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Hot Dog Maker Tells All


Americans consume 1.5 billion pounds of red-meat hot dogs and 300 million to 400 million pounds of poultry franks every year. But few know what's in them or how they're made, and most don't want to know.

I know how to make a hot dog, and I know what's in them. In my charcuterie class at the Culinary Institute of America, I became part of the proud minority of chefs to have actually made a hot dog from scratch.

When I tell people this, they look at me with a mixture of awe and suspicion. "What's really in them?" they ask.

"What do you think is in them?" I'll ask.

The answers range from "meats, byproducts and animal innards" to "occasional insect parts" to "really gross stuff." One woman said, "I pray to God that there is beef in them."

Here's the scoop from someone who's actually made hot dogs.

In my class, we used muscle meat, just like the fresh ground meat sold in supermarkets. The hot dogs we made tasted like good old American franks and they had no "really gross stuff."

Any combination of meats can be used as long as the basic ratio of meat (5 parts) to fat (4 parts) to ice (3 parts) is followed. For low-fat franks, the amount of meat is increased and the fat decreased.

Pork fat from the jowls of the pig is preferred because it is softer than many other fats, melts at lower temperatures and is easier to grind. The rest of the ingredients include the curing ingredients--salt, a sweetener (such as dextrose) and an optional tinted cure mix of 94% salt and 6% sodium nitrite--as well as whatever seasonings are added. Basic hot dog seasonings include white pepper, coriander, nutmeg, onion powder, garlic powder and nonfat dry milk powder.

Whether beef, pork, chicken or turkey, the technique is the same. A hot dog is in the category of emulsified, cooked smoked sausages, which means that the ingredients are blended together so they become homogeneous. None of the ingredients can be separately identified, as they can in many sausages, because there are no chunks or varying colors.

The process begins by trimming, cubing and chilling the meat and fat, keeping them separate. The meat is combined with the curing ingredients and both the meat mixture and fat are separately ground through a fine grinder plate.

Each of the curing ingredients has a purpose. The salt draws out the protein from the meat, and it is this protein that serves as the main binder of all the ingredients. The sweetener counteracts the harshness of the salt and rounds out all the flavors. The tinted cure mix gives the hot dog its pink color and is a preservative.

The next step is the tricky one of forming the emulsion, which relies on temperature and the order in which the ingredients are chopped. If it's not done correctly, the ingredients will separate.

The ingredients are placed in a food chopper (similar to a food processor) and blended until their temperature goes down to at least 30 degrees and then climbs back up to 58 degrees. The mixture should be emulsified.

Now it's time for the taste test: A bit of the meat is formed into a small frankfurter and poached until cooked. If it tastes good, the mixture is placed in a sausage stuffer, stuffed into sheep casings, tied into six-inch lengths and refrigerated overnight, uncovered. The outsides of the refrigerated franks become sticky and tacky, enabling the smoke during the smoking process to better adhere to the dogs.

The smoking gives them flavor but doesn't cook them completely, so they are then poached until fully cooked and immediately cooled in ice water. They are now ready for public consumption. They can be grilled, poached, fried, microwaved or even eaten as they are.

Commercial production follows similar principles but on a grander scale. A main difference is that many commercial companies use a liquid smoke instead of a smoker that uses burning wood for the smoky flavor. They also usually use cellulose casings that are removed after the hot dogs have been cooked.

And what kind of meat is in these dogs? The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that if muscle meat--remember, that's like the ground meat we buy in the supermarket--isn't all that's used in a processed meat product, then the "variety meats" that have been used--such as livers or hearts--must be clearly stated on the front of the package, as well as in the ingredients statement.

So what's in a hot dog? It's on the label.

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