There’s quite possibly no fast-food item that’s quite as mythical as Colonel Harland Sanders’ Original Recipe fried chicken, which has served as the cornerstone of KFC’s menu since the recipe was perfected in 1940. This blend of 11 herbs and spices is one of the most tightly guarded trade secrets in the restaurant industry, but we bet that you didn’t know exactly to what lengths the company goes to in order to keep it top secret.
First of all, the recipe itself — signed by Colonel Sanders himself — is locked inside a vault at KFC’s headquarters in Louisville. The spice mix isn’t even assembled by one company; in order to keep it a secret, half of the ingredients are blended by Griffith Laboratories and then the mixture is sent to McCormick, where the other half is added. And during a recent chat with KFC’s head chef, Bob Das, he revealed that even he doesn’t know the secret formula; it’s only known by a very small number of the company’s highest-ranking executives. And he’s been with the company for nearly 20 years!
Over the years, many people have tried to replicate the legendary formula, with varying degrees of success. In researching his 1983 book Big Secrets, William Poundstone had a laboratory analyze the mix and turned up just flour, salt, pepper, and MSG. Of course, KFC denied that this was the case, instead maintaining that it still uses the original formula. Then in 2016, Colonel Sanders’ nephew, Joe Ledington, claimed that he found a handwritten fried chicken recipe in an old scrapbook, and intriguingly it contained 11 herbs and spices: salt, thyme, basil, oregano, celery salt, black pepper, dried mustard, paprika, garlic salt, ground ginger, and white pepper. The team at the Chicago Tribune put the recipe to the test, and with some finessing (and the addition of MSG), they claimed that their version was “indistinguishable” from KFC’s.
So did Joe Ledington turn up the Original Recipe? We’ll most likely never know. Either way, you have to admit: Keeping the recipe a trade secret is some seriously good marketing. Ever wonder how KFC got its start? Its origins are pretty fascinating.