What Is Secret Sauce, Anyway? Is It Special Sauce?

January 17, 2018

In 2015, Serious Eats founder Ed Levine started his James Beard-nominated podcast, Special Sauce, in which he chats with food professionals about their work. The name, he told me in a recent phone call, materialized from an office brainstorm:

“It’s funny because Daniel Gritzer can actually do the whole song,” he said. “Which is really impressive!”

That is funny. And impressive! And, uh, song? What song? I wondered. Like any good Millennial, I pretended to know what we were talking about, while Googling what we were talking about.

“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun!” Get the idea? This 1974 Big Mac advertisement established the term "special sauce"—or so McDonald’s claims. I can’t find any evidence to the contrary. (Also, if the jingle is stuck in your head now too, does that mean I can be free?) Shortly after that commercial’s release, McDonald’s west coast nemesis, Jack in the Box, unveiled Bonus Jack, a triple-decker cheeseburger slathered with “secret sauce.”

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Back then, special sauce actually referred to, well, sauce. In the years since, the term—and its doppelganger, secret sauce—has become slang for that je ne sais quoi that makes something (or someone) successful. Bon Appétit cataloged the non-culinary uses: say, “The Secret Sauce of Smart Investing,” or “The Secret Sauce for Growing an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem.” Delicious!

Ironically, McDonald’s ingredients are no longer secret. The franchise’s website tells you all 30 of them, including but not limited to sort-of mayonnaise (soybean oil, emulsified with egg yolks and a lot of stabilizers), pickle relish, vinegar, various sweeteners and spices, plus bonuses like hydrolyzed corn, polysorbate 80, and sodium benzoate.

Unpronounceable preservatives aside, something else caught my attention—no ketchup. If there’s any prevailing special/secret sauce theory, it’s this: The condiment behind the curtain is little more than Thousand Island dressing doctored-up with an acid like vinegar and spices like cayenne or garlic powder. And yet: The original special sauce doesn’t include any ketchup? Is the Thousand Island theory debunked? Is everything a lie?

That's secret/special sauce right there—but what's in it???? Photo by Julia Gartland

As special as McDonald’s special sauce is, there is a slew of other businesses that have their own special sauces, often with their own special names (to set themselves apart, I imagine, from the jingle that shall not be named). And often with ketchup.

Take Shake Shack’s ShackSauce. In the chain’s 2017 cookbook, Randy Garutti and Mark Rosati write: “We’re surely not going to publish THE formula for our secret sauce. (We’re not crazy!) But this recipe comes pretty darn close with home ingredients.” Cue mayo, ketchup, Dijon, dill pickle brine, and cayenne pepper. Also in 2017: Bon Appétit published: “Shake Shack adds chipotle Tabasco (instead of regular) to get some smoke with the heat.” Hm!

Another look-a-like is In ‘N’ Out Burger’s signature “Spread.” This secret recipe hasn’t changed since 1948—and free In ‘N’ Out burgers for life to whoever can figure out its ingredients! Kidding. But seriously: Let me know if you can find the recipe.

And that’s just burgers. I was watching Mind of a Chef the other week—Ludo Lefebvre was demo-ing the fried chicken sandwich from his fast-casual chain, LudoBird, when he held up a bottle with a mischievous smile, a gleam in his eye, and said, “My secret thousand island sauce! My special Ludo sauce!”

“What the—what did he just say?” I gasped to my fiancé as I scrambled across the couch to grab the remote.

What are all these recipes hiding? And why? And where? Is Elvis there? Is Tupac? Tell us!

Beyond Thousand Island, there are other, strikingly similar, mayo-mothered sauces that don’t bother with being coy. In Utah, there’s down-to-earth “fry sauce,” a condiment made from equal parts mayo and ketchup that originated in the ’40s. In Mississippi, there’s spunky “comeback sauce,” a middle ground between Thousand Island dressing and remoulade.

So what’s so special about special sauce? The fact that we keep calling it special. And those secret ingredients? They’re probably already in your pantry. Here, I’ll show you. Just make my secret Thousand Island sauce, my special Emma sauce. I love it with tater tots. But it’s also great with two all-beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.

What's in your secret sauce? Let us know in the comments!

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


BerryBaby August 30, 2018
Special sauce tasted abd looks like Thousand Island to me. First thing we learned how to make in 7th grade Home Ec. My specual sauce is more of a tartar sauce..mayo base, lemon juice, onion powder, pickle relish. Love it on steamed broccoli!
Joanne O. July 5, 2018
I thought I had died and gone to heaven the first time I ordered fries in Utah and the soon to be magic words - "would you like fry sauce with that?" were spoken. It was one of the many magical things about living there. Mmmmmm, fry sauce...
averything January 21, 2018
I am 52 years old and have been able to say the Big Mac jingle backwards since I was around ten - an embarrassing little trick I've been known to throw out at parties which always causes a pained look to come across my husbands face. Thanks for the memory and the laugh !
Emma L. January 21, 2018
Ha! It's going to be my party trick, too, after writing this piece!