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“Secret sauce” may be defined as an “elusive quality that makes something distinctive or special, giving it an advantage against rivals.” It may also be defined as a “sauce the recipe of which is secret.”
Many chefs have “secret sauces” of their own, to go with recipes they’d rather not share with the general public. There are two schools of thought behind keeping recipes secret. On the one hand, chefs don’t want competitors, or home cooks, to be able to reproduce their dishes and draw business away from their restaurant. There is also the sense that great chefs are like magicians—they don’t want to reveal their tricks of the trade, preferring to appear as a kitchen wizard, whipping up miraculous plates of food that leave diners gawking with wonder. But on the other hand, chefs can drum up publicity for their restaurants, and inch their way to the elusive (but now widely thrown-around) title of “celebrity chef” by revealing their secrets, on TV appearances and in cookbooks. Still, a good many chefs who have apparently gone public with their recipes claim to have withheld some secret ingredient or cooking trick, while presenting what is, more or less, their recipe—ensuring that the dish will never be quite as good at home as it was in their restaurant. The third side to this argument is to present a recipe, but one sufficiently complicated that home cooks will shrug their shoulders and say, “Huh, well I think I’ll just eat it at the restaurant…”
The popular British sandwich chain, Pret-a-Manger (now owned by McDonalds), publishes the recipes to their sandwiches on the sandwich wrapper. The sandwiches are not exactly complicated, but reading the recipe convinces most folks to just pay their three dollars at the take-out chain, rather than labor at home. When the McDonalds “secret sauce” recipe broke, there was some surprise at how mundane it was. That there was surprise at this is something of a surprise—McDonalds may be tasty and popular, but no one would consider it anything other than mundane, mainstream, appealing to the widest possible audience and not trying for anything fancy. Big Mac sauce tastes a lot like Thousand Island dressing (which is a combination of mayonnaise and ketchup), and the recipe is only a bit more complicated than that. It combines a generic dressing like Miracle Whip with mayonnaise, French salad dressing, sweet and dill pickle relishes, sugar, dried minced onion, and white vinegar. Some also claim that it has turmeric and mustard powder in it, but this is a matter of debate.
The result of the release of this recipe did not lead to the downfall of McDonalds. In fact, the very fact that they had a “secret sauce” increased interest in the restaurant chain and its burgers. Whether conscious or not, McDonalds improved their popularity through the leak of the secret recipe. Even outside the world of food, if you hear the word “secret,” you’ll be made curious. Books sell well with the word “secret” in the title. Television shows featuring that word draw more viewers. We humans are tuned to want to know secrets, whatever they may be, and however mundane.
Other secret recipes, sauces, or ingredients that have been used as selling points for their products include the recipe for the liqueur Chartreuse, made exclusively by monks of the Carthusian order in France. Only two monks at any given time know the recipe, which combines a variety of herbs to produce a green-tinged liquor. Those two monks never travel together, to protect the recipe—if there is a fatal accident, then the recipe will still survive.
Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, produced “the Colonel’s secret recipe” for the fried chicken batter, which contains “eleven herbs and spices.” That recipe is kept in a bank vault in Louisville, Kentucky. Also stored away in a vault is the recipe for Merchandise 7X, a popular drink invented by the company’s founder, John Pemberton, in 1886. That recipe, apparently from Pemberton’s diary, has been leaked, though in disputed versions, but whatever “Merchandise 7X” was, an additional flavoring component, its recipe remains unknown (though conjectures abound, including essential oils of coriander, nutmeg, lemon, cinnamon, orange, alcohol, and neroli).
The recipe for the sauce for their hugely-popular Big Macs was a close-guarded secret for decades. Outside the confines of McDonalds’ corporate headquarters, the recipe was available only in a top-secret manual, distributed to McDonalds restaurant managers, and to be used only in the event of a localized emergency: if the branch ran out of the pre-prepared sauce, and was forced to make more on-site. The McDonalds Manager’s Handbook of 1969 ran the recipe, but this page was quickly redacted, for fear that the public or, worse, rival restaurants would reproduce the sauce. The 1970 edition of the manual excludes the recipe, but it was too late. That same year one of managers leaked the recipe, and it has been publically known ever since.
Now comes the moment of truth. I, too, have a secret sauce, but I plan to share my recipe with you. This will make my secret sauce no longer secret, but I hope you can enjoy it as much as I do. It couldn’t be simpler, but this sauce of mine spikes up sandwiches, dips—just about anything you can imagine. Enjoy—but don’t tell anyone!
Professor Charney’s Secret Sauce
Begin with a base of mayonnaise. Add balsamic vinegar glaze (like the one sold by Monari or Williams-Sonoma) and Sri Racha Hot Sauce (like the one sold by Huy Fong, that can be found at any supermarket) to the mayonnaise. I add them in equal portions, but you can adjust to taste. Swirl together and serve. The mayonnaise provides unctuous, umami flavor, which is perfectly off-set by the sweetness of the balsamic glaze and the heat of the Sri Racha. Start your dipping…