Update, April 2012: Our second-place finisher, Johnsonville Stadium Style Beef Franks, has been discontinued.
Hot dogs inspire passion. Just try handing a mustard-and-sauerkraut dog to someone who takes ketchup and onions, and you'll see what I mean. Passion begets consumption, and Americans spend over $1.5 billion on store-bought hot dogs each year. To determine which all-beef hot dog is best, we bought nine brands at our local supermarket and headed into the test kitchen to cook and taste them.
Much to the chagrin of our 20-person tasting panel, condiments and buns were off-limits--we wanted to taste the hot dogs and nothing but. All dogs were boiled for exactly 4 minutes in water to cover, then sliced into rounds and served warm. Tasters scored each sample on appearance, flavor, texture, and overall quality. Who was the top dog?
Not surprisingly, our panel preferred dogs with rich, beefy flavor and a good mixture of seasonings. We were surprised to find that sugar level tracked with our final rankings: Our top three dogs all list 0 grams of sugar, and all were praised for their meaty flavor. Those with 2 grams of sugar per dog all finished toward the bottom of our rankings and were criticized for their sweet, "unnatural" flavor.
Texture was also important. Testers wanted firm dogs that had some snap. Samples with a soft, "bologna-like" texture were downgraded.
Our tasters heralded Nathan's dogs for their "meaty," "hearty," "robust" flavor and "firm," "craggy" texture-all qualities that separate them from the overprocessed competition. "Juicy, crunchy, salty, yum," said one happy taster.
Tasters appreciated the girth and richness of these franks, which were the largest in our tasting. Their flavor was described as "big and meaty but not hot-doggy," with a "strong spice blend." Texture was deemed "good and firm."
These franks scored especially well for their "crunchy," "nice and juicy" texture and "garlicky," "spicy," "beefy," and "smoky" flavor. One gushing taster called them "almost perfect-well seasoned and juicy."
"Nothing fancy, like a hot dog should be," said one pleased taster. "A little greasy, but with good flavor," said another. Less glowing comments included "bland and sour," "rubbery filling," and several references to a "strange and sweet" aftertaste.
Tasters found something amiss with these "rubbery," "artificial-looking (too red)" hot dogs. While the flavor was deemed "beefy," the "chewy" texture was a big turnoff. "Smells a little like wet socks," complained one member of our panel.
The general consensus was that these dogs "taste like they have a lot of filler" and have a "very processed" texture. Most tasters complained about too much salt and "no meat flavor or texture." "Like sour, salty bologna," said one critic.