bun and the burger ... not a good thing.

HOWEVER, beside’s the justifiably praised three-in-the-morning taco, Jack is the home of the specialty sandwich. Jack is the artisan of fast food so to speak, introducing the ciabatta roll ... the menu is about re-creating and expanding the horizons of drive-thru cuisine ... with items none of the competition replicates .... Sourdough burgers, bruschetta chicken, chicken pita, chipotle chicken, steak & cheddar, curly fries, jalapeno poppers, and the rotating guest sandwiches like the philly cheesesteak. Jack is the Thomas Keller of this genre of food, so to speak.

Burger King has always been about excess ... it is the home of the whopper which I enjoy occasionally ... they do excess right. And with the whopper, the burger taste gets balanced by the many condiments. That’s what makes it work.

I flirt with Jack and the King occasionally, but I am in the McDonald’s fan club. That double cheeseburger is one of the reasons for that.

Who would have thought there would be anything to report about fast food? But often it gets written off as convenient and cheap. If that’s all it was, these joints would have folded long ago. I knew it could be tasty. I just never thought about why that was. What is it with any mass-produced food? Why love that Oreo, Ritz cracker, Philly cream cheese, etc.

Prices after tax:

McDonald’s – ($1.07) plain bun, catsup, mustard, 2 pickle slices, 2 slices of cheese, 2 burgers, chopped onion
Burger King – ($2.50) Sesame seed bun, catsup, mustard, two pickle slices, 2 slices of cheese, 2 burgers
Jack in the box – ($1.50) Plain bun, 1 pickle slice, mayo, catsup, iceberg lettuce, tomato slice, 1 slice cheese, 1 burger
Carl’s Jr & Wendy’s ... yeah, I just don’t like them enough.

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  1. Can't beat the double cheese burger, medium fries and a glass of H2O for the $2 lunch budget meal.

    1. Congratulations on having the courage & foresight to review the taboo. I think you are absolutely right there is sensual merit to a lot of successful fast food. People have trouble acknowledging it more from a philosphical even a snobbish perspective. For many, McDonald's just does not fulfill the soul or capture the imagination... and that is fair.

      I think in life... the most valuable posture is of balance... there is a right time & place for it all. I just grabbed some McD's the other day & found it perfectly fine for the circumstances. But, I wouldn't eat it on a regular basis for health concerns & because I would get bored very quickly.

      A true hound breaks through all barriers for the experience. Good report.

      1. That was a truly brilliant review. I will say Carl's Jr. does have one thing going for it... the Western Bacon Cheeseburger. It's been on their menu for decades, and is utterly wonderful. I've seen BK and Jack in the Box (and I'm sure other chains have tried too) both try to replicate it and put their own touches on it (Jack, what the hell were you thinking when you put lettuce and tomato on it?!), but the Western Bacon Cheeseburger still reigns.

        1 Reply
        1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester


          The crispiness of the onion rings and the fatty crunchiness of the bacon go perfectly with that special bbq sauce.

          But honestly, I think I prefer the Western Bacon Six-Dollar Burger for some reason ...

        2. In-N-Out is the only fast food chain I'll eat.
          But I can never remember, is it animal style, or monster style? All sounds like Muppetts to me.

          1 Reply
          1. I don't generally make a habit of eating at McDonalds, but there are times when I get a very specific craving for a couple of McDonald's cheeseburgers. The last time I had one something seemed a bit off for some reason though...