"More and more specialty markets are carrying quality, exotic types of meat in addition to the kind we’re most used to," explains Doug Sohn of Chicago’s Hot Doug’s, where people queue around the block for alligator and wild boar dogs. It’s worth branching out — at least once. Whole Foods and Fairway, for example, now stock different types of pork, lamb, chicken, and even veal, but, says Sohn, your best bet is checking with your local butcher for super-fresh varieties. Working with unfamiliar meats can be trickier, though, so be sure to cook dogs all the way through.
A little preparation goes a long way. "Steep fresh bratwurst in a mixture of beer and onions before finishing it on the grill," advises Sohn. The flavor complements the saltiness of the dog. Keep in mind that all beer is not created equal; Randy Watts of Nathan's Famous recommends using an amber or dark brew like Yuengling.
The one thing you don’t want to do is throw a fresh dog on the grill right away. Instead, render it for four to five minutes to tenderize the casing. Once that happens, Joshua Sharkey of Bark in Brooklyn, N.Y., prefers to throw it on a griddle in order to preserve the fat. When it’s almost done, raise the griddle’s heat, which will crisp up the casing. When you bite into the meat, you’ll get that "satisfying snap." Sohn concurs — for the most part. "Cook the sausage at 350 degrees in the oven until the casing firms up, then throw it on the grill." If you throw it directly on the grill, the casing tends to stick, causing tears that result in the loss of some of the flavor.
"Hot dogs are very forgiving," explains Sohn. "They're already cooked, smoked, or cured, so what you're really looking to do is get them hot." Grill the hot dog on medium to high heat, rolling it lightly the whole time to ensure you get nice char marks on the outside for flavor. If you don't have a grill, advises Watts, you can use a frying pan or a portable griddle (usually used for making pancakes or eggs) that you can set over your char broiler. Watts elaborates: "The key is to grill it at an average temperature, not too low, and not too high, just a consistent heat for about 10 to 12 minutes so that the hot dog browns slowly. It should reach a very high internal temperature of 175 to 180 degrees, which you can measure with a simple probe thermometer (the kind used when cooking turkey at Thanksgiving)."
To deep-fry your dog, drop it in a deep fryer or heat up a taller pan of oil to 350 degrees; the process takes just about five minutes and works well with natural casing varieties, which crack open nicely. According to Tom Pierce of Vienna Beef, many Midwesterners favor steaming or boiling their wieners, and both methods are easy for home cooks. To boil your dog, simply drop it in bubbling water until it rises to the surface. To steam it, put it in a colander that sits above boiling water in a pot until the meat reaches 180 degrees or about five minutes. Gloria Pink of Pink’s Hot Dogs concurs, but prefers to serve dogs at 160 degrees.
"Splitting hot dogs lets out the juice, which means you’ll lose flavor," warns Watts. The exception is when you’re deep-frying, but that will happen naturally — not with a knife. But, if you’re in a hurry, it’s the easiest way to speed up the cooking process. It’s also the best way to fill the dog with, say, cheese, in which case you’ll be substituting the lost flavor; see tip 10 for more details.
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.
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.
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."