How to make a local hot dog at home…or maybe not
Written onAugust 24 , 2015
Hot dogs are the epitome of mass-produced, questionably sourced food product. They are the emulsified bits and scraps of mechanically separated cartilage, tendons, and other meat undesirables that don’t belong anywhere else.
But…they are also tasty, convenient, and one of the quintessential American foods. So, it’s pretty exciting to see locally raised meat going into locally produced hot dogs. Several Vermont farms are selling their own hot dogs, but it’s meat packers who are turning the meat into hot dogs as of now. Farmers then sell the dogs at stores and farmers’ markets under their own name.
ermont Smoke and Cure in Hinesburg recently bought equipment to produce some (tasty tasty) bacon hot dogs, with other varieties forthcoming. They make bacon hot dogs under their own brand name, but also process meat for both backyard hog farmers and farmers wishing to sell hot dogs under their own name. Farmers can bring in their slaughtered hogs for USDA-inspected meat processing and then Vermont Smoke and Cure works that meat into their regular production run. When they get backyard pork, they have to stop their regular USDA production to process it, so they do all the backyard meat together just a couple of times per month.
While you can get some pretty awesome hot dogs under the Smoke and Cure label, the company can only produce their own tried-and-true recipes for you; strict USDA-food-safety-regulations dictate that you can’t ask them to use yours.
I’m a tried-and-true recipe developer, so I thought perhaps I should come up with my own hot dog recipe. I mean, how hard can it be? All my research online lead me to the conclusion that homemade hot dogs are a pain in the tuchus but delicious. Sounds right up my ally. I started by rounding up some ingredients:
Meat: Most online recipes say to start with shank or some other lean cut because then you know with certainty that you’re making your hot dogs out of something other than lips and tendons. I trust the raising and sourcing of my local ground meat, so I decided to save myself a step and start with ground meat. I like both beef and pork hot dogs, so I split the difference and got 3 lbs. of pork and 2 lbs. of beef. (Most recipes work with 5 lbs. of meat because if you’re going to go to the trouble of making hot dogs, you might as well make a lot.)
Spices: There are a handful of spices that make a hot dog a hot dog. Every chef uses a different blend, but none go too far into left field. Onion and garlic are in every blend. Paprika is usually there for color. Mustard is there because mustard and hot dogs go together like chocolate and more chocolate. Mace is very common. So are marjoram and coriander. I chose my spice blend of onion, garlic, mustard, smoked paprika, salt, and pepper because it sounded delicious and none of the spices required an extra trip to the grocery store.
Nitrites: Oh, the nitrites. The nemeses of all that is right in this world—am I right? So much controversy surrounds these little shelf-stabilizing salts. Some folks try to do the healthy thing by eating only “uncured” hot dogs, but unfortunately there isn’t a huge difference between cured and uncured here. Cured hot dogs (and other processed meats) are made with synthetic nitrites, which prolong the shelf life by inhibiting the growth of botulism and other old-meat nastiness. They also make hot dogs that pretty pink color and help out the flavor a bit. “Uncured” hot dogs is a bit of a misnomer, as nitrites are still added, but in the natural form of celery juice. The actual chemical in the synthetic and natural versions is identical, so most folks in the know feel that your health risk is identical no matter which product you choose. And some “uncured” meats actually have more nitrites than their synthetically cured brethren. (To be considered organic, processed meats must have natural, not synthetic, nitrites.)
Nitrites are naturally occurring in a large percentage of the foods we eat, most notably in celery, but the health risk occurs only when you cook them at a very high heat in the presence of protein (e.g., frying bacon or grilling hot dogs). Lower temperature cooking like boiling, steaming, or baking does not produce the nitrosamines that are harmful to our health. While some vegetables have far more nitrites than most processed meats, they lack the concentration of amino acids and exposure to high-heat cooking (usually) to produce the nitrosamines. Several decades ago, the USDA restricted the amount of nitrites that can be used in processed meat production, setting both a minimum for food safety and a maximum for public health. As a result, most processed meats have far less nitrites than they did before the restrictions were set—in some cases, 80 percent less.
While nitrites aren’t required for hot dogs that you’re going to consume right away, I felt safe in using them for my project and for “authenticity.” I went for the synthetic stuff. Turns out, that like most things, you can get nitrites on Amazon. There are several options, but a little research led me to choose a 4 oz. bag of Prague Powder #1.
Casings: The “ideal” casings for hot dogs are sheep casings because they have a narrower diameter than hog casings, which are traditionally used for sausage. Collagen casings are also quite common in the world of extruded meat product, but animal casings are going to give you more of the satisfying “snap” as you bite in. Because of their ease of availability (I picked them up at Price Chopper, near the salted pork), I ended up with hog casings. I’m fine with a fat hot dog.
Lard: Hot dogs, like their European sausage sisters, are not a low-fat food. Heap in the fat and call it yummy. I happen to have some mighty fine lard from Hooker Mountain Farm in Marshfield, but supermarket lard will suffice. (It’s in the dairy section, not the meat section, presumably for historical reasons.)
Once all my ingredients were assembled I was ready to go! Or stare at my fridge in fear over what I’d gotten myself into. All the ingredients except the casings, of course, need to be emulsified into a paste while being kept cold and then extruded through a meat grinder into an animal casing. I’ve never emulsified meat, used my meat grinder (I married into meat grinder ownership), or even stuffed a sausage. But whatever, you have to start somewhere. I puréed the meat with the spices, lard, and nitrites in small batches, adding small amounts of ice water to keep the ingredients cool. I fried up a little patty on the stove to taste and was very pleased with myself and my creation. Then I spread the meat blobs on a pan to lightly freeze (and keep the meat cold). I set up the meat grinder, rinsed and soaked my casings, and got set up for stuffing. Turns out, stuffing meat paste through a hand-crank meat grinder is an exercise in greasy frustration. Like OMG CAN THIS BE DONE ALREADY frustration. A FOR ALL THAT IS RIGHT IN THIS WORLD, PLEASE LET ME DROP HALF OF THIS PASTE ON THE FLOOR kind of activity.
Fortunately, after an hour (and just four fat hot dogs in), my husband took over and made much better progress. But it was a hot day and I just stopped caring about the meat paste temperature. Oops. We smoked up a few dogs for dinner that night, bit in, and promptly decided to have pasta for dinner. Apparently when the temperature of the meat gets too warm, the fat separates and you end up with dry, mealy, yet greasy hot dogs. Oh, yum… . We tried boiling some of the hot dogs and that was better, but the casings kept coming undone and we had loose, floating meat-paste blobs. Mmmm…. We also baked up a few. Those were definitely the best “hot dogs” of the bunch, but still nothing I would eat if most anything else were available.
When I interviewed Chris Bailey, CEO of Vermont Smoke and Cure, I mentioned my venture into hot dog making and he so aptly pointed out that I “should have started with sausage.” Never have truer words been spoken. Next time it might just be easier to raise a pig and send it to Chris for the hot dog making. Or, better yet, support my farmer friends and pick up a pack of dogs at the farmers’ market.