Is a chicken tender only as good as the sauce in which it's dipped? I mean, kind of. A solid sauce can take a chicken tender from the brink of dry repulsion and transform it into mild satisfaction. A good chicken tender is fine on its own, but even better submerged in a delectable dip. Sauce has weight. Sauce has power.
Which is why I thought it only fitting, as an extremely professional food journalist, to find out which of McDonald's seven dipping sauces is the best. Would my nostalgic favorite, Sweet 'N Sour, cloud my tastebuds and win out over all? Would I discover a newfound love for my mortal enemy, BBQ sauce? And does anyone actually ever order hot mustard? And should they?
After several trips to different McDonald's around New York City, collecting rectangles of sauce carriers with colorful seals, I finally have the answers. And some of those answers reveal that most of these sauces are concocted of disproportionate amounts of soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup, but I digress. Here are the seven McDonald's dips (habanero ranch has been discontinued, which is a shame because that sounds good), ranked, after dunking tenders, nugs, and fries into each of them:
7. Signature Sauce
Goes well with:Honestly, nothing? I would dunk fries in this out of desperation. If you need sauce for a sandwich, ask for Mac sauce instead.
It makes me so sad to report that McDonald’s Signature Sauce is tasteless. I was expecting the briny flavor of pickles you'd get with McDonald’s Mac sauce, but made in a creamier, dip-able version. Mac sauce is balanced; tangy and sweet and mustard-forward. Signature Sauce, however, is nothing but bland. The only flavor you really get is a mild sweetness that adds nothing to chicken tenders and nuggets. It’s like extra watered down pinkish ketchup with flecks of pepper -- your tongue can’t really discern what it’s supposed to be tasting. Did I get a bad batch or something? I feel like this sauce was so much wasted potential.
Goes well with: Nuggets, tenders, and chicken sandwiches. I can also see this working as a good swap for a Filet-O-Fish if you’re not wild about the pickle chunks in tartar sauce (though that tartar sauce is divine and you’re wrong).
If I’m being real, this ranch dressing isn't the greatest ranch dressing.It’s kind of reminiscent of sour yogurt -- it has a strange, slightly spoilt flavor that isn’t enough to make me toss the tiny carton out, but doesn’t make me enthusiastic about using it as my go-to dip. What it lacks in appetizing flavor, however, it makes up for in consistency. The ranch is less syrupy and thin than other dips and coats the nuggets and tenders well, which I can appreciate. It also has actual taste, though it's a little heavy on onion, it still beats Signature Sauce’s lack of identity. Even so, it has nothing on the best ranch of all time, which can be found at Wing Stop.
5. Tangy BBQ
Goes well with: Burgers, fries, chicken -- basically anything that can use a dose of smokiness, which is most of McDonald's menu save for fish and desserts.
Although "tangy" in the name, McDonald’s Tangy BBQ sauce is definitely on the sweeter, rather than tangier, side. The flavor of sugar and tomato is the driving force, but there is a lingering smokiness that’s mandatory for a real BBQ sauce. It’s too sugary for my liking; if McDonald’s was able to package the spicy bbq sauce it uses for itslatest Spicy BBQ Chicken Sandwich and sub that out, this sauce would definitely rank higher. Otherwise, it’s another syrupy sweet dip among a sea of McDonald’s syrupy sweet dips. I like it, but wouldn't order it.
4. Sweet 'N Sour
Goes well with:To be frank, probably only McNuggets... I mean, I love this sauce with nugs so much, but it's so incomprehensibly sweet that I can't see it working for much else. Tenders are fine, too, but other sauces for tenders take precedence.
Like Sour Patch Kids and many of McDonald’s dipping sauces, the iconic, green-labeled dip that is Sweet 'N Sour is far more cloying than mouth-puckering. The color of caramel, with a flavor that isn't too far off, Sweet 'N Sour is a dip that can’t quite be pinpointed -- the only accurate descriptor would be syrupy and vaguely fruity, thanks to peach and apricot puree. That being said, there is something so nostalgic about the sweetness of the dip balanced with the salt of tenders and McNuggets. It’s a classic sauce that reminds me of Americanized Chinese fast food: overly sugary, saucy, and gooey from xanthan gum, yet unexplainably delectable and craveable.
3. Hot Mustard
Goes well with: Burgers, chicken, fries... anything you'd be inclined to put mustard on. It's mustard, but hot.
If you’ve ever had hot mustard with your dim sum or prime rib, you know that it can be the perfect complement to a deeply savory dish. The same goes for something not quite as gourmet -- McNuggets and McDonald’s chicken tenders -- but also unequivocally delicious. The hot mustard isn’t nearly as spicy as a smear of horseradish or wasabi, and to be honest I wish it was more zippy in that sense, but it definitely has enough of a kick to passably be named “hot” mustard. It’s one of two dips I felt wasn’t overly sweet and had a welcomed vinegar tang that fans of salt and vinegar chips would love. I honestly feel like Hot Mustard is a slept on dip at McDonald’s. Try it and find out just what you’ve been missing.
2. Spicy Buffalo
Goes well with: Chicken tenders and nuggets. I’d try it out on a McChicken too.
Upon initial inspection, this sauce is kind of intimidating. For starters, it’s neon orange. The smell of it can also induce tears; it’s just so vinegar-y. But man, the flavor is unbelievably nuanced for a small packet of mass-produced sauce. It’s spicy and tangy, with subtle heat and pepperiness from cayenne. The texture is just right; not too thin, not gelatinous, but full enough to hug every curve and crinkle of a crunchy boot-shaped nugget. It’s got the right amount of salt and bite and I want to dunk every chicken product from McDonald’s into this glistening orange bath.
1. Honey Mustard
Goes well with:Chicken! Grilled chicken, battered chicken, all chicken. Chicken and honey mustard are meant to be.
This dip is more honey than mustard, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in tangy, peppery flavor. Though surprisingly tame -- it could definitely use some more nostril-clearing heat from mustard -- McDonald’s honey mustard has robust flavor that makes me want to come back and continue dunking my chicken into it. Sure, there are unidentifiable flecks of spices, but overall the sauce contains layered notes of honey, vinegar, salt, and heat, with each flavor enriching the next and coming together like McDonald's version of Megazord. I’ve always felt honey mustard is one of the best sauces to have with chicken anything, and McDonald’s version confirmed this.
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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.