Some people think of hot dogs as having more disgusting parts and unmentionable fillers than a Senate appropriations bill. And, yes, lousy hot dogs are rife in this country. But even the worst wield a kind of patriotic power. And the best are truly remarkable creations.
These days, even high-end chefs are working the dog into their menus. Frank Ruta, chef at Palena, in Washington, D.C., makes his own hot dogs, and the Kobe beef hot dog is so important to Miami Beach’s swank Prime 112 that when its sausagemaker threatened to retire and quit producing them, the prospective void sent tremors through the entire operation. “I’m in this business all these years,” says chef Mike Sabin, who spent months trying to find an acceptable replacement. “And I’m losing sleep over a hot dog.”
What is crucial to understand about this noble branch of the sausage tree is that at its core, the hot dog is what’s known in the trade as an emulsified forcemeat. Sounds scary, but it’s not. An emulsified forcemeat is a meat-fat-water mixture that has been puréed to within an inch of its life—cut so fast by spinning blades that the water and fat and protein create a uniformly smooth texture. Baloney, for example, is an emulsified meat; salami, in which the meat and fat are distinct, is not. The sticky meat paste is then pumped into a hog casing, twisted into a link, and hot-smoked till it reaches an internal temperature of about 160 degrees, after which it is chilled to its core in icy water. The result is a firm sausage with a dense, smooth, gently spiced interior that can be sliced and eaten cold, poached, sautéed, grilled, broiled, roasted on a stick over an open flame, or reheated on the manifold of your SUV.
The natural casing is critical to the high quality of a hot dog. (I’m staying away from skinless dogs here, which make up the vast majority of hot dogs in the United States, as I find them to be the apogee of mediocrity.) Because the emulsified forcemeat is soft, it needs the counterbalancing crack of skin when teeth meet dog to maximize that juicy explosion of smoky, salty, garlicky flavors. Hot dogs are best grilled till the casing is browned but not split open, then cradled in a steamed bun with minced onion and topped with a dash of good Dijon mustard. For some people this assemblage is worthy of “last meal before you meet your maker” status.
Arguably the best traditional hot dog in the U.S. is made by Vienna Beef, in Chicago, which dates the hot dog’s arrival from Vienna to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Having grown up on Vienna Beef’s emulsified miracles, I decided to visit the source to see the company’s inner workings. With surprising candor in an industry famous for its “proprietary” secrets, Vienna Beef opened its doors to its rows of meat cutters and sausage stuffers and discussed the formulas it uses to produce 85,000 pounds of hot dogs every day.
How exactly do they do it? “Quality ingredients and no shortcuts,” says Jack Bodman, a senior vice president and son of one of Vienna Beef’s owners. “It’s very easy to make a lousy hot dog. You can have the right ingredients, but if you don’t have the right attitude it won’t work.” This may help explain why Vienna Beef’s natural-casing dog is one of the most expensive hot dogs in the country ($6 a pound where I buy them; a buck fifty a dog and well worth it).
The Vienna dog is all beef and beef fat—the lean meat of domestically raised bulls (not steers), which, Bodman says, has a higher concentration of protein and a more aggressive beef flavor than does cow meat. The cuts of meat, which range from top round to shank to tenderloin, get ground and mixed with water and salt, a daylong brining process that helps to ready the protein for its binding work.
Fat is fundamental to the hot dog; beef fat is rich and flavorful and highly saturated. They take it from two special cuts: the bone-in brisket (the company makes corned beef and pastrami, as well) and what they call the boneless navel (the belly cut, similar to pork belly, from which we get bacon). This trim, when ground, results in a mixture that is approximately 50 percent fat and 50 percent meat.
These two ingredients—brined bull meat and ground fat—are combined to create a forcemeat, or stuffing, that has about 22 percent fat. It is then channeled into a bowl mixer with the diameter of a jet’s turbine, where it’s puréed with paprika extract (which is responsible in part for the reddish color), dry mustard, pepper, garlic juice, corn syrup, and the curing salt called sodium nitrite that is important in any smoked sausage for safety reasons and fundamental to the color and flavor of the hot dog.
The giant bowl mixer is then vacuum-sealed to remove air from the meat mixture and lower the temperature change that results from friction. (Temperature is critical to a meat emulsification. If it gets too hot, it can break, the fat separating from the water and protein. While Vienna Beef won’t reveal the exact temperature of the emulsification, it’s kept almost freezing in the chopper.)
The emulsified forcemeat is then pumped through funnels into natural casings, mechanically twisted into links, and hung on smoking rods. (In contrast, skinless why-bothers are stuffed into cellophane that is removed after smoking and before packaging—notice the faint line down the length of skinless hot dogs; it’s from the razor that removes the cellophane.)