Why Top Secret Recipes Taste Like the Real Thing, But Aren't
In the laboratory (my kitchen), each of my recipes was subjected to a battering array of bakings and mixings, batch after batch, until the closest representation of the actual commercial product was finally achieved. I did not swipe, heist, bribe or otherwise obtain any formulas through coercion or illegal means. I'd like to think that many of these recipes are the actual formulas for their counterparts, but there's no way of knowing for sure. In such cases of closely guarded secret recipes, the closer one gets to matching a real product's contents, the less likely it is that the protective manufacturer will say so.
The objective here was to match the taste and texture of the products with everyday ingredients. In most cases, obtaining the exact ingredients for these mass-produced food products is nearly impossible. For the sake of security and convenience, many of the companies have contracted confidentially with vendors for the specialized production and packaging of each of their product's ingredients. These prepackaged mixes and ingredients are then sent directly to the company for final preparation. Debbi Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies, for example, arranged with several individual companies to custom manufacture many of her cookies' ingredients. Her vanilla alone is specially blended from a variety of beans grown in various places around the world, The other ingredients -- the chocolate, the eggs, the sugars, the flour -- all get specialized attention specifically for the Mrs. Fields company.
The same holds true for McDonald's, Wendy's, KFC and most of the big-volume companies. Even if you could bypass all the security measures and somehow get your hands on the secret formulas, you'd have a hard time executing the recipes without locating many ingredients usually impossible to find at the corner market. Therefore, with taste in mind, substitution of ingredients other than those that may be used in the actual product is necessary in many cases to achieve a closely cloned end result.
If it's a packaged product, I'll start with the ingredients list. Thanks to an FDA law, ingredients must be listed in descending order of their percentages in the product. Most of the main ingredients are easy to find at any supermarket. I just ignore the chemicals and preservatives that usually show up in small amounts at the end of the ingredients list, since we're going to eat the food fresh and don't have to worry about spoiling.
I then try to assemble the product in a test batch, which usually comes out tasting pretty horrible. From there it's just a matter of using more of some ingredients and less of others until the finished product tastes like the original. It may take only a couple of attempts to get it right, or it may take dozens.
Cooking times and preparation techniques can often be determined from recipes I've collected for products similar to the one I'm trying to clone. For example, if I want to make biscuits that taste like Popeye's Famous Biscuits, I may find a recipe for generic biscuits to give me a starting point and adjust it to match the brand-name original.
For products that don't have ingredients lists, like fast-food items, I use my own sense of taste. I take the product home and disassemble it, and then attempt to reassemble it with ingredients bought at a grocery store.
Not only can the entire process be very time-consuming and frustrating, but it tends to get a bit expensive when I have to go through several versions of one recipe until I get it right. But I have say it's a thrill to finally come up with a recipe for a finished product that tastes exactly like the famous brand-name food.