Chances are good you’ll eat a hot dog this weekend. July is National Hot Dog Month, and it falls in the middle of peak frankfurter season, when Americans consume the equivalent of 818 hot dogs every second. On Independence Day alone, we’ll scarf down an estimated 150 million of the salty meat links. Now that’s freedom.
But if the country is mostly united in the belief that hot dogs are a good way to celebrate our nation’s birthday, we’re still divided over how they’re best enjoyed. Specifically, whether or not ketchup is appropriate.
While some love their dogs topped with that most American of condiments, others rail against it as childish. The no-ketchup lobby counts some pretty powerful voices among its members. Last year, former President Barack Obama told Anthony Bourdain that “it’s not acceptable past the age of eight” — a view shared by the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, although the trade association ups the acceptability cut-off to 18.
It turns out most Philly chefs agree with the prohibition. Of 18 local pros Billy Penn reached out to, a full two-thirds laid the smackdown on the tomato-based topping, though some were more adamant than others.
Asked whether he preferred ketchup or mustard, chef Michael Schulson (Harp & Crown, Independence Beer Garden, Double Knot) replied indignantly: “That’s a silly question.” Kevin Kramer of Woodrow’s Sandwiches responded with “Never ketchup!”, a sentiment echoed word for word by Noord’s Joncarl Lachman. American Sardine Bar’s Doreen DeMarco cited the kids clause — “Ketchup only on a hot dog if you’re under 10 years old!” — and Nick Elmi of Laurel firmly noted that “mustard is the correct answer.”
Others were less dogmatic, stating a personal preference for yellow over red squiggles on their dogs, but leaving the door open for varying tastes.
“I am not anti-ketchup by any means,” said Nick Macri of La Divisa Meats. “I just like mustard better.” (There’s room for debate there, too. Macri’s preferred brand for franks is French’s, as it is for Kramer, Mike Sultan of Revolution Taco and Peter Serpico of Serpico. But not Schulson, whose strong mustard endorsement comes with the caveat “but not that bad yellow kind.”)
Then there’s a cadre of chefs who, given the option, would choose to decorate their dogs with both. Yehuda Sichel of Abe Fisher is in the dual-topping camp, as is Cheu Noodle Bar’s Ben Puchowitz and Alex Bois of Lost Bread Bakery. And while Bois is an equal-opportunity condiment-er, he does have strong feelings about the prescriptivist viewpoint.
“Sorry foodies,” he said, “but you can pry the bottle of Heinz ketchup from my cold dead hands. No one has the right to be a snob about how to top a tube of meat slurry pooped out of a machine at 1000dpm (dogs per minute).”
No worries for Leo Forneas, chef at The Twisted Tail, whose defense of the popular ketchup brand is nuanced and fierce. “I like the sweetness and tanginess that cuts the fat versus the spiciness of mustard,” he said, explaining his stance in culinary terms. “But it must be Heinz, no organic bullshit.”
Tips for grilling (or not grilling)
Whatever you choose to put on top, you’ve got to prep your dog first. The traditional Fourth of July way to do it is toss them on the grill, so we asked chefs for tips on how to best handle that — although a few recommend alternative cooking methods.
“Only one way to cook a dog, that’s dirty water!” said Schulson, referring to the food cart method of keeping the franks hot in a pan of liquid. “Why mess with a good thing? Don’t give me a grilled dog or some fancy dog.”
Sylva Senat of Maison 208 feels similarly, but offers a convenient workaround. He suggests boiling water mixed with chicken stock, then pouring it into a metal pan with the hot dogs and setting it the whole thing on the side of the grill.
One issue with grilling is that the franks can easily get charred and crispy, though some disagree that’s a problem — like Sichel, who believes “you basically can’t mess up a hot dog, even when they are burnt.”
But in that case, “all you taste is burnt,” opined Sultan. “Just [cook until they have] a nice grill mark and are plumped. Turn them often, don’t get grill too hot, and once you get the marks, move them over to the side.”
To avoid any chance of burning, Forneas suggests storing dogs on the stove in a pot of water (hot but not boiling) and then placing one on the grill right before someone is ready to eat it. Scoring the frankfurters — aka cutting short slashes along the length — is another common trick.
“It shortens the cook time and helps them not shrivel up and dry out,” said DeMarco, adding the advice to “toast your bun, you won’t regret it.”
Most importantly, said Puchowitz, don’t overthink it. “They’re technically already cooked. All you need to do is figure out a way to heat them up. It’s more important to have fun and enjoy your company.”
Townsend Wentz (Townsend, A Mano) put it more succinctly. “If you need tips for cooking hot dogs,” he said, “stick to the 7-11.”