Recently Consumer Reports published the results of its 2007 summer Hot Dog roundup, in which Hebrew National Hot Dogs (now a subsidiary of industrial foods giant ConAgra) took the prime spot.
Somewhat surprisingly, this is in complete misalignment with my own personal rankings of the major hot dog brands, and what other critical palates regard as well.
Back in 2004, I did my own hot dog roundup, and the results may surprise you. I still think much of what held true 3 years ago still holds true today.
Click on the “Read the rest of this entry link” below to read the 2004 Hot Dog Executive Summary.
(Originally Published on eGullet.com, July 4, 2004)
Executive Summary of Perlow Supermarket Hot Dog Roundup:
So here was the concept: Five adults are going to eat hot dogs anyway until they are ready to vomit during the 4th of July. Now, even though two of them didn’t show up, we decided to go along with this anyway.
Fourteen brands, 29.6 ounces of meat (that’s 1 hot dog per package, for those of you taking count, each split 3 ways). We decided to each eat only 1/3 of a dog per brand, because we aren’t Kobayashi “Tsunami” Takeru. Because we are purists, we ate them unadorned, making sure we introduced condiments on the second bite, if at all. Because we didn’t want to confuse the issue, at least for this initial roundup, all hot dogs were 100 percent beef, except one which was a bison/beef hybrid, and the other which was a beef/chicken hybrid. The intent of this is that hot dogs with pork, although standard for much of the country, are considered a very different thing around here (meaning the New York area) and thus will likely receive a different roundup at another time. All were grilled on a gas-fuel Weber with the simplest possible cooking method – no basting, no smoking, and we did not split the dogs, which we felt would not have represented what most people do on their grills.
Overall, Kosher dogs did pretty well. The best liked of the Kosher dogs, which was #3 overall, was a hot dog completely new to all of us, International Glatt Kosher, which likely is NOT available nationwide. This came as a complete surprise to us, because generally the term “Glatt” as pure is it might be from a Kosher standpoint, does not bring associations of great taste. We all thought this dog has really good spiciness and an appropriate level of saltiness to balance it out. The surprise is despite our perception of adequate saltiness, the dog that we reviewed from International Glatt Kosher is in fact a reduced-sodium (and also reduced-fat) product. However, the amazing thing is we couldn’t tell that was the case. The texture was good, and was somewhat fatty/greasy but not inappropriate given the high flavor and texture profile, but again remember this is also a reduced-fat product, so the fact that we even considered it to be slightly fatty tasting is again somewhat bewildering.
An interesting surprise (although one reviewer was entirely cold on it) was the Abeles & Heymann Kosher Bison/Beef hybrid, the most expensive hot dog we surveyed. Spiciness and saltiness were all medium level, but all agreed it was a very firm dog and not very greasy. The Bison taste blended well and was not overpowering. One reviewer thought the texture was “somewhat like baloney” but the others didn’t agree.
Well-received was the NY Kosher Deli dog by Meal Mart. The reviewers noted an unexpected herbal taste, some slight spiciness and about average saltiness. Reviewers disagreed on the greasiness, two finding it to be very low, but the other finding it to be very high.
Hebrew National is considered one of the old standbys of Kosher dogs. It’s certainly one of the cheapest dogs in our entire survey, even allowing for different size packages. The thing about Hebrew National is that it wasn’t as good as any of us remembered. For one thing, it was among the softest textured dogs in the survey. Overall we all thought it was fairly greasy and although the scores for saltiness and spiciness were split, it just wasn’t the standard of excellence we had expected from our memories of those commercials with Uncle Sam and God.
The final Kosher dog was Rubashkin’s Aaron’s Classic. Now we aren’t very sure about what is so classic about this dog, because it’s a beef/chicken hybrid. To be fair, we don’t know if there is a Rubashkin’s pure beef dog, but if there is, we hope its much better than this. Words like “slimy”, “mushy” and “nightmare” were thrown around the eating area, although one reviewer didn’t think it was bad as the other two. All agreed it was very, very soft textured, although there was wide disagreement about the greasiness level.
Two “Kosher-style” dogs were surveyed. For those who don’t know, Kosher-style dogs are prepared with the same ingredient standards and methods, but without Rabbinical supervision. As with traditional Kosher dogs (not hybrids), they never include pork. It should come to no surprise that Nathan’s kicked some serious ass. The dog we surveyed with natural casing is the identical item to that which is served in Nathan’s fast-food franchises, and is generally regarded as far superior to the skinless version also sold in supermarkets. Overall, it was our second-best rated dog. Although the spicyness and saltiness figures don’t stand out as extreme in either direction, something about the actual blend of spices just plain works. A firm dog, generally regarded as not that greasy if cooked properly – it’s the classic, all-American hot dog. Nathan Handwerker knew what he was doing.
Generally mentioned in the same breath as Nathan’s, at least by most New Yorkers is Sabrett, again with natural casing. One reviewer liked it almost as much as Nathan’s, but the other two were fairly cold on it, perceiving quite a difference. One reviewer thought the texture, although medium-firm, somehow felt wrong. Another reviewer was very pleased with the assertive garlickyness and spiciness of this dog. Even the two reviewers that were critical of it recognize that this is the classic “dirty water dog” throughout New York City and perhaps boils better than other brands. However, this was not a boiling survey.
Two brands, coincidentally purchased at Whole Foods, made a point of being Nitrate-free and uncured. Well, maybe a little bit of curing might have improved them, because overall they weren’t well-liked. Han’s All-Natural Uncured Beef rated about as low as anything in our survey, and reactions varied from thinking it tasted “bad” to thinking it tasted like “nothing at all”. Very soft, not very spiced, not very salty, there really wasn’t much going for this dog. Wellshire Farms Old-Fashioned Beef faired a little bit better – one reviewer in fact thought it was the second-best dog overall, but the other two disagreed very strongly. One perceived an “aftertaste”, the other thought the spice mix was “slightly odd”, but the one thing they were unanimous about was that it was by far the largest dog that was surveyed – literally twice the weight of several of the others, at a whopping 3.2 ounces each. It wasn’t a disaster, but it’s really no reason to visit Whole Foods and spend $4.99 on a package of Hot Dogs – although arguably you have your value per weight.
The two hot dogs which arguably every person reading this can most easily get their hands on are also are among the worst. The dog that inspired generations of Wienermobiles and had one of the most memorable theme songs of any food product in the world, Ocscar M-A-Y-E-R, may have a Semetic name that implies a tie to Kosher dogs of quality, but at least from the reactions of our surveyors, is light years behind that standard. Let’s just say that if it’s the best tasting hot dog in your local supermarket’s refrigerated case, please, please consider mail ordering. Please note that again we are only surveying non-pork hot dogs, but really, if you’re having an Oscar Mayer, its questionable if you are really eating beef in the first place. There is a bad artificial smoky taste, it’s a very soft dog, woefully under spiced, very salty and at least two of our reviewers perceived it as very greasy, although the third disagreed. All agreed however, that it was a waste of time, or at least a waste of a nice hot dog bun.
A similar brand available widely across the country is Ballpark. We tried the Grillmaster Beef, a new variant, whose commercials have been subject to ridicule on the Internet due to its self-proclaimed Girthyness. It rated pretty badly on our survey, not near the depths of Oscar Meyer, but still we weren’t impressed. It’s biggest problem – its bland. It’s a little less salty than Oscar Meyer, which was all salt and no spice, but the general reaction was that it tasted like a big stick of baloney.
Last, but not least, are the Deli Dogs. This is an arbitrary label that we have chosen to convey the fact that while these dogs MAY be available nationwide, they are generally sold in channels that are related to the distribution of food service deli meat products which can be either regional or nationwide, depending on the success of that brand. Hebrew National and Oscar Meyer started out that way, but have long since transcended into such mass-produced mainstream products and packaging and these so-called Deli Dogs may be headed that way, but in our opinion were not yet there, since their target market seems to be on deli counters and deli-meat products for food service use.
First up is Thumann’s Push Cart style. These were the thinnest, lightest dogs we tried and were regarded as “fairly ordinary” although not unlikeable. Think of any value we tested – Spiciness, Texture, Greasiness/Fattyness, Saltiness – and it hit around the middle score. And among the potential 30 points maximum from all our judges, it scored exactly a 15. In other words, it was sitting right there in the middle. Surprisingly, it hedged out Hebrew National by 1 point.
Next’s up is Best’s Beef Reduced Sodium Frankfurters. This is not to be confused with Best’s Kosher, an unrelated Chicago-based brand we did not have access to. This Newark New-Jersey company has been described as the default hot dog vendor used in Italian Hot Dog stands in the area surrounding its city of origin. It scored 4th highest on our entire survey, despite being low-sodium. Particularly liked was the texture of the dog, which while rated Medium on average, seemed pleasing.
Finally, the last of our reviewed dogs is one that we arguably could have grouped under Kosher-style because it comes in a natural casing and probably adheres to the same standards. We’re talking about Boar’s Head Natural Casing, and we’ve saved it for last because it was in the top 3 of all our reviewers and overall scored the best on average of everything in our survey. Extremely firm, extremely well-spiced, somewhat greasy but not inappropriately, and even somewhat salty, still it worked and the snap that we all noticed when biting into it seemed to seal the deal. Likely this brand is available in most markets and while we went into this survey not having had it that often, that will probably change in the future. Simply having tasted it in comparison with all these other dogs we just finally noticed what a class operation Boar’s Head really is.
We promise this isn’t the end, but we are all hot-dogged out and will have to consume the remainder of this many packages in some creative way to get past this in order to someday have a next round with pork-based and mail order premium brands.
Attached by the following link is our scorecard, which went down in the following way: the choices highlighted in tan/orange were our worst scoring, and the ones highlighted in cyan blue are the best. Spicyness scores were rated on a 1-5 scale, although this scale was not a qualitative rating but only a general feeling about the intensity of the seasoning. In some cases, a lower or average score could work better for that particular dog. Texture was rated as Soft, Medium or Firm, occasionally with a plus or minus thrown in if we were indecisive. In general, Firm was better although again this could be a bias of this particular group. Fattiness/Greasiness was rated Low, Medium or High and in general, less greasy dogs were regarded better although there are a few notable exceptions. Saltiness again is not a qualitative rating but a general sense of the strength of that quality. The overall ratings are the one qualitative number we imposed. This is how we actually feel about the dog – how much we actually enjoyed eating it. Some of us were tougher than others, but as a relative number to each other we feel it is fairly reliable.