The New York Times Food department hasn’t 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 flavor 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.