Making A Bad Thing Worse

You probably already know how I feel about fast food. And yet, I have to admit that it is a guilty pleasure. I admit it. From time to time I give in to that impulse and eat one of those fast food cheeseburgers and french fries. Let’s face it – they taste good. But I try to limit this indulgence to no more than once a month, often less. I justify it by saying that the occasional splurge on unhealthy food is okay. And I continue to maintain that. Once in a while, that’s not going to kill you, even if it is a health set-back.

Now we hear that the new trend in fast food is making it even worse for you. This started with the formerly known Kentucky Fried Chicken, now KFC, when they introduced a sandwich that used boneless fried chicken as the bread in a sandwich loaded with bacon, cheese and mayonnaise, meaning a ton of salt and fat.

The  newest contender in the race to make fast food even worse is the hamburger chain Wendy’s (as reported by NPR). This is particularly sad because I thought Wendy’s had the best burgers. I also liked their fries: thick, fluffy and substantial compared to the skinnier fries from other chains. Wendy’s is introducing new french fries in an effort to win the fried potato race against it’s big competitor, McDonald’s. These fries are a little more rustic (meaning they have some of their skin on) and use sea salt. The net result: even saltier fries.

I liked Wendy’s fries the way they were. I thought they had more potato flavor because they were thicker. To me, the flavor of the others came from the oil they’re fried in. I have to admit, fries from McDonald’s or Burger King are pretty good. But it’s hard to make a bad tasting potato in my opinion.

Wendy’s also had the advantage of having burgers that were more “homemade” tasting. I don’t know what they did, but they were good. Other chains had their good points as well. Burger King’s burgers seemed a little healthier because they weren’t fried like everyone else’s. That was a slightly different taste that I liked. But the king is king for a reason. McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with cheese is just real good. I don’t know why, but it is.

Salt has become the new “boutique” ingredient. For the most part, salt is salt. What makes the difference is the cut of the grains. However, salts from different sources can have slightly different flavors due to the other minerals in the salt. The trendy new salt in gourmet food is sea salt. Many people say sea salt has a stronger flavor. I tend to agree with that. Under that theory, you should be able to use less. And, in fact, less IS usually used, but not because of the taste. Sea salt grains tend to be larger than table salt, which means less should be more.

What Wendy’s has found is that while they are using fewer “shakes” of the sea salt than the table salt, the fries have a higher sodium content. How is this possible? It all goes back to the cut. That’s the same thing that makes kosher salt so popular with cooks and chefs. Kosher salt is “kosher” because it’s flat, flake-like shape makes it stick to meat and other foods, drawing out more of the meat’s fluids. That shape is what makes it different from table salt, which is more rounded, like a half-melted ice cube. Both come from the same source: underground deposits.

Sea salt is made by trapping sea water in shallow ponds in the sun. When the water evaporates, the salt is left behind where it can be scraped up, cleaned and ground for use in kitchens everywhere. On food, it leaves a higher sodium content because more of the larger grains stick to the food, while a lot of table salt rolls off.

We reported recently that during this economic depression/recession, more people are eating at home. That means those fast food joints are having to compete even harder for your food dollars. While making food better tasting so you buy their stuff and not that of a competitor, they are making it even worse for you.

Sadly, it will probably work. Too many of us, maybe even most of us, will go for what tastes good, especially if it means not having to cook. But for me, this is yet another good excuse to not eat out.