Picking which fast food joint to buy your finger-food-fried-chicken-product-based lunch using the quality of available dipping sauces as the criteria is sort of like picking what cell phone to purchase based on its after-market case options, or which woman to marry based on her favorite cereal. There are rare cases in which this makes sense, but those cases are few and far between.
Still, we wondered: all other things being equal, which of the three fast food establishments near our office would offer the best dipping experience?
I headed out to Popeye's, McDonald's, and Burger King and ordered chicken nuggets at each, along with one of every type of dipping sauce they had on hand. Asking a harried lunchtime fast food employee to do this is apparently a task that produces a level of confusion akin to asking your cat to set up your wireless router. I had to make not one, not two, but three trips back to various counters to clarify exactly what I meant by "one of each sauce, please." But we got them in the end. Mostly.
Remember that episode of Breaking Bad where the red-tied German executive sits down for a chicken sauce taste test, blankly dipping nug' after nug' into tempura paint-style pointed blobs of honey mustard and Franch dressing mere moments before [SPOILER ALERT] offing himself in the men's room?
Our Monday was in no way similar to that episode other than the nug'-dipping part.
Let's get down to the results.
Luckily, most of the sauces we tasted had at least one counterpart from a competing fast food chain, and in some cases, all three had their own versions, letting us go for a true side-by-side taste test. Tasters were asked to taste all the sauces in a given category and pick both a favorite and a runner-up.
Round 1: Barbecue Sauce
The Contenders: Popeye's Bold BQ Sauce, McDonald's Tangy BarBeQue Sauce, and Burger King's BBQ.
The Winner: Popeye's!
10 out of 15 of our tasters picked Popeye's as their favorite barbecue sauce of the three. Strangely, the four who didn't vote for it placed it at dead last out the three, indicating that its strong molasses and heat flavor is a sort of a love-it or hate-it affair.
Runner Up: Burger King!
Most folks who didn't pick the Popeye's chose Burger King as either their favorite or as the runner up. Flavor-wise, it's got a similar profile to the Popeye's, with plenty of rich molasses and spice. Both are far better than the syrupy, gloppy, overly starchy version from McDonald's. The line, "We've upped the Brix factor for the American Southwest" ran through my mind as I tasted.
Round 2: Mustard Sauce
The Contenders: Popeye's Mardi Gras Mustard Sauce, McDonald's Honey Mustard Sauce, and Burger King's Honey Mustard.
The Winner: Popeye's!
This one wasn't even a real contest. All except two tasters picked the Popeye's mustard sauce—a creamy version with whole crushed mustard grains and horseradish—as their favorite. Is it possible we just like spicier mustard more than honey mustard? Perhaps, but the two honey mustard variations offered by McDonald's and Burger King didn't give us a very high bar for comparison.
Runner Up: Burger King!
Burger King barely edged out McDonald's for the second place slot, but really these two sauces were fighting to stand on each others' shoulders at the bottom of a very, very deep barrel. Sweet and gloppy with almost no mustard flavor, the King's sauce at least had a touch of acidity to balance out its overt sweetness.
Round 3: Sweet and Sour Sauce
The Contenders: McDonald's Sweet 'n Sour Sauce and Burger King's Sweet & Sour.
The Winner: Burger King
Another clear winner here. Burger King's sweet and sour sauce is glossy and gloppy, but at least has bits of what appear to be red pepper flakes or perhaps some kind of fruit skin in there that gives one the impression that it may at one point have started out as something approximating the beginning of the idea of a real ingredient. Unlike the McDonald's sweet and sour sauce, which tastes strongly of thickeners, fillers, and corn syrup, like a packet of duck sauce that went through the works at a second-rate British sausage factory, if you know what I mean.
Round 4: Ranch
The Contenders: Popeye's Buttermilk Ranch Sauce, McDonald's Creamy Ranch Sauce, and Burger King's Ranch.
The Winner: Burger King!
In our first unanimous win, Burger King reigned in the Ranch category. Their sauce is thicker, creamier, and saltier than the competition, with some balanced herbage, a hint of spice, and just a faint soupçon of MSG. We'd happily dip our nug' or sauce our 'za in this one, if we were the type to dip nug' or sauce 'za.
Runner Up: Popeye's
The vinegary tang of Popeye's buttermilk ranch pushed it into second place above McDonald's, which has an overt sweetness that's off-putting. You'd expect the one that looks like it has the most spices to be the most flavorful, but despite its highly speckled appearance, the McDonald's sauce was desperately lacking in spice flavor.
Round 5: Sweet Chili Sauce
The Contenders: Popeye's Sweet Heat Sauce and McDonald's Sweet Chili Sauce.
The Winner: McDonald's!
It's McDonald's first win here, and it's a unanimous one, but to be fair, they had some major help in this department due to the fact that Popeye's sauce was just so darn terrible—one of the few sauces in the lineup to produce measurably auditory reactions upon oral insertion. McDonald's sauce has plenty of chili bits and seeds floating around Orbitz style in a viscous red goo that threatens to ensnare your nugget every time you go in for a dunk but thankfully releases it at the last moment.
Popeye's sauce is sweet and hot as advertised—there's some legit heat to this puppy—but those are about the two best words you can use to describe it's otherwise unredeemable qualities other than a simple "tastes like burning."
Round 6: Buffalo Sauce
The Contenders: Popeye's Bayou Buffalo Sauce and Burger King's Buffalo (McDonald's Buffalo Sauce was not available in our location).
The Winner: Burger King
If you're into buffalo sauce, in truth neither of these two sauces was really terrible, but the Burger King version won for its more balanced flavor and creamy texture. It's got a hint of heat and plenty of vinegar, but it doesn't taste like you're dipping your chicken directly into a bowl of Frank's hot sauce. The Popeye's, on the other hand, was a little too strongly flavored and thinly textured. It has heat and vinegar, but also a strange aftertaste of celery, as if they were trying to build in all the flavors of a buffalo chicken platter Willy Wonka-style into a single plastic tub.
Popeye's, with its nine sauces, offers some flavors that don't have counterparts among Burger King's seven flavors or McDonald's six, and as it turns out, some of these are their best options. We were especially happy with their Blackened Ranch, which has the overt tanginess of their regular buttermilk ranch, but with a touch of heat and more spices. Their Lemon Garlic Sauce tastes of neither lemon nor garlic, but it has a great black pepper-y kick. Finally, their Tartar Sauce was named as "the only one I'd actually eat" by Max.
Of the other un-challenged sauces, we'd avoid the Burger King Tangy sauce which tastes like thin, MSG-laden mayo with horseradish and Popeye's Sweet Honey Maple Sauce, which has a bit of that McDonald's overly-starchy, thickened, and stabilized character going on.
Next up, perhaps we'll do a side by side taste test of the actual chicken. Now wouldn't that be useful?
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.