Somebody or something bless America’s hearts and arteries, for the number of hot dogs eaten here amounts to 70 — seventy! — per person annually, according to estimates by the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council (which — go USA! — is a thing). Then there’s this surprising hot dog data: Just 15% of all those are scarfed down on the street from stands, and only 9% at the ballpark. The numbers of wieners engulfed at carnivals, bus stations and the like don’t rise to the level of data points, meaning a preponderance are being enjoyed at home — and 95% of all American households serve them, according to the NHDSC. Pity the 5%!
Hot dogs surely rate among the most highly nostalgic foods as well, with the ones delivered to your high chair or relished in the high-school bleachers forming lifelong preferences. (Whether relish itself rates as an acceptable condiment, not to mention the controversial ketchup, are predilections also likely early learned and fiercely held.) Certainly, the hot dog you’re habituated to grilling at home is the best one … Isn’t it?
A panoply of hot dog options awaits these days, from the large-and-in-charge, local/artisanal, commensurately priced butcher shop ones to the mass market, ears-and-elbows supermarket specials. Conscripting a few average Americans who happen to be my friends — one a former vegetarian — I embarked upon a taste test of a range of five different dogs.
The provenance of the test wieners was withheld during the tasting; they were identified, for ranking purposes, only by number, in Sharpie, on paper plates. Condiments were permitted, with the caveat that the same condimentation must be applied to each test dog. (Most participants chose a light application of Amora mustard; some also added a modicum of ketchup.) Buns were selected for classic neutrality: Franz. Testers reserved some of each hot dog for important cross-dog comparison throughout, and at the conclusion of, the test. Cheap beer was deployed as a palate cleanser.
We ate a LOT of hot dogs, and our findings surprised us. It was also really fun. You should try it!
THE STATS AND TASTING NOTES
Rain Shadow Meats housemade pork, ham and beef-fat hot dogs: These local/artisanal specimens weighed in the largest by far — a hefty 1/4 pound each, attaining an average length of 7 5/8 inches and a fat circumference of 3 3/4 inches. The cost, also biggest: $3.68 each. The pork and ham come from Pure Country Farms in Ephrata, Grant County, and the beef fat is house trim, says Rain Shadow owner Russell Flint, who notes that making hot dogs on a small scale is time-consuming and labor-intensive. (Locally, Beast & Cleaver also make their own, available in time for July Fourth but not for this taste test.)
Tasting notes: This is the hot dog “for your black-tie picnic,” one taster said. Others noted a distinct black-pepperiness, smokiness and notes of nutmeg with a good, snappy casing. It’s an amped-up play on nostalgic taste that one panelist rated “overly complex,” while the former vegetarian termed it “luxurious … if I were going to eat a hot dog in a bathtub, it’d be this.”
Hempler’s private label beef hot dog from Bob’s Quality Meats: 6 inches long and a bit skinny-looking at 2 7/8 inches around, these weigh almost 3 ounces, at $1.37 each. Hempler’s uses meats “supplied locally, as much as possible, from sustainable sources,” which is vague; headquartered locally, in Ferndale, Whatcom County, it’s owned by Premium Brands Holdings. But beloved Bob’s in Columbia City trusts them, so …
Tasting notes: “Richly meaty,” one taster noted, and all praised a balanced smokiness — flavorful without coloring outside the hot dog lines. The juiciness and slightly chewy grind, too, rated well, and the lack of a casing did not faze tasters. One comment: “This feels like the elevated hot dog I’m looking for.” Another: “The pinnacle!”
Fletcher’s Seattle Mariners Beef Franks: This M’s-endorsed supermarket specimen is not particularly impressive in length at 5 3/4 inches, but possessed of nice girth at 3 3/4 inches circumference; weighing in at just over 3 ounces each, they’re $1.50 per. PBH-owned Hempler’s now owns Fletcher’s in its U.S. incarnation (it’s complicated). Packaging boasts of “home run flavor” and no added MSG.
Tasting notes: This dog tasted both sweeter and saltier than others (and packs a wallop of 34% of one’s recommended daily sodium, FWIW), ringing of “honey bacon.” One taster detected celery salt, while another appreciated the smoke level; the variety of pronounced flavors, though, rated “maybe more complex than it needs to be.” It “looks better because it’s bigger,” was noted, but, then, “Does size matter?”
Hebrew National Bun Length Beef Franks: Another long/skinny puppy at 6 1/4 inches in length, 2 3/4-inch circumference, these mass-market standards come at 2 ounces each for 91 cents. “Made with premium cuts of Kosher beef,” and no artificial flavors/colors nor fillers; the company is now owned by behemoth ConAgra.
Tasting notes: “Uncomplex,” “classic” and “a workhorse — you could eat three of them,” tasters said — and at this point in the test, all were meant as high praise. The former vegetarian happily reminisced about “swim meets with tons of screaming kids,” while another mused about “a church picnic.”
Bar S Classic Jumbo Franks: Ironically puny, given the name, these bottom-shelf supermarket bargains measure maybe 5 inches on a good day, with a 3 inch, oddly squared-off circumference, and come cheaper than meat should be at 37 cents each. “Mechanically separated chicken” is the first ingredient, with pork — and corn syrup — coming later.
Tasting notes: The texture here disturbed tasters, e.g., “weirdly squishy,” “Vienna sausage-like,” “could eat this with no teeth.” The former vegetarian declared it “like a Smart Dog, with just a little animal flavor,” while a comparison to the flavor of bologna met with nods all around. However: “It’s better than no hot dog at all,” one taster remarked.
THE WIENER WINNER(S)
The Bar S hot dog didn’t stand a chance, but it did raise the philosophical question: “Does a bad hot dog exist?” One taster answered, “I really believe, frankly, it doesn’t” (pun unintended, but still funny). The panel felt that the Rain Shadow dog could certainly stand up as its own sausage, but that in the context of ideal hot dog taste, “It’s trying too hard.” The Fletcher’s/Mariners version was judged over-effortful and not as good.
The No. 1 spot went to a surprising tie: the dog from Hempler’s sold at Bob’s Quality Meats and old standard Hebrew National. Tasters were impressed that Hebrew National has kept its quality up, while one noted that the Bob’s special Hempler’s dog “eats the meatiest.” Both absolutely carried out the nostalgic notion of a hot dog, conjuring summertime, creating a sunny, uncomplicated happiness at being alive.
On the no-bad-hot-dogs front, the former vegetarian remarked, “Having so many hot dogs reminds me why I’m eating meat again.” Nobody was sick of them when we were done, and grilled zucchini and spinach salad were administered to all of the panel.