(NEW YORK TIMES) - The New York Times Food department has not taken a close look at hot dogs in some time. Back when hot dogs were on every list of foods to avoid – alarming additives, questionable cuts, salt and fat galore – home cooks didn’t want to know too much about what was in them.
But cooks are different now, and so are hot dogs. We want to know that what we’re eating is as good as it can be. Hot dogs are made from better ingredients, with fewer additives.
One thing hasn’t changed: Billions of hot dogs will be eaten at cookouts this summer, and serving them is one of the easiest ways we know to make people happy. And so, we present our first official hot dog blind tasting.
The terms were as follows: First, the hot dogs would be cooked on a gas grill until well browned. Next, each would be tasted plain to evaluate the intrinsic qualities of the hot dog: seasoning, beefiness, snap, texture. Last, each would be eaten in a bun with the judge’s preordained condiments – the same for each dog, to keep the flavour profile consistent.
This important final step would allow us to assess the melding of meat and bread, sweetness and spice, salt and juice that makes up a perfect hot dog. The bun should hug the hot dog closely; there should be enough juice in the hot dog to keep the whole package together; condiments should complement the hot dog, not overwhelm it.
And the judges? Some may say that enlisting three native New Yorkers – Sam Sifton, Melissa Clark and me – amounted to putting a thumb on the scale. All-beef hot dogs are part of the city’s food DNA. (So are forcefully expressed opinions and a general skepticism about the food of Other Places.)
Nationally popular pork-beef specimens like red hots, Vienna sausages, Coneys and weenies wouldn’t have a chance. But the question became moot as I researched the contenders, and it quickly became clear that only all-beef franks could be invited to this event.
Most of the high-quality hot dogs available to home cooks in the United States are made with all beef. (Hot dogs with lots of added fat and fillers often use multiple meats.) An overwhelming majority of the producers of organic, all-natural and humanely raised meat make only all-beef hot dogs. Restricting entry to all-beef hot dogs also leveled the playing field, making it possible to compare like with like.
The hot dog’s immediate ancestors, traditional wienerwursts and frankfurters from Germany and Austria, were made from combinations of pork, beef and sometimes veal. Beyond the meat, frankfurters have a trace of smoke, a touch of garlic and a hum of warm spice from paprika, coriander, clove or nutmeg. These subtle seasonings are what make a hot dog a hot dog. Within the all-beef subset, we were ecumenical, including all the major national brands as well as some organic, kosher and small-batch outliers.
Ten dogs made the final cut. Some sausages were great alone in the first tasting, but glitchy in the second when they were placed in the bun. The Niman Ranch hot dog was so thick that – as Melissa astutely observed – it threw off the ratio for meat, condiment and bun. The Oscar Mayer entry was surprisingly small and sweet, inspiring nostalgic fits about childhood dinners of beanie weenies. I wanted to eat the smoky, slim Brooklyn Hot Dog Co. sausage with a knife and fork alongside some parsleyed potato salad, as you might in Frankfurt, but not on a bun. And others were simply tasteless, oversalted or peculiar. “Not a hot dog,” was Sam’s scathing assessment of those hapless contenders.
The detailed results are below, with notes from the judges.
Only Wellshire Farms, a brand sold only at Whole Foods markets, and Hebrew National, a stalwart, had what we considered a true and familiar hot dog profile: an identifiable beefy taste, a texture that’s soft but not mealy, a noticeable juiciness and a thread of warm spice flavour. Wellshire Farms got the edge because of its slightly larger size, coming in first in our tasting.
WELLSHIRE FARMS PREMIUM ALL-NATURAL UNCURED BEEF FRANKS
“Smoky, herby – is this fancy?” was Melissa’s immediate response. We all loved its levels of garlic and spice."
HEBREW NATIONAL KOSHER BEEF FRANKS
“Classic,” Sam declared. “The people’s hot dog.”
The Middle of the Pack
These hot dogs were good overall but missed greatness because of one attribute: The sausage was either too sweet, too salty, too smoky or too tough.
APPLEGATE THE GREAT ORGANIC UNCURED BEEF HOT DOG
“Not bad but the salt balance is off – and where are the spices?” I wrote in my tasting notes. “The kid hot dog par excellence.” This was the only grass-fed hot dog that the panel liked.
NATHAN’S FAMOUS SKINLESS BEEF FRANKS
"A mild, juicy frank that “melds in a nice way” with bun and condiments, Melissa said. "But sweeter than we would have liked."
OSCAR MAYER CLASSIC BEEF UNCURED FRANKS
“Superfragrant, smoky and sweet,” Sam said. "But the small size of these dogs was disappointing."
BOAR’S HEAD BEEF FRANKFURTERS ORIGINAL FAMILY RECIPE
"Good texture and great beefiness, but the casings toughened on the grill; this would probably make a great boiled dog. According to Sam, he says the hot dog is “not a snap so much as a crust".
THE BROOKLYN HOT DOG CO. SMOKED AND UNCURED CLASSIC BEEF DOGS,
The smokiest of the bunch, with good beef flavour. But at almost a foot long, it did not seem like a backyard barbecue hot dog to me.
NIMAN RANCH FEARLESS BEEF FRANKS
“Seems very pure and beefy,” Sam said. "It was also substantial, which seemed appropriate for our most expensive dog, but it didn’t fit in standard buns."
The Ball Park hot dog had noticeably less flavour and more additives than any of the others in our tasting. The Trader Joe’s frank suffered from a rubbery, unfamiliar taste.
TRADER JOE’S ORGANIC GRASS-FED UNCURED BEEF HOT DOGS
“Funky, and not in a good way,” I noted. There was smoke and coriander, but the flavour profile didn’t match up with “hot dog”.
BALL PARK UNCURED BEEF FRANKS
“’Flaccid’ is not a good word to associate with sausage, but that’s what it is,” Sam said. Melissa put it more gently: “Soft and mortadella-like” in texture, but “where did the taste go?"