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McDonald's world famous fries: Here's how they evolved in the past 50 years

It seems like most U.S. consumers agree that a McDonald's (MCD) meal is not complete without a side of hot, crispy, golden fries — a savory formula the Golden Arches has mostly preserved since it was first introduced decades ago.

In 2020, the U.S. fast food chain used more than 3 billion pounds of potatoes — serving enough french fries to circle the equator 437 times if laid end to end, and make 22 round trips to the moon. But what makes them so addictive?

"The process we use to cook fries in our kitchens is very specific," Amy Wilcox, a quality and supply chain executive at the Golden Arches, told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview. While the menu item is a "huge fan-favorite," she declined to divulge the secrets of the world famous fries.

However, the key to the fries' iconic taste that McDonald's is "so particular about the quality of the potatoes" used to make them. "We only use whole potatoes, and they must meet our set of high standards related to size, shape, varietal, color, and storability," Wilcox said.

Premium U.S. potatoes, such as the Russet Burbank and the Shepody, are grown at farms mostly in Idaho and Washington to make the addictive side order.

"We know our customers care where our food comes from, what goes into it and how it’s prepared, which is why we’re quite strict about the potatoes we use from our community of farmers – and they know their stuff. All of our suppliers use state-of-the art technology and quality controls to identify the best potatoes for our fries," Wilcox said.

Prior to shipping the potatoes to restaurant locations, suppliers prep the potatoes before shipping them to restaurants. Once they arrive at McDonald's restaurants, "everything from the cook time to the amount of salt is carefully measured," she told Yahoo Finance.

For the most part, it seems like the same, nostalgic taste is keeping consumers coming back for more. Wilcox claims the fries "have had the same hot and crispy taste since 1955," only altering slightly since the fast food chain's inception.

In 1990, McDonald's began cooking fries in cholesterol-free, 100% vegetable oil. Then, in 2008, the company announced all french fries in the U.S. and Canada will have 0 grams trans-fat per labeled serving.

As far as the favorite dipping sauce to go with this side, Sweet n’ Sour seems to be the fan favorite. Wilcox said the fries also "make for an amazing salty-sweet combo paired with our desserts, as we know customers often dip fries in their Shake or McFlurry of choice."

'The potato computer' cooks up with a winner

The fries first debuted on the original menu back in 1955 at the first McDonald’s restaurant, founded by Ray Kroc, in Des Plaines, Illinois. In 1962, the famous fries were then perfected by Lou Martino, head of McDonald’s Research and Development Lab at the time, who created the “potato computer." The innovative technology was used to accurately control the optimal time and temperature for cooking fries.

When the fries were first introduced, they were packaged in small paper bags. In 1970, the packaging switched to the red fry box and is still used today — more than 50 years later.

Back in November of 2020, the fast food giant updated the arches featured on the iconic red box to be a bit smaller, as part of a new design project. This re-design will launch in all global markets over the next two years "for one consistent look," to provide "a nod" to all menu items, according to McDonald's.

(Courtesy: McDonald's)
(Courtesy: McDonald's)

This redesign also comes as the home of the Big Mac and Quarter Pounder is ramping up its menu items. This year, the company announced Spicy Chicken McNuggets and Mighty Hot Sauce, for a limited-time only.

At the end of February, the company leaped into the chicken sandwich wars with three different iterations of crispy chicken sandwich. And both Wall Street and Main Street are rallying around the anticipated launch of the McPlant, a plant-based burger, created by and for the fast food chain.

The company is also doubling down on its new campaign, "Accelerating the Arches." The campaign has three key pillars: Bolster marketing and core brands, and an emphasis on the "3Ds" of digital, drive-thru, and delivery.

In McDonald's fourth quarter earnings report, the chain got a big sales boost from the COVID-19 trends of menu innovation, takeout and mobile ordering. The company is expected to reports its first-quarter earnings report on April 29th, which could see the stock — which is up nearly 25% compared to a year ago — take another leg up.

With the new digital push — something McDonald's chief Chris Kempczinski recently called "our sweet spot" — fries are all but certain to remain a major part of the menu.

This week, it announced a Famous Orders collaboration with global pop icons BTS, which includes a 10-piece Chicken McNuggets, soda and, of course, a medium order of fries.

Brooke DiPalma is a producer and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter at @BrookeDiPalma or email her at bdipalma@yahoofinance.com.