Whether you call them hot dogs, wieners, franks or sausages, those tasty tubes of meat are pure summer. Who doesn’t remember firing up the grill or the campfire to char a hot dog black and crispy, or hailing a vendor at a ball game for a couple of hot dogs with mustard? What is the super bowl without a hot dog recipe in the wings?
“Hot dogs are classic American fare. They never go away and people never tire of them,” says Alex Pink, owner of Code 10 (police code for lunch break), a Boston restaurant specializing in hot dogs.
There are as many kinds of hot dogs as there are states to eat them in. “Each major city or state has their own local favorite hot dog,” Pink tells us, “New York has Nathan’s, Boston has our very own Pearl Hot Dogs, and Chicago has their own. In America, hot dogs are universal food.” We hardly call them frankfurters any longer, just franks. We hardly even call them hot dogs, just dogs. There are several kinds of hot dogs on Code 10’s menu, from locally produced fat and juicy Pearl hot dogs to classic Hebrew National Kosher hot dogs, and slim and tasty Rhode Island Reds, distinguished by the brightest color a hot dog ever wore. Turkey hot dogs and veggies hot dogs round out the menu for the more health conscious diners. “Choosing a hot dog is a very personal decision and dressing it is an art,” says Pink.
So what makes a good hot dog? Good ingredients, first and foremost. Natural casings that have a snap when you bite into them. Good meats: all beef, all pork or a combination of beef and pork. Look for the shortest list of ingredients you can find and avoid anything that lists ‘parts’ or anything that looks like soy or cereal filler. Those are the ingredients that give hot dogs a bad name. “Hot dogs aren’t as bad for you as most people think,” Pink insists, “Good high end hot dogs are relatively good for you. They’re high in protein. I have many dieters who swear by my hot dogs.” Smaller, local producers have more control over their ingredients and put more care into their hot dogs than the mass market manufacturers. You may pay a bit more for quality local hot dogs, but you’ll taste the difference.
How, or even whether, a hot dog is cooked is also a matter of personal preference. While a few brave folk love to snack on cold hot dogs straight from the package (which is fine as they are already fully cooked when you buy them), most people prefer the added flavor and texture imparted by their heating method of choice. They are called hot dogs after all. Fried, steamed, grilled or boiled, a piping hot dog in a warm roll is a tasty treat no matter how you top it.
Grilling is Pink’s preferred method for both dog and bun. At Code 10, the hot dogs happily spin to grilled perfection on a rolling grill, while the rolls are toasted in a bit of butter on a sizzling griddle press. What to do if your home kitchen isn’t sporting the latest rolling grill or sandwich press? Any good griddle pan or nonstick frying pan will work. Use medium to medium high heat depending on whether you want a gently warmed or crisply browned hot dog.
Watch your hot dogs carefully and turn frequently as they tend to brown quickly once they start cooking. On an outdoor grill, place your hot dogs over medium heat unless you like them charred beyond recognition (some do!) and turn as soon as one side starts to brown. Imagine your hot dog has a square shape and turn four times to brown all four sides. A minute or two on each side ought to do the trick.
At Hattie’s Restaurant in Maine, hot dogs are scored with a sharp knife in a half-inch diamond pattern before grilling on a flat top griddle. Kids love the way the ‘Designer Dogs’ curl up in a porcupine shape, and those condiments really stick in the crevices.
It only takes a few minutes to cook a hot dog no matter what the method. Steaming is best done in a commercial steam cabinet where the flavors can permeate the pillowy white buns. If you really want to try steaming at home, use a Dutch oven fitted with a steamer rack, or a bamboo steamer. Fill the pan with enough liquid to reach just below the steamer rack. You don’t want liquid bubbling up onto your hot dogs or worse, your rolls. If you’re feeling adventurous, try chicken or beef broth, or even tomato soup for added flavor. (Eat the soup, too – it will have a distinctive hot dog flavor!) Bring your liquid to a boil, reduce heat to low, add hot dogs to the steamer basket. Cover tightly and steam 5-7 minutes or until hot dogs are heated through. To steam your rolls, stack them on top of the dogs in the last two minutes of cooking.
As for boiling hot dogs: “If you must boil your hot dogs, at least do it in beer – it adds more flavor!” Alex Pink’s catering clients choose their favorite beer for large scale hot dog boils.
Hot dog buns are another area where personal taste rules. The basic choices are top loading; a New England favorite, and side loading; preferred in the South and Midwest.
The advantages to a top loader are that it holds the hot dog securely and fits nicely into those little three sided paper boxes you get at the ballpark. Top loaders are generally baked side by side and torn apart as needed, leaving a flat side surface for grilling.
Side loaders, on the other hand, tend to be doughier, so if you like a lot of bread with your hot dog, these are the buns for you. Side loaders are more likely to successfully sop up all the juices from your chili or sauerkraut without falling apart.
“Dressing a hot dog is an art,” Pink says, “‘Everyone has a very personal way of doing it.” She supports that belief by stocking a vast array of unusual condiments along with the standard hot dog toppings. Chili, cheese, and sauerkraut are among the hot toppings offered at Code 10 and there’s the old three sided condiment tray of chopped onions and two kinds of relish. Of course there’s classic yellow mustard and spicy brown mustard, and good old red tomato ketchup. But these are for the traditionalists. For anyone on a quest for the ultimate hot dog personalization, Pink has lined the counter at Code 10 with rows of more exotic condiments. Honey mustard and horseradish mustard start the lineup. An extensive ketchup section is home to varieties including roasted garlic and pepper ketchup, sweet and tangy banana ketchup, hot and mild curry ketchups from Germany, and jalapeño ketchup promising the breath of a boar. Hot sauces include an African peri peri pepper sauce, several jalapeño concoctions and a few sauces so hot their names contain expletives.
Whether you like your hot dogs plain or fancy, summer is the time to enjoy them. Have a hot dog party with all the fixin’s and invite a few exotic condiments along just for fun.
And how does Alex like her hot dogs? Even with all those choices, “Naked, on a grilled bun. That’s the way to go.”
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