It's officially cookout season which means millions of Americans are firing up their grills to cook burgers, steaks, barbecue chicken and — of course — hot dogs. While a simple, pre-cooked sausage might seem simple enough to prepare, there are actually a thousand (and maybe more) ways in which the process could go very, very wrong.
TODAY Food turned to several professional meat enthusiasts to find out the most egregious mistakes home cooks make when grilling hot dogs — and how to turn those wrongs into something delicious.
1. The hot dogs aren't totally defrosted
People think of hot dogs as a quick-cook meat but that doesn't mean they can just go from freezer to fire and be OK. “Never cook your dogs if they are still frozen and make sure that they are room temperature to ensure even cooking,” Trish Hoss of the Missouri-based rotisserie and meat purveyor Hoss’s Market told TODAY Food. Even if your hot dogs are already cooked, putting a frozen piece of meat on a grill is never a good idea because the outside will likely burn before the inside gets warm.
2. You're not giving hot dogs a short bath
Boiling the heck out of a hot dog before grilling is just wrong, but giving it a little moisture bath isn't a bad idea for several reasons. “We always suggest simmering hot dogs in water for roughly 3-5 minutes before grilling," Elias Cairo, owner and meat master salumist of Olympia Provisions, said. For an extra bit of flavor, Cairo recommends simmering sausages in a hoppy ale: "And if you really want to kick it up a notch, simmer it in beer first and then grill." This will also help firm up natural casings so they'll be less likely to burst on the grill.
3. The hot dogs are split ... badly
Generally, chefs are not fans of cutting up meat before or during the cooking process since it results in juices flowing out. Unless you're really, really concerned with getting lots of char marks on your dog, it's best never to split a dog all the way down the middle.
But chef Darryl Harmon of Clinton Hall in New York City said that there is a reason to create little slits (four slits, or scores, on a 6-inch dog, for example) when warranted. "When you do this before putting them on the grill, it tends to get crispier on the outside without losing moisture on the inside once you cook it," said Harmon. "The hot dog can actually also expand and will still be juicy on the inside."
4. The charcoal is still black
In general, when you're grilling, make sure the coals have turned white in color before you add any food to the grates. Never cook hot dogs over direct heat or an open flame, either. Make sure the grill is hot and seasoned with a bit of oil, too, so no delicious meaty bits get left behind.
5. You're just buying any old hot dogs
The term hot dog does not mean a specific type of meat, and many hot dogs on the market contain a mixture of both pork and beef. While very few people would classify a hot dog as a health food, there are a lot of brands out there with meats that contain more filler than food. Harmon advises taking a closer look at that hot dog packaging before checking out. “I avoid buying pork hotdogs, I recommend going with all beef because they tend to grill better due to [them] having a higher fat content,” he said.
6. The heat is totally off
Grilling hot dogs is a delicious way to cook them, but they need to get the right amount of heat for the best results. "Make sure to cook the hot dogs at the right heat, which is 400 to 425 degrees," Keith Moore, director of meat and seafood at Fairway Market, said. If your grill is cooling off, you might not get a good final result, either. Conversely, if it's way too hot, the dogs will burn.
7. You never move the hot dogs
For juicy burgers, many chefs advise only flipping them once. But hot dogs certainly aren't patties and need a bit more attention. "Cooking hot dogs on a grill that is too hot will cause the dogs ... or the casings to burst," said Moore. Regardless of whether the grill is too hot, the casings may burst if the hot dog is left in one spot for too long. "Move the hot dogs around evenly and frequently for the best cooked hot dog."
8. Forgetting some delicious extras
Mustard and hot dogs are an undoubtably delicious pairing, but there are so many cool ways to dress up hot dogs and sausages. Try tangy, vinegary toppings that will contrast well with the saltiness and smokiness of a high-fat protein like a hot dog. Try pickled onions and peppers in the classic Chicago style. Cool and refreshing coleslaw also works as a great complement, too, and provides a welcome crunch factor.
9. The buns are neglected
After all that hard work you put in at the grill, don't ruin someone's hot dog-eating experience with a subpar bun situation. For starters, no one wants a cold, dry bun so if you're trying to pass off a stale bag of buns as new ... don't. "A hot dog bun should be gently toasted, which can be achieved by throwing the buns on the grill for about one minute per side," Claudia Sidoti, principal chef at HelloFresh, told TODAY. Sidoti recommends using soft potato buns for most types of hot dogs. For extra flavor and deliciousness, save the calorie counting for another day and break out the butter for a beautiful texture, taste and look.