For many of us, fast-food burgers have become a bottom-of-the-barrel, last-resort kind of option—only if there's nothing else open or nearby when the craving strikes. Often, the highest compliment we can muster is a backhanded, "It's not bad...for fast food."
Ah, but fries are another matter. For all of the fast-food industry's shortcomings, they have perhaps perfected the French fried potato. Even the snootiest of gourmet burger snobs concedes that happiness is a fresh order of spud sticks straight out of the fryer, served up in a grease-spotted cardboard sleeve by a paper-hat-wearing teenager with a bad attitude and a complexion to match. Most of us pick our fast-food poison based on the burger and take the fries on faith.
But what if you were choosing your dinner location among the Big Three based on America's favorite side item? Which fast-food French fries actually prove best in a three-way cage match?
I hit the drive-thrus at the Wendy's, McDonald's, and Burger King locations nearest my house on a recent Friday night. I made my stops in that order for no reason other than sheer logistics, visiting Wendy's first simply because it was farthest away, pitting at the other two outlets on my return. I ordered three large fries at each restaurant. I sampled just a couple of fries immediately upon receipt of each, and saved the rest until I got home, where I could take photos and do a proper, albeit unscientific, side-by-side-by-side analysis. The total elapsed time from placing my first order at Wendy's until arriving home with nine orders of large fries (!!!) was probably 20 minutes or so. (An exact time can't be provided, as the receipt printouts prove unreliable. BK's clock was clearly off, showing that I ordered there—my final stop—three minutes before I ordered at McDonald's in the middle of my restaurant run.) I then graded each fry based on how close each came to the "ideal" in four categories: crispness, size/structure, potato flavor, and seasoning/saltiness.
Overall fry structure comparison
McDonald's fries are the lightweights of the bunch, at least in a strict tale of the tape. Apart from the rare straggler, mine measured a uniform quarter-inch-by-quarter-inch. That's a result of the potatoes being shot through a grid of knives at 70 miles per hour; check out this pretty cool 10-minute propaganda video on their entire field-to-fryer process. Burger King's fries came in at three-eighths of an inch square (that's wider than a No. 2 pencil). And while an extra eighth of an inch may seem so minor as to be imperceptible, they were, in fact, noticeably more substantial, both to the eye as well as to the touch. By far the longest fries of the group, many of them were easily six inches tip to tip. Wendy's fries were the only ones not cut into symmetrical squares. They were rectangular—a quarter of an inch by three-eighths of an inch—presumably to make them feel more irregularly homestyle, like Wendy herself is back in the kitchen slicing them by hand.
Price/serving weight comparison
Wendy's fries were the most expensive, at $2.09 (before tax) for a large, which their website pegs at 176 grams of total weight. McDonald's was next, at $1.99 for what they claim is 154 grams. At Burger King, I paid $1.89 for 190 grams. In hindsight, I wish I had thought to actually weigh all of my orders, to see how close each joint came to nailing their published serving size. And yes, prices will vary regionally. Still, it's interesting to see the differences in price and weight across the three chains. At least in my neck of the woods, BK was the cheapest but yet handed out the largest serving size. Mickey D's is dead-center on price, but their large is only 87 percent of a Wendy's large, and just 81 percent of Burger King's.
My first stop was Wendy's. Remembering the hullabaloo in late 2010 over the pigtailed girl's shift to "natural-cut fries with sea salt," I figured I'd be starting my Friday Frymageddon with an upscale—perhaps almost cheffy—bang.
Cue the wah-wah-waaaah "loser" trombone riff from your favorite TV game show. Even right from the bag—mere seconds after being handed to me through the famed second window—these Russets lacked that essential crispness we all seek in a good batch of fries. They were already limp, a touch chewy on the inside, something less than hot, and pretty weakly salted.
By the time I got them home, they had settled so far into their cardboard sleeves that they looked like half-orders. Even the best fries deteriorate quality-wise as they cool, so I'm well aware that the Wendy's fries were perhaps destined to be my least favorite simply because they were the first samples obtained and had to wait the longest before true analysis began. But after the first one or two, I ignored the rest, wishing I had also thought to purchase a Frosty. Wendy's fries, sea salt or not, are perhaps a better chocolate-milkshake scooping utensil than they are a standalone side item.
Crisp factor: 4/10
Potato flavor: 2/5
When we think of french fries, I'd wager that most of us imagine these. Like Coca-Cola's famous contour bottle, McDonald's fries are 100 percent identifiable by touch alone. I blindly reached into one of the bags during my fry-collecting mission and knew instantaneously I had hit Mickey D's: completely uniform in size and coated with that familiar salty grit. They were refreshingly hot and pleasingly crisp, with the initial crunch giving way to the airy/starchy fluff sealed within. (For a fascinating look at how to hack your own at home, Kenji's got you covered.)
Even the salt itself is perfect: The crystals aren't too big or too small, and there's just enough of it to make these babies dangerously addictive without ever becoming overly salty. Astonishingly, according to the online nutritional specs, a large order of McDonald's fries has 350 milligrams of sodium—the least salty of the bunch! Wendy's has 570 milligrams, and BK wins (or loses, depending...) the sodium showdown with 710 milligrams. It's true even when you factor in the differences in serving sizes: The King dishes out 3.73 milligrams of sodium per 1 gram of fries, Wendy's runs 3.23 milligrams, and McDonald's sits at 2.27 milligrams. (And to think I became a writer to avoid doing math on a regular basis.)
Their shoestring size makes McDonald's the ideal road trip fry; reaching into the container in the passenger seat, pulling out six or seven at once, and successfully aiming the entire pinchful into your mouth is absolutely effortless, even while never taking your eyes off the dotted white line out your windshield. Now that I was really analyzing these fries instead of just mindlessly shoving them into my gullet in between bites of Filet-O-Fish, I was struck at how, still, the Golden Arches are the gold standard for fast food fries, and how no one else will ever come close to offering a superior product...
Or so I thought.
Crisp factor: 10/10
Potato flavor: 4/5
Holy crap. BK blew me away with their positively exceptional fries, dramatically-yet-quietly redesigned in late 2011. They were the hottest of the lot; I had to pull around and wait for a runner to hand-deliver my order. They were fresh from the fryer to the point of inflicting pain upon that irresistible ceremonial first fry. What I noticed next was the size—enormous planks of potato, some almost absurdly long. While these fries didn't have the same obviously gritty texture to them as the clown's, the saltiness was well-proportioned (though technically more than twice as salty as Mickey D's, and yet with 20 percent less sodium than BK's old fries) and the fry job was spot-on, with a new "coating" that makes them crisper and keeps them hotter longer than previous iterations. Larger fries means more interior spud, and the result is even more of a potatoey taste than the McDonald's version, if you ask me. They may not be quite as easy to gobble up by the handful while you drive, but I'd proudly put these tater twigs next to any burger anywhere.
There's still something deep-seated and powerful about the McDonald's version that makes it the quintessential french fry. Like the way your mom's chocolate chip cookie should always be tops to your personal palate, fries from the Golden Arches probably belong on a special pedestal, in an unassailable category all their own. But in a totally objective, no-holds-barred, the-emperor's-not-wearing-any-clothes kind of way, I think Burger King's might actually taste better.
Crisp factor: 9/10
Potato flavor: 5/5
We know you have an opinion, AHT-ers. Let's hear it.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.