Hot dog, we have a wiener!

Hot Dog!

“There are no two finer words than ‘encased meats,’ my friend.” — Anthony Bourdain

With summer in full swing, it’s time to bust out the madras shirts, straw hats, and dust off the old grill. Sure, there are dozens of grilling options for summer fare, portabella mushroom steaks, veggie kabobs, and pizza (if you are a real grill master), but let’s be honest, nothing says summer grilling like hot dogs. There is something special, almost magical about hot dogs. Everyone, from top chefs (see the Bourdain quote) to children enjoy hotdogs. I mean seriously, what’s not to like? A good hot dog is a good source of protein, isn’t off the charts calorically, and is downright tasty. That’s what I call a triple threat.

Nearly every self respecting carnivore, no matter how picky an eater they are, has a soft spot for a well prepared wiener. There are of course good and bad dogs, but even a top shelf package of hot dogs isn’t going to break the bank. If you are fortunate, there may be a local sausage maker or butcher shop who offers fresh Frankfurters in your area. The benefit of buying locally made franks is freshness and quality of ingredients. Quality control is much higher in small, artisanal batches than in industrial dogs. It’s the simple principle of economy of scale. A smaller scale affords a higher level of attention to detail and quality. While commercial enterprises certainly offer a quality product, you may be hard pressed to find a better alternative to a local sausage maker.

If you’re local butcher does not offer fresh Frankfurters, fear not, there are plenty of commercial offerings that offer a premium dog. How will you know if you have a premium dog on your hand? There are a couple of benchmarks to look for. First off, a natural casing is key to a good dog. This is what gives a good wiener the telltale “snap!” when you bite into it. While a natural casing will generally lead to the next indicator, it is not always the rule. Take a look at the ingredient list. It should be short and contain no filler. What that means is beef, pork, or a combination of the two. No mechanically separated parts, no soy, and no cereal. If these two criteria are met, you will likely have a quality frank on your hands. Nationally available brands such as Nathan’s, Hebrew National, and Sabbrett are all good choices, while regional brands such as Vienna Beef and Miller’s also offer a premium product that may be a nice change of pace from the larger companies, if you can find them.

When it comes to preparation, honestly, nothing can compete with a grilled hot dog. Having established that, there are essentially two of ways to grill a wiener. Keep in mind, grilling dogs is a bit high maintenance if you want to do it right. Depending on how charred you like your dogs, they should be cooked on either medium (less char) or medium high (more char) heat. Once they begin to cook, they will brown quickly, and need be turned as soon as they begin to. Turn the dogs on four sides, as if they were square, for even cooking. Feel free to place buns on the grill for the last couple of turns of the dog if you like your buns toasted.

If grilling is not an option due to weather or H.O.A. regulations, an alternative to the grilled wiener is the steamed hot dog. To do justice to a steamed hot dog, cooking should be done in a Dutch oven with a steamer rack. The liquid should remain below the bottom of the steamer, as liquid bubbling onto the dogs will leave you with a boiled dog, and boiling a natural-casing hot dog leaves the frank mushy and rubbery. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat to low, add the dogs to the steamer basket, then cover and steam for 5-7 minutes. To steam your buns, which is highly recommended, simply stack them on the hot dogs for the last two minutes of cooking. For an extra bit of flavor, substitute beer for water. The type of beer used isn’t too important, something cheap will get the job done, and the steamed brew will impart a wonderful extra layer of flavor to the dog. 

Now that you have a well prepared dog, be it grilled or steamed, it’s time for toppings. Some like a straight up raw dog, and there is something to be said about such simplicity, but a hot dog is a great medium for toppings. I am not alone in the belief that when it comes to hot dogs, ketchup should be avoided like the plague. You may ask why ketchup is a hot dog faux pas, and to put it simply, it just is. With that out of the way, the sky is the limit when it comes to topping a hot dog. Mustard can be plain yellow, brown deli-style, German-style, or Dijon if you want to get fancy. Sauerkraut is great if you like it, but can easily be substituted for with onions. When it comes to onions, if you want to go raw, white onions are the best choice. If you are going to sauté your onions, yellow or red work equally well. Relish is also a suitable topping choice. If you are aiming for chili dogs, chili should be “creamy style”, i.e. ground beef without beans. Bacon is always a winner. Jalapenos are a great way to spice up your hot dog. These are only guidelines though, feel free to improvise. Hot dogs are comparable to a good jazz tune in this manner.

There you have it, a quick guide to choosing, cooking, and topping hot dogs. Utilizing these strategies, it will be difficult to go wrong with your summer hot dog feasts. Go forth and spread the word of the well prepared wiener. Just remember, ketchup is for french fries, not Frankfurters!

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