Since I was young I’ve been eating a very special hot dog made by the Vienna Beef company in Chicago.  In August, I combined my immersion into the world of charcuterie and the emulsified forcemeat and my love of the uniquely American sausage popular at ballparks and backyard bbqs into an article for gourmet about this particular hot dog and how it’s made.  Several friends who are too wayward to actually subscribe to the fine institution, Gourmet, have asked to be able to read it.  So for them and anyone interested in the nuances and process of the great American hot dog, here it is.

ON HOT DOGS, FROM GOURMET AUGUST 2006

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.)
Once in the smokehouse—a series of narrow holding chambers in which hickory smoke circulates—the hot dogs hang at about 120 degrees for an hour. This “tempering phase,” Bodman says, helps set up the “protein matrix”—in other words, the slow temperature rise ensures a good bind of the protein, water, and fat. The temperature in the smokehouse then rises to about 180 degrees. When they’ve reached an internal temperature of 162 degrees, the dogs are quickly chilled.

And there it is, the country’s best hot dog.

Others have their own recipes, of course. Frank Ruta, of D.C.’s Palena, stumbled across the formula for his superb dog by chance. He’d been working on a mortadella, the Italian emulsified sausage that is not unlike baloney, and stuffed some leftover forcemeat into hog casings. He served one to a friend who said, “This tastes a lot like a hot dog,” and the next thing he knew, it had become the hit of his café menu. Passing pork, pork liver, veal, and spices such as allspice and nutmeg through a grinder several times and then puréeing it in a food processor, sometimes twice, he has been able to create what Tom Sietsema, restaurant critic for The Washington Post, has called “a sausage of distinction.”
Independent sausagemakers once routinely smoked their own dogs, but with industry giants like Oscar Mayer and Hebrew National—as well as the more specialized companies like Vienna Beef and Milwaukee’s Klement’s Sausage Company—pumping out millions of them, fewer individuals go to the trouble. Empire Market, in College Point, Queens, and Kurowycky Meat Prod-ucts, in Manhattan, still do, reports writer and hot dog expert Ed Levine. In my hometown of Cleveland, where there is a great sausage culture owing to its German and eastern European populations, there is apparently only one man who makes his own hot dogs.

Norm Heinle, age 61, of The Sausage Shoppe, creates a superb German wiener, as he calls it, from beef and pork. A devoted sausage man since he began working, at age 13, in the store he would come to own, he makes at least 50 pounds of dogs a week, and sells them retail from the premises.

While I bow before such a show of individualism, I also know that the hot dog requires a great deal of work and care. Given that he could just buy Vienna Beef dogs and sell them in his store instead, why does he bother? He paused briefly, and with a smile that was part grimace, he said, “Pride.”
I bought a bundle of these handcrafted hot dogs to grill at home and take the edge off my hot dog craving. But it was a force all its own. I boiled some water, dropped the dog in, covered the pot, and turned off the flame. When the dog had come up to heat in this gentle way, I set it on a cutting board. I sliced. The interior was perfectly smooth. I pressed on it with the knife, and juices flooded to the cut surface. Then the taste: firm texture and subtle flavor of garlic mingling with coriander and a bit of smoke, noticeable but only when you looked for it. Then a handheld bite—crack!

Here truly was great American craftsmanship, handmade and proud.

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24 Wonderful responses to “Dogs”

  • rockandroller

    I quit eating hot dogs several years ago because I was concerned about what parts were going into them – not the naughty bits, which I have no problem with, but bits of bone and such through which nasty illnesses can result like CFJ disease. I assumed that all commercially processed hot dogs had “mechanically separated” meat, which as I understand it means there is a chance (and a good one) that spinal cord or bone or whatever else might have gotten into the mix. Does Vienna not use mechanically separated? It would be nice to find somewhere to get hot dogs again (from a “trusted source.” I did read an article about a natural kind and have found them occasionally at Mustard Seed, but it’s quite a drive for me so I only go there once every few months or so.

    I’ve heard about the sausage shop but wasn’t sure what their processes were for obtaining meat either for things like hot dogs. I just don’t want mechnically separated meat. Is that possible?

  • ruhlman

    I agree, the mechanically separated meat is disgusting. All dogs that use it, all products that use it must say so in their ingredients list.

    vienna beef does not use it, and i’ll bet the other specialty dogs don’t and i don’t think even hebrew national does.

    in cleveland you can get them at miles market and at daves deli (but daves only carries the skinless who-cares variety).

  • rockandroller

    3 people got sick at a cookout I was at with Hebrew National in what seemed a lot like listeria so I’m not hot on those either. Miles market is as far away as mustard seed. I wish there were more good places on the W and SW side of town. Thx for the info!

  • ruhlman

    go to the sausage shoppe, good stuff, near the zoo.

    listeria is a huge concern the main concern of the hot dog folks, not just those that use mechanically separated, even at Vienna, they have all kinds of sanitary and sanitizing protocal specifically to safeguard against listeria

  • rockandroller

    Oh, and I completely agree with you about the skin-on being totally superior. I never knew that little line was from razors on grocery store dogs!

  • rockandroller

    I’ll definitely look up the sausage shop. I think I tried to find it once and got completely lost but that was awhile ago. One of the reasons I don’t get them from the WSM is the vendors I have relationships with don’t sell them and I feel funny asking if people use mechanically separated meat at other stands.

  • bill

    Michael, ever been to Flint, MI for a real Coney Island dog? The Koegel frank has the best snap I’ve ever come across.

  • Tana

    Is there a chance in hell that one can find these great dogs in my neck of the woods? If so, where, pray tell?

    Or we could do a trade: you send me some of those hot dogs, and I’ll send you some of Justin Severino’s “Pigs in Zen” chorizo and maple-ginger breakfast sausages. Talk about “last meal before you meet your maker.” Wow.

  • Claudia

    “Michael, ever been to Flint, MI for a real Coney Island dog? ”

    Ummm . . . . Michael – ever been to Coney Island in Coney Island, Brooklyn for a REAL Coney Island (Nathan’s) hot dog? (OK, the original Nathan’s dogs there used to be much better before the Handwerker family sold out and Nathan’s franchised – and they dared change the grease on the grill!- but still . . . it’s Ground Zero for hot dogs in NYC.) (Yes, I realize you might have an opinion about Gray’s Papaya King because of Bourdain’s street cred as a New York Dog Connoisseur, but that’s only because he lives in Manhattan, which is rife with GPKs.)

  • Skawt

    Best New York dogs (in no particular order):

    Nathan’s in Coney Island (before the changeover). French fries cooked in the same oil since 1915!

    Gray’s Papaya/Papaya King – great for a late-night snack.

    The Hebrew National hot dog carts that used to be down by the World Trade Center (there were two of them). They grilled the dogs properly, with just the right amount of snap to them.

  • Claudia Greco

    Skawt, my man, you got it right – maybe they aren’t as finely crafted as Vienna Beef’s – and I do say “MAYBE” – but you got the NY Dog top 3 right. And, yeah – wasn’t the old grease on the Nathan’s great? I miss all its artery-occluding greasiness.

  • Skawt

    Claudia, it takes a native New Yorker to realize that there was a second Nathan’s over in the Kings Plaza shopping mall (the first enclosed shopping mall in NY) that actually had hot dogs and fries just as good as the ones in Coney Island. For years I suspected that they had actually used the same grease and oil scraped off of the cooking gear in the original location.

  • Claudia

    Skawt, I live 8 blocks from KP and am well acquainted with the Nathan’s within – and, as you have no doubt just calculated, am three exits from Coney Island itself. But I fear the mall never did have the Coney Island “grillardins” scrape down the grill and rotate some of the ancient and piquant grease to their confreres in Maine Park . . . alas. No, I think the oleogenous wonders of the original Coney Island Nathan’s was a function of its . . . uhhh . . . terroir.

    It was very traumatic, being Manhattan-born, to have been torn from my native borough and transplanted to the southeast barrens of Brooklyn when I bought my house, but I’ved since tried to embrace its culinary wonders as compensation – DiFaro’s, S&B’s, Grimaldi’s, Jacque Torres . . . and, of course, Nathan’s, when it was still kind of dicey to be eating a dog in that ‘hood at midnight. Now people pull up in Lexuses and expect – gasp! – fresh grill grease! Jeeeeezzzz! Next, they’ll want pico de gallo or chipotle mango ketchup on their dogs!!!

  • Skawt

    The mall was close, although it has been a VERY long time since I last ate there – at least 20 years.

    Chipotle mango ketchup on original Nathan’s? PHILISTINES!

    My wife and I live in the San Francisco Bay area now. The things I really miss from New York typically involve food – go figure! Cheesecake from Junior’s, Nathan’s, Spumoni Gardens, and Roll’n’Roaster over on Emmons Avenue and Nostrand in Sheepshead Bay for the best deep fried junk food in the area. In Manhattan, there is, of course, Zabar’s, H&H Bagels, and the original Ray’s pizza (the first one) on 11th and 6th Avenue.

    Now, if you’re a bagel aficionado like I am, and you like smooth, creamy whitefish salad, take yourself over to Flatlands Bagel Bakery: http://www.nyc.com/restaurants/Flatlands_Bagel_Bakery_Inc.61704/editorial.aspx and get some fresh plain bagels with some of their whitefish salad. H&H has some of the best, but I remember this place to be even better. Of course, that was maybe 13 years ago, so it might have changed. Let me know.

  • Claudia Greco

    Skawt, I didn’t mean to panic you – the chipotle mango ketchup/pico de gallo issue has not raised its ugly head – yet! I was merely projecting the future possible yuppification of the the nathan’s dog, seeing as how the MTA has totally rebuilt and revamped the subway station into a Major Transit Complex, the whole neighborhood is getting spruced up, and the developers are talking boardwalk condos, etc.

    All your Manhattan favorites are still alive and well (and unchanged), and I will check out the Flatlands Bagel Bakery, although bagels, in my house, are a volatile and highly partisan issue that I tend to stay away from (since I try to avoid carbs, anyway). I’ll get back to you after the weekend on FBB.

  • Skawt

    It’s great to hear that Coney Island is coming back – it really was a stinky hole the last time was there. If only they could recapture the amusement park heyday.

    We come back to NYC regularly to visit our families on holidays, so I do actually get a chance to have decent bagels and pizza while there – Chinese food, too. I’ve been told that the Chinese restaurants out here on the west coast are more authentic, but I feel the quality of the food is better in NYC.

    As for dogs, I don’t have to worry about that so much; I can get the good stuff from the market and cook them on my own grill.

  • Jonathan

    I visited Chicago a few months back and practically lived on Vienna Beef and Giordano’s Pizza, can you tell me if Vienna Beef is available in NYC, anywhere! I would be willing to travel to buy them! Thanks!

  • BK

    I was raised a foodie. The son of parents with distinct ethnic cooking styles and open minds. I grew to appreciate the finer things, developed a sophisticated palate, but never parted ways with my love for the hotdog. My mother recalls cutting them up for me so I could drag them through a pool of ketchup. Nowadays I seek dogs with more complexity. At a local lunch spot on the East side, I fell in love with a hotdog cooked on a griddle, that I would later find out was made by a company called BEST Kosher. On a layover in Chicago, I experienced the “Chicago Dog.” A vienna hotdog laced with lettuce, tomato, mustard, celery salt, sport peppers and wild neon green pickle relish. I found the dog again, an exact replica of the one I had in Chicago, when I took a job downtown on 36th and Superior at a locale called the Town Fryer, which closed after Mardi Gras this year. I stumbled upon it again as if it were following me, this time in the heart of Crocker Park at a food kiosk titled Dog Boulevard. These hotdogs, crafted in Cleveland with vienna dogs were perfect Chicago style down to the last poppy seed glued on the buns they rested. A friend from work advised me that a landmark hotdog restaurant in Warren was amongst the best he’s ever had. I have not yet traveled to the Hot Dog Shoppe, but its on my to-do list.

  • Jim Barnhar

    and unlucky enough like my self to live on the west coast, then we have to settle for things likeHeeeewbrew national as a good dog -
    SOmeone that Makes hand made dogs? you are lucky enough to find an actualy Butcher out here…