Well, hot diggity dog. We’ve got ourselves a hot-dog taste test this week. But let me be frank — the cylindrical-shaped meat can be quite polarizing. In fact, I was once tasked to write about its contents when I was managing editor of Chowhound (RIP) and threw up in my mouth a little. And this is after I grew up eating them almost nightly (like chicken nuggets) when I refused what mom cooked for dinner.
Of course, many mainstream options don’t rely on a butcher’s emulsified “trimmings” to concoct a legitimate recipe, but I’d be stupid to say that this is the case for every mass market brand. So ignorance is bliss in this scenario as I crunch into some wieners and recite a Hail Mary.
For a little assistance, I relied on the help of a new friend: Steven Dougherty, general manager of Brooklyn-based Madre (which, ironically, specializes in some of the best seafood you can find in the NYC area). While he and his team are experts in ceviche, crudo and tartare, Dougherty is a self-proclaimed hot dog connoisseur and the perfect person to guide me on this culinary endeavor.
“When shopping for store-bought hot dogs, the first thing I check is if it’s beef, pork or a blend of both,” he says, further claiming that the hybrids taste best because of the resulting fat content and texture.
“I also look for a natural casing, which is going to provide that great pop and crunch when you bite into it,” he adds.
Keeping these characteristics in mind, I rounded up and sampled seven of the most popular options that you can find in any major grocery store. For consistency’s sake (and just by happenstance), all of these varieties were of beef variety and prepared on the stovetop to attain that drool-worthy char. If I had a grill, which is Dougherty’s preferred cooking method, I would have done it that way, but alas, #NYCproblems.
Check out which came out as top dogs and which were the absolute wurst.
7. Applegate Organics The Great Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs
I appreciated the crunch level, but there was an ingredient in these that I really couldn’t figure out. Was it oregano? Celery powder? Arsenic? It was the most bizarre taste-testing experience of the bunch since the mystery spice overpowered the entire frank and made it taste less like a hot dog and more like a kielbasa. I’m sure it’s something a little ketchup and mustard can mask, but these were simply not my favorite on their own.
6. Oscar Mayer Uncured Original Wieners
Listen, Oscar Mayer hot dogs were likely my hot dog of choice when I was six-years-old, but as an adult, my palate was underwhelmed. They’re familiar, they’re outrageously salty, and they’re also just plain fine. I found them to be nothing memorable, but that just reinforces why they’re such a safe bet with children. They were also the smallest of the lot, so don’t expect to be full after just one. (And who ever just eats one hot dog? Not this guy.)
5. Hebrew National Beef Franks
I appreciated the thickness of these bad boys but found the garlic powder to be a tad too much. And that’s coming from a Sicilian who literally chops raw garlic to put into salads when he’s feeling ill. It may just be a weird mind game of assuming that excessive spice is used to cover up discarded cow parts, but I prefer my dog to be a bit more flavor-neutral so that it accommodates the gallons of condiments I’m inevitably going to top it with.
4. Ball Park Beef Franks
These were very traditional, not super crispy and definitely a milder option. Like Oscar Mayer, they weren’t completely memorable, but I will say there was a nice tangy aftertaste that made them seem slightly artisanal. But it could also have just been the saliva in my mouth begging for water since, hot damn, hot dogs are jam-packed with sodium.
3. Dietz and Watson Originals Natural Uncured Beef Franks
I hated how these felt on the tongue — smooth and slippery with an almost metallic-like quality (as if you were licking a lamp post) — but the beef flavor really shone through thanks to the brand’s decision to cut back on the aforementioned sodium. They also tasted high-quality and pure, which is a really low bar when it comes to food, but I’ll take what I can get here.
2. 365 by Whole Foods Market Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs
If size matters, you’ll be grateful to know that Whole Foods’ 365 variety was the thickest and longest on this list. It also boasted a sturdy skin and tasted the most, well, organic (albeit very salty). This was important because as a self-proclaimed sausage connoisseur, I was reminded of a beef hot dog’s all-pork counterpart that I could eat on a daily basis.
1. Nathan’s Famous Beef Frankfurters
It’s smoky, it’s juicy and it has more flavor complexity than any other. Nathan’s was, by far, the best hot dog of the lot. And what it lacked in thickness, it made up for in distinct taste that balanced sweet with salt, as well as texture (firm but not difficult to bite into). There’s a reason it has “famous” in the name — these dogs are beloved by the U.S. and more than deserving of the fanfare. In fact, I may now be into hot dogs again.