I love hot dogs on the grill primarily because they taste great, but also because they are one of those foods that are almost idiot-proof. Heat…place in bun…top with something. Dinner is served. Your meal plan doesn’t get any easier than that! Still, even if your Labor Day grilling involves dozens of hungry guests, there’s always something you can do to take an uber-basic food to the next level.
With the venerable hot dog…there are many, many things you can do.
Putting great toppings on a mediocre hot dog is a gimmick, but putting great toppings on a great hot dog is gourmet!
So, first of all, let’s get something straight. When I say “hot dog”, I’m talking about a 100% all-beef frankfurter. Chicken, turkey, pork, bison, or (god forbid) tofu…is not a hot dog. Polish sausages are great, a good bratwurst rocks, but they ain’t hot dogs either.
There…now we know where we stand.
What to look for:
I like my ‘dogs with a natural casing. “So when you bite into it, it snaps,” says Barry Nemerow, co-owner of The Weiner’s Circle in Chicago. “You get a real burst of flavor with all the seasonings and everything in there.” Again, 100% all-beef.
I did an informal survey of 1000 friends on Facebook, and asked them for their favorite brand of dog, method of cooking, and type of bun.
The overwhelming winner in the frankfurter contest was Hebrew National All Beef Hot Dogs, followed by Nathan’s, and Costco’s 1/4lb beef dog. Nolan Ryan’s was a local favorite (Texas) as well. I tested these first three myself, and I have to agree with the popular view…Hebrew National won my vote as well. Not too salty, a nice “snap”, and the perfect (for me) meat-to-bun ratio.
Stadium/hoagie rolls came in a dead-even tie with “cheap white hot dog buns” for first place (I prefer the latter), with some interesting options like sweet Hawaiian rolls, and pretzel buns having a few faithful followers.
Whichever you choose…
1. Use fresh buns, preferably within 24 hours of baking. Nothing ruins a hot dog quicker than a dry, stale, crumbly bun. Never freeze leftover buns for future use, either. Fresh is best!
2. Butter and lightly grill the buns just before assembling your hot dogs. Like Mom’s grilled cheese sandwiches (or anything fried in butter)…it just makes ‘em better.
3. Always, always, always put the heated dog in the bun and then wrap it in foil to steam the bread a bit. This is one of the major secrets to a great hot dog or any hot sandwich.
Given the option of grilling, boiling, microwaving, or pan frying, the overwhelming favorite was…
I like “pre-cook” the dogs in some liquid (see note, below) so I can grill them and still get the inside heated through without burning the casing.
Grill your dogs directly on a charcoal grill or a gas grill over medium-high heat, rolling them ½ turn every couple of minutes to ensure nice, even grill marks. Plan on 10 to 12 minutes so that the hot dog browns slowly. If you like to cook by internal temp., you’re looking for 175 to 180 degrees.
For extra crisp-to-meaty dogs, a great method I recently learned is to spiral-slice your dogs before grilling, to increase the area directly exposed to the heat. This works great, and all you need is a wooden skewer and a sharp knife! Google “spiral hot dog” for more details!
Note: Props to my friend and food blogger Anthony Wilkinson for this piece of brilliance: “If I have to boil them, forget water…simmer in beer, onions, garlic, and butter.” Um…yes, please!
Okay, the beauty of the hot dog is there are about a million ways to top them, from the old stand-bys to exotic gourmet “fusion” recipes, to the truly horrifying. The problem with the hot dog is… there are about a million ways to top them…
But you know something…it’s a hot dog, not a filet mignon…it’s relatively inexpensive and, by golly, there are seven more in the package! Feel free to experiment, try new things, think outside the box…in the words of Thomas Edison, “I did not fail a thousand times, I found a thousand ways NOT to make a perfect hot dog” (Okay, that was about a light bulb or something, but you get the point.)
That said, here three of the new “gourmet” hot dog recipes I tried specifically for this article, and liked best.
I’ll end with one that’s probably my new favorite dog, and the only one that really needs a recipe.
#3 – Seattle-Style Hot Dog
This dog is awesome. AWESOME! If you don’t like the interplay between cool, creamy, smooth cream cheese, spicy sauce, and a sizzling, salty, beef dog…something in your mouth has died. In my nearby Seattle (a cream cheese crazy town) this one reigns supreme. Cream cheese, grilled onions, and Sriracha sauce, or sometimes grilled jalapenos for the hot-heads). So good!
#2 – The Bahn Mi Dog
I love Southeast Asian food, and here’s a great way to add a Vietnamese twist! Spicy mayo (mayo, garlic-chili sauce, and fish sauce, mixed to taste), thin sliced cucumbers, shredded carrot, and a few fresh mint and basil leaves.
#1 – The System Dog
The System Dog is a staple of Rhode Island food culture, where it is sold as the “New York System” in restaurants. This was, hands down, the best new hot dog I tested. A beef dog, served in a steamed bun, and topped with celery salt, yellow mustard, chopped onions, and a seasoned meat sauce.
If you’re a local, you order it “all the way.”
I have been assured, by those in the know, that this is a “real deal” system meat sauce recipe:
- ½ lbs. of 80/20 hamburger
- 2 Tbs. of lard
- 2 oz. of water
- ¼ large onion, finely minced
- 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
- 1 tsp. of cumin
- ½ tsp paprika
- ½ tsp. celery salt
- 1 tsp. chili powder
- ½ tsp. allspice
- ½ tsp. dry mustard
- Dash of Tabasco
- Salt to taste
- Melt the lard in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, and sauté until softened. Add the spices (except the salt and Tabasco). Add hamburger, chopping and stirring until crumbly and cooked through.
- Add the water and simmer until the water almost completely evaporates. Remove from heat and let rest several minutes. Now, you should have a smooth meat sauce with very little liquid.
- Add salt and Tabasco to taste. (Remember – you’ll be adding celery salt to the finished dog, too.)
If those aren’t enough to keep you busy, here are a few more that caught my eye…
The Caprese Dog – topped with fresh thinly sliced mozzarella, chopped basil leaves, and cherry tomato slices. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on top.
Peach Salsa Dog – Mix finely diced peaches, chopped jalapeños, and cilantro. Let rest 3-4 hours or overnight. Top dog and serve.
Cubano Dog – Top dogs with shaved ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and spicy mustard for a tasty take on a Cuban sandwich.
The Mexican Dog – Avocado slices, diced red onions, crumbled cotija cheese, a squirt of hot sauce, and some fresh chopped cilantro top this dog.