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How to create the perfect summer hot dog

Cook's Illustrated & America's Test Kitchen on the best buns, ketchup, relish & more.
/ Source: TODAY

What could be more American than Fourth of July weekend and hot dogs? Weekend TODAY thought it would be a perfect time to feature the Great American Hot Dog Taste-Test, courtesy of the folks at Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen.

They know that the perfect hot dog starts with the top dog, but the condiments and buns are just as important. They ran blind taste-tests for all the important components in the perfect hot dog and came up with the following recommendations:

KETCHUP: Hunt's KetchupIn the test kitchen, we like our ketchup smooth, thick, and tangy, and bold. Hunt's beat out seven other leading brands to win our taste-test. Tasters called it "fresh" and "well balanced." Our lab tests showed that Hunt's has more tomato solids than other brands, which explains why our tasters said Hunt's has the best tomato flavor.

Heinz Organic was the runner-up in our tasting, but regular Heinz ketchup finished in the middle of the pack.

MUSTARD: Gulden's Spicy Brown Mustard
Our top-rated brown or yellow mustard is Gulden's Spicy Brown Mustard, the favorite of the four brands tested. On its own, this mustard impressed tasters with its "spicy kick" and "earthy, woodsy flavor." Most tasters thought Gulden's smokiness and balanced acidity perfectly complimented the hot dog.

RELISH: Cascadian Farm Sweet Relish
Relish is nothing more than pickled cucumbers with sugar, vinegar, salt, and spices. Of the seven brands tested, Cascadian Farm Sweet Relish was the test kitchen's favorite tasters described it as "piquant," "sweet," "fresh," and "natural." This brand is made without yellow dye #5 (the stuff that gives most relishes their bright color), so Cascadian Farm is a drab gray-green hue.

Heinz came in a close second, winning tasters over with its "crunchy" texture and "mustardy" flavor. If you want relish with a glow-in-the-dark color, choose Heinz.

HOT DOG BUNS: Pepperidge Farm Frankfurter Top-Sliced Rolls Many buns are too gummy and soft and will apart under the weight of the hot dog and condiments. Of the three major brands tested, Pepperidge Farm was our tasters' favorite. Tasters liked the bun's crusty exterior, sturdiness, and nice "yeasty" taste.

Besides choosing the right brand, pay attention to how the buns are sliced. We prefer top-sliced buns because the bread is evenly distributed on each side of the dog, and top-sliced buns do a better job of holding the hot dog and condiments securely. In contrast, side-sliced buns have almost twice the amount of bread on top as on the bottom, making for awkward, unbalanced bites and a risk of condiments leaking out through the cut side of the bun. Top-sliced buns are widely available in the Northeast; less so in other parts of the country.

HOT DOGS: Nathan's Famous Beef FranksWe tasted nine brands of all-beef hot dogs. Nathan's Famous Beef Franks was our tasting panel's clear favorite. Tasters praised Nathan's dogs for their "meaty," "hearty," "robust" flavor and "firm," "craggy" texture.

Second-place went to Johnsonville Stadium Style Beef Franks. These extra-large dogs were described as "meaty" with a "strong spice blend." Our panel also liked Hebrew National Beef Franks - our third place finisher. These dogs have excellent "snap" and were deemed "nice and juicy" with good hits of garlic and smoke.

All three of our top brands list 0 grams of sugar on labels. Brands with significant amounts of sugar (up to 2 grams per serving) were downgraded as sweet and "unnatural" tasting. Finally, tasters wanted a hot dog with some snap. Soft, "bologna-like" brands were downgraded.