Should it be beef or pork? In a bun or baguette? Eaten with champagne or beer? And smothered in mustard or, erm, brown sauce?
Hot diggety, folks! It's 2014, a new year, a new start and for How to Eat – the blog that is all about the most awesome ways to eat your favourite blue-collar classics – it is time to get back to the business of smart-ass chow pedantry. As you may have guessed, dudes (unless you imagine I typed this drunk, in Albuquerque), we're chewing over a US import this month, the hotdog.
Please remember that while, below the line, a franks exchange of a opinion is welcome, dogs' abuse is not. If someone doesn't agree with you, don't be a little wiener about it, it only makes things wurst.
To be clear, we're talking about what a Brit would understand as a frankfurter: a relatively smoothly blended pork sausage. There are people who would try and convince you that a hotdog sausage should be all beef, aka the "tube steak", but they are as wrong, albeit for different reasons, as those who would try and sell you a frankfurter made entirely from mechanically recovered chicken.
Due to the rise of the gourmet hotdog (surely, an oxymoron?), beef dogs are making inroads in the UK, but, certainly historically, compared to pork, I have found beef dogs too tightly compacted, too meaty and – as with many upmarket sausages knocking on for 100% meat content – a bit dry. You can't make sausages from just lean, prime cuts. Sausages need the sort of lubrication that pork readily supplies.
In fact, you have to be careful in jazzing up the hotdog (you want to be able to take a clean bite of sausage with each mouthful), that you don't ruin this simple pleasure. If too dense, too coarsely ground, sausages can be a chore to eat. If they're not prepared or cooked with care, natural casings (in principle, far preferable) can be problematically chewy. If you have to wrestle with and tear at your dog, much less resort to a knife and fork, something is badly wrong. No, you do not want to eat a bland "frankenfurter" emulsion of gummy, minimum-meat-content material, rendered inert by sodium nitrate and ascorbic acid, bulked out with soya protein and potato starch, but, despite the hype, not every "haute dog" eats better than its factory-made equivalent.
Fundamentally, you want a fat, sensitively smoked (it anchors and adds a bit of depth to the flavours) pork frankfurter. Its bouncy inner should be semi-coarse – so there's a dense texture to it, but you don't get lockjaw chewing it – its casing taut enough that, when grilled, it delivers a pleasant (as the German would have it) knack or crack, as you bite into it. Size isn't everything, but I find 18cm satisfying, with a girth around 4cm. That dog must fill that bun and then some. There should be at least a 1.2:1 meat-bread ratio or it looks and tastes all wrong.
Go easy on the spices, too. Chilli-laced dogs (as opposed to dogs topped with chilli), are usually more raw heat than tasty meat, and a heavy handed use of cayenne pepper, garlic, mace etc, can be equally offputting. The predominant true and smooth flavour of that sausage should be pork. And is there a vegetarian alternative? Not personally. I've never met a vegetarian sausage that I liked.
The current popularity of the corn dog – essentially, a battered sausage for people who wouldn't be seen dead eating a battered sausage – is mystifying.
In terms of practicality, the Austrians have this nailed. They serve small or half baguettes – tip cut-off and then hollowed out – into which the sausage is dropped. That is a serious amount of bread to go at, which may explain why it has never caught on here. Instead, as in the US, the bun choice is between a side-split/hinged bun or a top-loader. The New England top-loader (lightly grilled to give it backbone, but please, no steaming) is far preferable, both aesthetically – everything sits up nicely, in the bun – and because, trusting it is of sufficient depth, it can absorb a reasonable amount of moisture without collapsing. Structurally, that "hinge" on a side-split bun is a notorious weak spot which, when wet, splits all too easily.
While, but of course, you now see places serving brioche hotdog rolls, it is curious that, unlike with burgers, there hasn't been more tinkering with the hotdog bun. Surely, the perfect hybrid roll is yet to come, amalgamating the strength and durability of a higher-gluten bread on the rustic-sourdough axis, with the easy eating of the fluffy, white original.
Toppings & condiments
In many ways, your attitude to sauces and toppings will be defined by how you eat yours. Have you have remained true to the original concept of the hotdog as a mobile, hand-held meal? Or are you a fashionable flibbertigibbet, happy to sit and eat one at a table?
The integrity of the hotdog as a portable product can only be maintained if key rules are observed. 1) All toppings must be secured either under a layer of grilled cheese or, on a top-loader, by making sure said toppings are firmly tucked deep into the bun's cleft. It may look appealing, but anything you stack in a teetering pile atop a hotdog, will end up on the floor as soon as you take a bite. 2) It is all too rare, but sauces should be applied under the sausage so they don't end up all over your top lip and nose. 3) The bun must not be sopping wet. Anything moist, ie. beef chilli, pulled pork, should be placed on top of the sausage, not just poured all over the bun.
But which toppings and condiments do and don't work? You can put anything on a dog, but should you?
Yes: butter-braised or, at a push, boiled/ steamed onions; bacon (Bubbledogs do a bacon-wrapped dog that sounds like a stroke of genius); mild mustard; dried, fried flakes that adhere well (chicken skin, onion flakes, bacon bits); ketchup; gherkins; cheese; sauerkraut (shredded items conveniently mould themselves around the sausage, see also coleslaw); pickled cucumber; tomato relishes; a bit of beef for contrast (eg. not overly hot chilli, chopped pastrami etc); macaroni cheese. NB: combine no more than three.
No: fried onions (bitter, stringy, a Zantac attack!); squeezy cheese; pulled pork, chopped ham etc. (pork on pork, why?); chorizo is too domineering; likewise hot jalapenos carpet bomb any food they are served with; mayonnaise, sour cream, thousand-island (cold, smooth, unctuous sauces taste wrong against a grilled bun); fried egg, chips; olives; mango chutney, BBQ sauce (the devil's goo); sweetcorn, peppers, mushrooms; guacamole; brown sauce on "breakfast" sausages; out-of-context mozzarella; raw onion or fresh tomato – does this look like a salad?
The only thing you want with a hotdog is another hotdog. Unlike a burger, which if it's a good one, should be greasy and running with juices, there isn't the moisture in a dog that would make fries a wise side. With the bun, it just ends up a carb overload. What's that? Onion rings? Ha ha. Very funny. No one really likes onion rings ... do they?
There is a minor trend in that, there London for cocktails and champagne with hotdogs. I offer that fact without comment. It doesn't need any. Given that it and the hotdog were both stars of the 1904 World's Fair in Louisiana, you could argue that Dr Pepper and dogs are historical bedfellows. But that would be forgetting that Dr Pepper is horrible. No, stick with cola, fizzy water (the carbonation will help "scrub" your mouth clean) or a dry beer with a sharp, hoppy lick, which will further cut across the dog's flavours.
So, hotdogs, how do you eat yours?
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image: © cyclonebill