I believe “Hot Dogs Through the Roof” sounds like a good name for an alternative arts festival. What made me think of this strange phrase, you might ask? The answer isn’t that I’ve gone a little nutty from following our mandated stay-at-home order. No, I thought of it because since mid-March through early April, hot dog sales have been through the roof according to data from 210 Analytics and reported by Meat + Poultry: hot dog sales (in dollars) were up 123%, 127%, 45%, and 50% for the weeks ending March 15, March 22, March 29, and April 5, respectively, compared to the same weeks last year (McCarthy, 2020). Now, what’s driving this demand for hot dogs, wieners, frankfurters, your-regional-nickname-here? Well, consider our situation: kids are at home all day, people are facing uncertainty and stress, and the weather is turning mild or even warm in some parts of the country. What better way to provide a warm, quick meal full of comfort and certainty than to microwave a few hot dogs or grill them for an added element of fun? After all, now is not the time to experiment with strange recipes with eating out as the back-up plan.
I’m happy to hear that people are so enthusiastically embracing hot dogs – figuratively, that is, since literal embracing would be a bit strange. I say this because hot dogs and sausages in general can unfortunately be misunderstood; after all, hot dogs are not a recognizable meat entree like a pork chop or chicken breast. Breaking down cuts of meat into pieces small enough to fit into sausage casing and join together during the cooking process renders the original meat source as unidentifiable. But the cutting, chopping, and grinding necessary to make meat fit into casing also allows an amazing scientific process to unfold.
A familiar phenomenon is the inability of oil and water to mix. The non-polar oil molecules are simply not attracted to the slightly polar water molecules no matter the strength of water’s wooing. However, the introduction of an emulsifying agent – a component with both hydrophilic and hydrophobic portions – can override oil’s disinterest and create an emulsion with water acting as the “continuous phase” and enveloping the “dispersed phase” oil droplets coated with the emulsifying agent (Aberle, Forrest, Gerrard, & Mills, 2001). Cooked hot dogs are examples of stabilized emulsions: water-soluble meat proteins with parts attracted to both water and fat serve as emulsifying agents to keep fat particles nestled in a cozy nest made of protein fibers and water.
The stability of this emulsion (or “batter”) depends on many factors including processing temperature, particle size, batter pH, protein quality, and batter viscosity; any deviation of these from ideal conditions can cause the emulsion to break down during the cooking process and cause the parts to separate (Aberle et al, 2001). To prevent this from occurring, the quality of meat providing protein for the continuous phase and emulsifying agent must be considered. Meats with superior “bind” quality – the ability to stabilize fat and water, protein content, solubility, and ability to gel – and an acceptable moisture:protein ratio such as bull meat, beef chucks, poultry meat, and lean pork trimmings are more capable to create a stable emulsion than meats with poor bind quality such as tripe, skin, and liver (Aberle et al, 2001). If a frankfurter is made with these or other variety meats, the product must contain at least 15% red skeletal meat, and the product’s name must be declared as “Frankfurters with Variety Meats” (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2005). So if you want to know what kind of meat is in your hot dog, just check the ingredient statement! A certain amount of fat must be in the recipe to provide structure and appealing flavor, juiciness, and texture, but the fat content is limited to 30% of the formulation (Aberle et al, 2005).
Several other ingredients besides meat are key to making a good hot dog, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (NHDSC, 2016a).
- Salt Salt is crucial for disrupting meat fibers from their original state and becoming useful in making emulsions. Salt is also needed for flavor and antimicrobial properties.
- Curing agent Hot dogs by definition are fully cooked and cured, and the curing process can occur with the traditional curing agent, sodium nitrite, or a naturally sourced, alternative curing agent such as celery powder.
- Traditional curing is usually accelerated with the compound sodium erythorbate, and alternative curing agents are assisted by a naturally sourced accelerant such as cherry juice powder rich in sodium erythorbate’s close cousin, sodium ascorbate.
- Spices Some of the most common spices used in hot dogs include pepper (red, white, and black varieties), cumin, nutmeg, paprika, coriander, and allspice.
- Sweeteners To counteract saltiness and the meaty flavors of other ingredients, sweeteners such as sugar, sorbitol, and corn syrup solids are used.
- Water To allow for batter development and emulsion stability, water is added.
- By federal law, the amount of added water and fat, when combined together, in a hot dog formulation must not exceed 40% (USDA, 2005).
- Casing Once the meat, water, fat, and other ingredients are well-mixed, the raw batter is stuffed into one of several types of casings.
- Natural: Natural casings are thoroughly cleaned and inspected lamb or pork intestines. These are edible, give each link a unique shape, and typically provide an appealing “snap” to each bite.
- Collagen: Collagen casings are usually reconstructed from beef collagen proteins. These are edible and allow for a firmer outer layer to form on the frankfurter as it’s heated.
- Cellulose: Cellulose casings are inedible and are removed from frankfurters before they are packaged. These allow for each link to be uniform in size and shape and are cost-friendly for producers.
Once the raw emulsion is stuffed into the correct casing and twisted into links, the product is cooked and possibly smoked before being cooled to a safe temperature (NHDSC, 2016b). They are then packaged and labeled according to regulations as per the government and requirements as per the customer. Lastly, they are stored either refrigerated or frozen, then shipped wherever they are needed, be it a grocery store, school lunchroom, or corn dog producer.
People have been enjoying frankfurters and other sausage varieties the world over since ancient times, even as far back as when Homer’s Odyssey was written (Rafal, 2016), so it’s no wonder they are considered a go-to comfort food associated with family reunions, picnics, ball games, and state fairs. My husband and I enjoyed bratwurst on the grill recently, and it certainly felt good to a have a feeling of good times and normalcy in this upside-down world…for a minute at least. When this is all over, I think I’ll try something new and maybe attend an alternative arts festival, and I hope it’s called “Hot Dogs Through the Roof.”
Aberle, E.D., Forrest, J.C., Gerrard, D.E., Mill, E.W. (Eds.). (2001). Principles of Meat Science. (4th ed.). Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
McCarthy, R. (14 April 2020). 210 Analytics: Meat sales continue to rise at beginning of April. Meat + Poultry. Retrieved from https://www.meatpoultry.com/articles/22941-analytics-meat-sales-continue-to-rise-at-beginning-of-april.
National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (2016a). A guide to common ingredients in hot dogs. Hot Dog Ingredients Guide. Retrieved from https://www.hot-dog.org/resources/Hot-Dog-Ingredients-Guide.
National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (2016b). How hot dogs are made: The real story. How Hot Dogs Are Made. Retrieved from https://www.hot-dog.org/culture/how-hot-dogs-are-made.
Rafal (25 Apr. 2016). History of the humble sausage. O’Hagan’s Blog. Retrieved from https://www.topsausages.com/blog/history-of-the-humble-sausage/.
United States Department of Agriculture (Aug. 2005). Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/7c48be3e-e516-4ccf-a2d5-b95a128f04ae/Labeling-Policy-Book.pdf?MOD=AJPERES