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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If you've recently gone for a couple of 88mph spins in a souped-up DeLorean outfitted with a flux capacitor running at 1.21 jigawatts and have somehow ended up in an alternate universe in which internet memes don't exist, then you may not yet have read about the 12-year old McDonald's Hamburger that still looks just like a McDonald's Hamburger. For the rest of you who are already with me, you'll have to indulge me for a moment while I fill-in the time travelers as to what's been going on.

Back in 2008, Karen Hanrahan, of the blog Best of Mother Earth posted a picture of a hamburger that she uses as a prop for a class she teaches on how to help parents keep their children away from junk food. A noble goal, and one I fully approve of.

The thing is, the hamburger she's been using as a prop is the same plain McDonald's hamburger she's been using for what's now going on 14 years. It looks pretty much identical to how it did the day she bought it, and she's not had to use any means of preservation. The burger travels with her, and sits at room temperature.

Now Karen is neither the first nor last to document this very same phenomenon. Artist Sally Davies photographs her 137 day-old hamburger every day for her Happy Meal Art Project. Nonna Joann has chosen to store her happy meal for a year on her blog rather than feed it to her kids. Dozens of other examples exist, and most of them come to the same conclusion: McDonald's hamburgers don't rot.

Now some of you are probably thinking something along the same lines as these women are:

Ladies, Gentleman, and children alike - this is a chemical food. There is absolutely no nutrition here.

Not one ounce of food value. —Karen Hanrahan

Food is SUPPOSED to decompose, go bad and smell foul... Food is broken down into it's essential nutrients in our bodies and turned into fuel. Our children grow strong bodies, when they eat real food. Flies ignore a Happy Meal and microbes don't decompose it, then your child's body can't properly metabolize it either. —Nonna Joann

Most of you are probably thinking just plain, "ew"—a perfectly reasonable reaction to what at first seems like a totally disgusting perversion of nature. I mean, what kind of chemical-laden crap are they stuffing those burgers with to make them last that long?

But then there's a few people who're probably shouting out, "now wait just a minute here! This ain't science!"

You can count me in with that crowd.

The problem with all of these tests is that there is but a single data point, and a single data point is about as useless as a one armed man in a clapping contest. Who knows why those burgers didn't decompose? You could believe the myth that they are packed with preservatives or that they are some kind of nutritional black hole so devoid of sustenance that even bacteria and fungi will not grow on them.

For the record, the McDonald Corporation's official response states:

McDonald's hamburger patties are made with 100% USDA-inspected ground beef, cooked and prepared with salt, pepper and nothing else, no preservatives, no fillers.

So who do we believe? Without experimentation, there is no science. Without science, there is no proof. Without proof, there is no truth, and without truth, well where would we be?

It seems to me that the only thing that can last longer than a McDonald's hamburger is an internet meme about them. My project for the next few weeks: design and carry out the first well-documented, scientific experiment to shed some light on whether or not there is something truly evil lurking between the buns. Hopefully we can kill this meme once and for all. Who's with me?

What We Know So Far

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So let me amend my previous statement. There is actually a little data out there. Morgan Spurlock, director of the outrageously propogandist documentary Super-Size Me famously aged a McDonald's burger next to a mom & pop burger in glass jars. The burgers all decomposed around the same rate, while the McDonald's fries seemed to last forever.

The blog Snack Girl aged a homemade hamburger next to a McDonald's burger. After 11 days, the homemade burger was covered in green mold, while the McDonald's appeared perfectly fine.

The problem with these two tests (and several others like it) is that they have failed to isolate the variables. The burgers and fries they were comparing to the McDonald's batch were of a completely different size and completely different moisture level. It's the scientific equivalent of setting up a boxing match between a blue-eyed three-year-old and a green-eyed 20-year-old then declaring that blue eyes make you weak. It's sensationalist and utterly specious.

A truly scientific experiment would need to take all these variables into account and isolate them.

The Setup

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I wanted to test the following things:

  • Whether it's something in the beef that's keeping the burgers from rotting.
  • Whether it's something in the bun that's keeping the burgers from rotting.
  • Whether it's some sort of magical alchemic reaction that keeps the burgers from rotting only when a McDonald's patty is in contact with a McDonald's bun.
  • Whether it's the size of the patties that are preventing the burger from rotting.
  • Whether it's the storage environment that is preventing the burgers from rotting.

I figured that would cover most of my bases and prove whether there's anything inherently different about a McDonald's burger and a regular homemade burger.

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These are the samples I needed:

  1. A plain McDonald's hamburger, stored on a plate at room temperature.
  2. A homemade burger of the same weight and dimensions as a McDonald's burger (I was fine using a store-bought bun, because who bakes their own buns?)
  3. A McDonald's hamburger patty on a store-bought bun.
  4. A homemade patty on a McDonald's bun.
  5. A McDonald's hamburger stored in its original packaging.
  6. A McDonald's hamburger stored in a zipper-lock bag.
  7. A plain Quarter Pounder.
  8. A homemade quarter pounder.

I went out to the McDonald's next door to gather my testing materials.

"Welcome to McDonald's. Can I take your order sir?" said Megan the floor manager cheerfully (if there's one thing that McDonald's has got plenty of, it's smiles).

"Yes. I'd like three hamburgers, plain. Then I'd like one hamburger plain, but no meat. Then I'd like another hamburger plain, but no bun. After that, I'd like a quarter pounder with cheese—also plain—and finally some fries please; Not those ones—I'll wait for the fresh batch. Thanks!"

The situation was strangely reminiscent of the last time I tried to wrangle an unusual order out of a McDonald's for my French fry testing. I imagined her picturing the three fussy kids, vegetarian wife, brother-in-law with celiac disease, and mother-in-law who likes sesame seeds but not cheese sitting at home waiting for their dinner. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed that she knew the fresh French fries were for myself*—the only sane and sophisticated member of a palate-deprived and ketchup-hating extended family.

"Sure no problem," was her immediate response. "If you want, I can just put in an order for four plain burgers, one with the bun and meat wrapped separate so you don't have to pay for it twice."

"That'll be lovely, thanks."

"It's the least you deserve for placing the most interesting order of the day, sir."

McDonald's HQ: if you're listening, employee of the month right there. Give this woman a raise.

* They were.

The Testing

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With burgers in hand, along with a pack of plain, Mcdonald's-sized buns and a few chuck steaks I picked up from the supermarket, I returned home to grind my beef. A little research revealed that regular McDonald's patties are 10 to a pound, or 1.6 ounces. Quarter Pounders, unremarkably, weigh a quarter pound. I weighed out my beef formed them into thin patties slightly wider than the cooked patties I had (to account for shrinkage), seasoned them with salt and pepper, and fried them in a skillet with a little bit of oil. I toasted my store-bought buns, then assembled all of my sample burgers and laid them out on plates.

Now all I needed was a place to store them for a few weeks, preferably without my wife killing me. The kitchen counter was out of the question, as was the dining room table. I couldn't leave it under the bed or the couch or anywhere that a hungry dog could get at them. Since I live in a household with two exceedingly short creatures, my best option was to go high. I picked the shelf above my wife's desk.

After carefully removing the picture frames and other knick-knacks and stashing them in a drawer, I perched my burgers there for the aging. Perfect. Neither overly humid nor dry, average temperature, decent indirect lighting, out of reach of the dog, and stable.

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Now I know you're all reading with bated breath—what's the answer? Which ones rotted and which didn't?

Well, I'd sure love to tell you, and I hate to end on a cliffhanger but unfortunately, we're all gonna have to wait a few weeks before I can gather any data worth reporting. Until then, I just hope that my wife doesn't look up and realize that her sister's graduation photo's been replaced by a dessicated meat puck. If that happens, pesky internet memes aren't going to be the only thing getting killed around here.

Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

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