McDonald's Killed Burger King's McWhopper, so We Made it Ourselves

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Meet my version of The McWhopper [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Burger King's marketing team has always been better than its culinary team, and their latest publicity stunt (and let's be clear, this is definitely a publicity stunt) is one of the best I've ever seen. Their proposal? That on September 21st, World Peace Day, Burger King and arch-rival McDonald's bury the hatchet, putting aside their beef with each other's beef, and open up a one-day-only pop-up restaurant in Atlanta (midway between their corporate headquarters) serving McWhoppers, a hybrid between the Whopper and the Big Mac, their respective flagship sandwiches.

All of this was sprung on McDonald's without warning. Burger King took out full page ads in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and launched a major online offensive complete with a dedicated website and Youtube videos.

The sandwiches would be served for free, with the idea that the publicity generated by the stunt would benefit Peace One Day a charity dedicated to institutionalizing World Peace Day, the U.N.-declared day of ceasefire and non-violence, by raising global awareness.

This is the best kind of marketing. The kind that genuinely gets folks excited, raises brand awareness in an organic way (I actually clicked to see the video instead of desperately trying to figure out how to close it!), and to top it all off, raises awareness for an excellent cause.

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Burger King might have been trying to force McDonald's hand with this one, but there was really only one right answer McDonald's could have given: yes. It would have been the classy move. The smart move. The virtually free publicity move. Instead, in a baffling display of passive-aggressive hubris (or perhaps just ignorance in the ways of social media), McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook decided to continue pushing the company further and further down the hole it's been spiraling into for the last few years by flatly rejecting the idea via a Facebook post. "Let's acknowledge that between us there is simply a friendly business competition and certainly not the unequaled circumstances of the real pain and suffering of war," he wrote, finishing off with a supercilious "P.S. A simple phone call will do next time."

Way to go, Steve.

Building the McWhopper: The Ultimate Fast Food Sandwich

On Tuesday, Chris suggested I deal with the disappointment of never seeing this sandwich come to fruition the only way I know how: by making it myself, and if I could get a few folks to head over to Peace One Day in the process, all the better. Fortunately, I've already spent a great deal of time and effort building my own homages to both burgers.

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In 2011, I built a better Big Mac by reverse engineering the mayo- and mustard-based Big Mac sauce, grinding my own beef, dehydrating fresh onions for that sweet, concentrated Big Mac onion flavor, and cutting the crust off of a burger bun top in order to create that essential middle bun layer.

Meanwhile, just this past July, I made a Whopper Fit for The King, giving it true grilled flavor by cooking fresh beef patties almost all the way through on a single side only (in order to maximize grill flavor while minimizing moisture loss), swapping out limp chopped lettuce for shredded, and using extra-juicy fresh tomatoes and sweet onions.

By combining the lessons I learned in both exercises, I figured I could build a fast food-style sandwich that incorporates the best elements of both. The One True Fast Food Sandwich that clown and crown alike would bow to.

Have it Our Way

Burger King already gave its own short proposal, shown in a Youtube video here.

Essentially, you'd end up with the top half of a Big Mac (from the middle bun up), stacked on top of a Whopper with the top bun and the mayo missing.

To me, that's the lazy way to go about it, and one that violates the very first rule of good sandwich-making: A good sandwich should be more than the sum of its parts. With the Big-Mac-on-Whopper proposal, you have a whole slew of problems. (I told you Burger King's culinary team isn't at the top of their class, didn't I?)

There's the issue of scale: a Whopper is a good inch or so wider than a Big Mac. There's conflicting flavors between the lighter fluid-like aroma of a Burger King patty and the relative blandness of a Big Mac's patty. There are saucing issues, mainly in the fact that unless you're mixing the ketchup right into the Big Mac sauce, it's going to overpower everything else in that burger as ketchup is wont to do.

To make a truly great McWhopper, it was going to require a bit more finesse and experimentation. I ran some early pre-trials by ordering a few Big Macs and Whoppers, breaking them down into their individual ingredients, and stacking them up in various configurations.

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Whopper patties with Whopper veggies on a Big Mac bun with Big Mac sauce and cheese.

After playing with a few Frankenburgers and doing a bit of pondering and tinkering, here were my thoughts:

The most defining element of a Big Mac is the sweet, creamy sauce and the pickles. The beef is almost secondary to those flavors. That middle bun is essential as well, for providing extra height. A Whopper, on the other hand, is defined by the smoky flavor (or lighter fluid flavor if we're being honest) of the beef, along with a wider selection of toppings. For this sandwich to work, I'd have to incorporate all of those elements into a single package.

In the past, Burger King has had a sandwich on their menu that mimicked some of the flavors of the Big Mac. The Big King and Big King Junior featured flame-broiled patties with a Big Mac-style, Thousand Island-esque dressing. It was the only sandwich they've ever had that I've found enjoyable, so the idea of combining grilled beef with a sweet sauce was appealing.*I cooked two 3 1/2-ounce patties using the same unilateral grilling technique I used for my improved Whopper recipe.

*If you've been to a branch of Habit Burger, you'll know the flavor combination I'm talking about. Habit Burger is to Burger King what In-N-Out is to McDonald's: similar flavor profile, but fresher and tastier.

I also like the idea of fresh tomatoes, pickles, lettuce (shredded iceberg, please!), and onions on a burger of this size, but which onions should I choose? The fresh slices from Burger King, or the sweet, dehydrated onions from McDonald's? The decision was too difficult: I opted for both, with fresh onions adding crunch and bite underneath the lettuce layer while dehydrated onions added their sweetness to the beef on top. I dehydrate my onions by dicing them and microwaving them on low power for about 10 minutes)

For the special sauce, I used my exact deconstructed McDonald's Big Mac sauce recipe with its mayo, mustard, and relish base, adding just a small dollop of ketchup to it to capture a bit of that Whopper essence.

The only things left were a slice of nice-melting cheese and some toasted buns and it was born.

Behold, The McWhopper!

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The honest truth is that both Burger King and Peace One Day have already won. I'm pretty sure the McDonald's slight has done more to circulate this story than agreeing to the pop-up ever would have.

Might I propose that this year, on September 21st, World Peace Day, you celebrate by getting together with your friends and enemies, putting aside your differences, and celebrating by making some McWhoppers of your own?

Now, share this recipe if you'd like, but more importantly, please do share the link for Peace One Day to help spread awareness for this fantastic, world-changing cause.

Isn't peace just so delicious?