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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

UPDATE: I was recently informed that the original $1 Big Mac concept came from this YouTube clip from The Internet Celebrities. It's from 2006. Seems legit to me.

I'm not sure where I was when I first heard about the $1 Poor Man's Big Mac trick at McDonald's, but I do remember thinking that it was ingenious. Here's the deal.

Depending on where you are, a Big Mac sandwich costs around $4 to $4.50. On the other hand, most McDonald's offer a McDouble on their dollar menu. Since all the fast food restaurants are into the customize-the-way-you-want-it game these days, all you've got to do is order the McDouble without mustard and ketchup, and ask them to add shredded lettuce and Big Mac sauce and you've got yourself a pretty close approximation of a real Big Mac, minus the center bun and the sesame seeds, all for about a quarter of the price (some McDonald's will charge you a quarter for the sauce).

Is this true? Is it really that simple? I'm not one to look a gift burger in the bun, and I'm not really a regular McDonald's customer (other than for the fries), but in the interest of science, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison and a full breakdown of exactly what you're getting for your buck.

The Big Mac

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We know the drill. Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions all on a sesame seed bun. In terms of actual breakdown, here's what you get from the top down:

  • Top bun, soft and sweet, lightly toasted, with sesame seeds
  • A 1.6 ounce beef patty, well-seasoned, none-too-beefy
  • Shredded iceberg lettuce, semi-fresh
  • Re-hydrated dehydrated onions
  • Big Mac sauce (a mustard and mayonnaise-based sweet, pickle-y concoction, NOT Thousand Island as is commonly reported—no ketchup in here!)
  • A middle bun, toasted on the top side only
  • Another 1.6 ounce beef patty
  • Vaguely melted American cheese
  • Two pickle chips
  • More shredded iceberg lettuce
  • More re-hydrated dehydrated onions
  • More Big Mac sauce
  • A bottom bun, lightly toasted

In all, it's a pretty well-balanced sandwich. McDonald's burgers are never about the beef (this is a good thing), but more about the sweet, soft buns and and the play of the pickles and fat. In all honesty, a Big Mac is a well-crafted, well planned sandwich that mostly just suffers from crappy ingredients. (By the way, you can fix that by building your own).

The Poor Man's Big Mac

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A standard McDouble comes with two beef patties sandwiching a slice of American cheese, re-hydrated dehydrated onions, ketchup, mustard, and pickles on a toasted regular bun. The beef patties and cheese are completely identical to those found in the Big Mac. If you ask for it without the mustard and ketchup and with lettuce and Mac sauce, here's what you end up with:

  • Top bun, soft and sweet, lightly toasted, no sesame seeds
  • Two pickle chips
  • Shredded iceberg lettuce, semi-fresh
  • Re-hydrated dehydrated onions
  • Big Mac sauce (a mustard and mayonnaise-based sweet, pickle-y concoction, NOT Thousand Island as is commonly reported—no ketchup in here!)
  • A 1.6 ounce beef patty, well-seasoned, none-too-beefy
  • Vaguely melted American cheese
  • Another 1.6 ounce beef patty
  • A bottom bun, lightly toasted

As you can immediately see, there's a pretty significant difference in the order of construction. This all comes down to the way the McDonald's assembly line is set up. A Big Mac is constructed upside-down in order to fit both the top half and second half of the sandwich in a single container as it moves down the line. So the toppings end up under the patties when the lid is closed and the top is flipped onto the bottom.

A McDouble, on the other hand, is constructed right-side up, so you end up with all the toppings on top of the beef.

It's a minor structural change, but one that makes for a difference in the way you taste the burger. With a very juicy burger, it's pretty much always better to place the toppings underneath (should they be called underlings?) so mitigate the bun-soaking effects of the beef juice. Juiciness is not a problem at McDonald's, but I still prefer the toppings underneath so that they hit your tongue first and prime it for the beef. It also makes for a sandwich with a bit more structure.

But in one key way, the construction is superior: You end up with nicely melted cheese.

Bang for the Buck

To make sure that we were getting a good deal, I also measured the two sandwiches with a variety of metrics. First off, size.

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A regular McDouble bun measures in at about 9 centimeters across, whereas a Big Mac bun comes in at closer to 9 1/2. The question is whether this variance is large enough to be attributed to intent, or perhaps my Big Mac bun sample was just squished down a little more than my McDouble's. I didn't repeat my test to find out (only so many McDonald's products I can face in one day), but in either case, it's a minor difference, particularly considering that the beef patties and cheese inside are identical.

What about weight?

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A Mac-ified McDouble weighs in at 162 grams.

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A Big Mac, on the other hand, tips the scales at a whopping 189 grams. We know that a Big Mac has that extra middle bun, but the question is whether that's the only thing that's giving it the extra 27 grams. Do you also get more toppings? Perhaps the rest of the bun is heftier as well?

I removed the center bun and carefully scraped off all toppings to find out.

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27 grams, on the dot. This means that asides from that extra middle bun layer, the amount of food you are getting between these two burgers is identical by weight. It's possible that the Big Mac has an extra-light bun and more toppings or vice versa, but to my careful eye, the quantity of toppings seemed pretty much identical.

The Cross Section

So we do know that these two sandwiches, asides from construction and middle bun are pretty much identical. How do they look side by side?

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As you can see, the Big Mac is significantly taller, which is a testament to McDonald's' genius. Essentially, it's a center bun and sesame seeds that makes the Big Mac cost nearly four times as much as its more frugal clone. Assuming that McDonald's is not selling McDoubles at a loss (I'm not sure this is a fair assumption to make), then for each $4 Big Mac they sell, they are making at least an extra $3 minus the cost of a center bun on food costs alone. That's good business!

So is the poor man's Big Mac worth it in the end? That's for you to decide. Personally, I do like that center bun and the sesame seeds, and I also dislike the hassle of having to customize an order. So most of the time, I think I'd stick with the real thing. But if I find myself with only a couple bucks in my pocket and nowhere to dine but McDonald's, well my tune may change.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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