Ball games, barbecues, and boardwalks all share one very tasty link - the hot dog. Although it's about as iconic as a food can get in this country, the wiener's origin remains surprisingly unclear. On one point, however, we're all in agreement: On a summer afternoon, it's perfect washed down with a glass of something bubbly and ice-cold.
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Yet there are lots of ways to prepare this most crowd-pleasing of treats - and just as many experts out there who are elevating the art of the dog. To start, there's the choice of the meat itself, then the cooking method (grilling, boiling, deep-frying), the matter of what to put on top (salty, sweet, cheesy), and how to handle the bun (toasted, soft, handmade). To help us assess the options and learn how to create the perfect hot dog at home - after all, most of us don't have access to equipment more advanced than a stovetop or a barbecue - we checked in with masters Randy Watts of Nathan's Famous, Hot Doug's Doug Sohn in Chicago, and Gloria Pink of Pink's in Hollywood, to name just a few.
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Grilling was the most popular method of cooking on the East Coast, with steaming and boiling coming out on top in the Midwest - but otherwise the tips and tricks were unpredictable, even surprising. Why? Because, ultimately, it all comes down to taste buds - whether you like biting into a charred dog dressed with a single strand of handmade Dijon mustard or a deep-fried version heaped with a mess of coleslaw that spills down your chin. Dig in.
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A Buttery Finish
This one's a personal call, but Joshua Sharkey likes to finish his hot dogs with "Bark butter," which is "basically smoked lard." Explains Sharkey: We take back fat from pigs, whip it with butter and sea salt, and baste the dogs in the mixture right before they come off the griddle.
Many cooks insist that the bun - whether it's store-bought or handmade - has to be toasted to give the simple creation a multi-note texture. Happily, it's an easy process. Just brush the bun with melted butter and pop it into a hot oven at 350 degrees or on the grill for a few minutes until it's a light golden hue - anything darker, warns Sharkey, means the bun is too dry. Detractors from this method? Those at Pink's, where buns are steamed using industrial equipment. At home, Pink says, you can achieve a similar effect just by sticking it in the microwave for 20 seconds until it's warm and soft.
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The Art of Toppings
Prove your personality in a way that'll keep guests talking until next year's backyard bash. There are endless options, but Sharkey says that a general rule of thumb is that your topping should be overseasoned lest it be overpowered by the bun and meat. "Anything with acidity, sweetness, or heat works well. I really love pepper relish, which exudes a savory bitterness. I'm from the South, so I love coleslaw, too." The folks over at Nathan's go for mustard, sauerkraut, and pickle relish; plus ketchup, for the kids. Pierce, meanwhile, is partial to Cheddar and jalapeño. And Pink's legendary chili dog layers its ingredients just-so: two slices of American cheese draped on the bun, topped by chopped onions, then doused in chili. Other notables: guacamole with chopped tomatoes, grilled mushrooms and Swiss cheese, and nacho cheese.
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Get Stuffed (or Wrapped)
Or both - especially if you believe more is more. Cut a slit in your dog about three-quarters of the way through, leaving at least half an inch on both ends to avoid complete splitting. Wedge the cheese of your choice - Cheddar, Swiss, and American are tried-and-true options - then wrap the whole thing in a slice of bacon, using a toothpick or two to secure it in place. Grill the compact creation over indirect heat for about 20 minutes, rotating it about every five or so, until the bacon is crisp.
For all of the time and effort that goes into making a gourmet dog, the sad truth is that they disappear in just a few chomps. So be sure to breathe between bites, and, in the words of Watts, "Always take one bite of a hot dog to enjoy the natural flavor before adding the toppings."
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-Bree Sposato, The Daily Meal