In a hot dog throwdown, will the big dogs win?
Originally published on Wednesday, May 20, 2009.
Summer doesn't officially start until next month, but for many, this weekend marks not only Memorial Day, but also the green light to fire up the grill and invite friends over for a backyard bash. Hot dogs nearly outnumber fireflies during the hot-weather months, but like fellow summer standbys burgers and beer, not all dogs are created equal.
So lest you serve squishy, mealy wieners that taste more like warm pudding than meat at your next get-together, we channeled our inner Consumer Reports and conducted a hot dog taste test to find the best dog for your dollar.
Long gone are the days when the only choice consumers had were all-beef or some combination of mechanically separated chicken, turkey and/or pork. Grocery stores offer everything from vegetarian to kosher to low-sodium to MSG-free hot dogs. I bought a combination of big-name and store brands — mostly all-beef varieties, along with a few dogs whose ingredients more closely resembled those of bologna — and invited a handful of Central Texas food bloggers to a family-style cookout in my backyard. I removed the hot dogs from their packaging and put them into gallon bags marked with letters and with the Weber kettle grill full of hot, hardwood charcoal, grilled them for the bloggers to taste one by one.
As soon as the franks started coming off the grill, it was clear which ones would make it into the finals. The hot dogs fell into two groups: those priced less than $2 that were almost entirely inedible or those costing more than $3 that would be acceptable to serve at just about any backyard gathering.
The low-priced dogs tended to taste gritty or overprocessed. Some, such as the Rath Black Hawk (8 dogs, $1) and Bar S Franks (8 dogs, $1.82), tasted bad enough to warrant one-word descriptions, exclamation points — "Ew!" "Nasty!" — and frowny faces on the tasters' notes. Soup Peddler owner David Ansel said the Roegelein Beef (8 dogs, $2.07) was only reminiscent of meat, and Logan Cooper of Boots in the Oven said the H-E-B Hot Dogs (8 dogs, $1.67) tasted like old okra.
The prices of the hot dogs ranged from pricey (Ball Park Grillmaster, 67 cents each) to cheaper than cheap (Rath Black Hawk, 12 cents each), but the best-tasting dogs fell in the range of 40 cents each.
From the 15 varieties we started with, six were voted tasty enough to make it into the final round. Seven if you count Hebrew National (7 dogs, $3.28), which, to the surprise of every taster, didn't get voted in after round one's blind tasting. Because of the number of hot dogs in the first round, tasters tried franks by themselves and not on a bun. In the most unscientific move of the day, the tasters voted to advance the legendary kosher frank to see if it fared better during the second round, when buns and condiments were factored in.
What a difference a bun makes: The tasters found that the overly salty and preservative flavor that plagued Hebrew National in the first tasting lessened when served on bread, but not enough to take top honors.
So what does it take to be a top dog?
The right combination of juice, fat, salt and flavor put Nathan's Famous Skinless Beef (8 dogs, $3.99), a version of the frank that has been served for 93 years at the iconic Coney Island stand in New York City, ahead of others.
But what a surprise when the heavy favorite Nathan's ended up tying for first place with H-E-B Texas Heritage Original Beef (8 dogs, $3.39), a nearly unknown, store-brand hot dog. The Texas-based grocery store's all-beef dog had a fatty, savory garlic flavor and satisfying "pop" when bitten into that put it at the top of tasters' lists from the first round. "It reminds me of home," said Tiffany Jackson, who recently moved to Austin from South Carolina.
Coming in second place was the Ball Park Grillmaster Hearty Beef (5 dogs, $3.38), followed by Hebrew National. Rounding out the finalists were Bistro Naturals Uncured Beef (8 dogs, $3.99), Ball Park Beef Frank (8 dogs, $3.38) and Eckrich Premium Beef Franks (7 dogs, $2.99).
The top dogs
Of the 15 hot dog varieties we tasted, the top seven were made from beef rather than a combination of chicken, turkey, pork and/or beef. Beef dogs are more expensive, but tasters found them remarkably better than their mixed meat counterparts:
1. (tie) Nathan's Famous Skinless Beef (8 dogs, $3.99);
H-E-B Texas Heritage Original Beef (8 dogs, $3.39)
2. Ball Park Grillmaster 'Hearty Beef' (5 dogs, $3.38)
3. Hebrew National Beef (7 dogs, $3.28)
4. (tie) Bistro Naturals Uncured Beef (8 dogs, $3.99);
Ball Park Beef Franks (8 dogs, $3.38)
5. Eckrich Premium Beef Franks (7 dogs, $2.99)
The not-so-hot dogs
These hot dogs didn't make it past the first round:
Sabrett Skinless Beef (8 dogs, $3.99)
Ball Park Franks (8 dogs, $1.67)
Roegelein Beef (8 dogs, $2.07)
H-E-B Angus beef (8 dogs, $3.19)
Bar S Franks (8 dogs, $1.82)
Oscar Mayer (10 dogs, $1.83)
Rath Black Hawk (8 dogs, $1)
H-E-B Hot Dogs (8 dogs, $1.67)
Top your dog
What's a hot dog without the fixings? We used Heinz ketchup and French's yellow mustard during our taste test, but here are two recipes from Saveur magazine's annual Saveur 100 list earlier this year to help you create your own delicious condiments.
4 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1 stick cinnamon
1/4 tsp. celery seeds
1/4 tsp. chile flakes
1/4 tsp. whole allspice
2 lbs. tomatoes, roughly chopped
11/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 cup white vinegar
5 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 onion, chopped
1 Anaheim chile, chopped
1 clove garlic
Wrap cloves, bay leaf, cinnamon, celery seeds, chile flakes and allspice in a layer of cheesecloth; tie into a bundle and put into a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat along with tomatoes, salt, vinegar, sugar, onion and Anaheim chiles; smash and add the garlic. Cook, stirring, until onions and chiles are very soft, 40 minutes. Remove spice bundle; purée sauce in a blender until smooth. Strain sauce through a mesh strainer into a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 30 minutes. Add more salt, sugar or vinegar, if you like. Transfer ketchup to a glass jar. Set aside; let cool. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for up to three weeks. Makes 21/2 cups ketchup.
Spicy Guinness Mustard
1 12-oz. bottle Guinness Extra Stout
11/2 cups brown mustard seeds (10 oz.)
1 cup red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
Combine ingredients in a nonreactive mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 1–2 days so that the mustard seeds soften and the flavors meld. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a food processor and process, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, until the seeds are coarsely ground and the mixture thickens, about three minutes. Transfer to a jar and cover. Refrigerate overnight and use immediately or refrigerate for up to six months. (The flavor of the mustard will mellow as the condiment ages.) Makes 31/2 cups mustard.