Lost for nearly a decade, one snapshot of me from college foreshad
owed this whole maniacal adventure that is Sam’s Good Meats. It was a bright afternoon on the green, a home football game happening just out of frame. Kegs on the hill. The Queerleaders waiting to rush the field at halftime. A ragtag jug band oompahing in the bleachers. And bucket-hatted, scraggly-bearded me, captured on camera committing the brutal murder of a hot dog.
Although I was an active barbecue enthusiast in those days — pulled pork at homecoming was the tradition — I never spent a second thinking about where my meat came from or what was in it, particularly when it came to the many, many hot dogs I ate over those four years. The closest I got to consciousness was this (and yes, that movie was loosely based on my alma mater, Wesleyan University).
When I moved to D.C. with no contacts, no long-term job prospects, and no clue, I found solace in 25-cent chicken wing happy hours (anyone remember the dinosaur wings at Stetson’s in the old days?), cheap pitchers, and a glorious Chocolate City institution that represented the highest form of hot doggery I had yet known: the half smoke. Usually enjoyed in the wee hours of the morning at Ben’s Chili Bowl and accompanied by chili cheese fries, the smoky-spicy flavor of that dog is charred into my memory.
Those were the days in DC before artisan hot dogs were raging, but times have certainly changed. When the July Charcutepalooza challenge — emulsification (the process that gives a hot dog its texture) — was announced, I knew just who to call for guidance: Nathan Anda of Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Red Apron Butchery.
Anda is the man behind the most recognized salumi operation in DC. Ubiquitous at area farmers' markets, Red Apron has built a loyal following with its diverse and well-crafted cured meats (I love the finocciona), fresh sausage (the calabrese), and accoutrements (the best vinegary mustard I’ve ever had). He has never shied away from more interesting concoctions either, including the newly popular ‘nduja, a spicy Italian pork spread that is all the rage among charcuterie heads. Served with crusty bread and ripe cheese, it is filthy good. No wonder it’s gone in minutes when a new batch comes to market.
For his most recent trick, Anda has launched a line of hot dogs for sale out of a cart named “Frank” in and around DC. I visited the cart at the new NRG SW Waterfront night market recently and had two great treats: the regular dog with mustard and onions on a griddled bun and “The Franz,” a beer-braised and Cheddar-stuffed bratwurst with caramelized onions and whole grain mustard (you can see the rest of the Frank menu here).
The dogs are almost meltingly tender, thanks to Anda’s no-smoke and poach approach. The fixings are tangy enough to provide balance without overshadowing the taste of the hot dogs. The subtlety is something you won’t get with the flavor sledgehammer of the half smoke. And The Washington Post noted something important in a recent article about Anda: “…in short, [Anda] can rattle off every single ingredient in his dogs, and none of them comes from a chemical company."
I interviewed the chef to try to get some of his wisdom before I went on my hot dog-making adventure. He’s a man of relatively few words, but I did get a few pearls out of our conversation. “I started making hot dogs when I was the chef at Tallula about six years ago,” said Anda. “We had a beef tenderloin on the menu which left us with a ton of good scraps. I had to play around with what I could do with them, so I started making all-beef hot dogs with beef suet (waxy fat from the body cavity). I eventually switched to using pork fat and that was the basis of the recipe I use now.”
Anda hails his beef-to-pork-fat ratio as the secret to his hot dog success. “All beef hot dogs have a little more chew to them,” he said. “Mine have a softer, more mousse-like texture. The fact that I don’t smoke them also helps the texture, and I add smoky flavor with coriander and paprika. The main difference, though, comes down to that ratio and good ingredients. I use dry-aged beef and good fat.”
I finished our interview by asking Anda whether he had ever done any hot dog experimenting that failed. “I made a merguez dog with lamb and beef fat,” he said. “It was horrible.”
Having noted all the wisdom and caution in Anda’s tale, I dove headfirst into my own experiment with a load of pork shoulder and fat from Bev Eggleston’s Eco Friendly Foods, grass-fed beef from Whole Foods, and a Red Apron recipe:
Nathan Anda’s Red Apron Hot Dog Recipe
• 8 ounces lean beef (ground through finest die)
• 7 ounces hard fat back (ground through finest die)
• 1# 5 ounces ice-ground
• 2 ounces sea salt
• .75 ounces cane sugar
• 1.25 ounces pimenton
• 1 tablespoon ground coriander
• 1 tablespoon mustard powder
• 1½ teaspoon ground mace
• 1½ teaspoon onion powder
• 2 teaspoon garlic paste
The conditions for hot dog making at home were perfect. My fiancée was at the beach for her bachelorette party. My house was quiet, save for Steve Earle blasting from the speakers and the running conversation I was having with the little white dog I was watching for the weekend. But perfection is fleeting. I quickly found out that I had some recipe issues.
In sausage-making, the easiest recipes to follow are those that rely on percentage seasoning to total weight of meat and fat. By no fault of his own, Anda hadn’t provided that. So there I was with an imbalance of pork shoulder, beef, and back fat. Tweaking was imperative, so I searched online for a recipe from another hot dog sage, Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats in San Francisco. His online mix had the necessary percentages, so I went to work trying to align Anda’s seasoning mix with Farr’s recipe.
Once I got my pork/beef/fat mix cubed and seasoned, I began the laborious process of grinding, first through the large die and then two consecutive times through the small die. Normally, the mix would’ve been moved to a food processor somewhere in this chain of events, in order to emulsify and achieve that mousse-like texture. But my food processor wasn’t even close to big enough. So I did the third grind, which produced some of the most unappetizing suction noises I have ever heard. Because the meat mix needs to be chilled between passes through the grinder in order to keep it from breaking down into a greasy mess, it took about four hours.
Then came time for emulsifying. Using percentages from Ryan Farr’s hot dog recipe, I threw together an ice water/milk powder/egg white binding slurry and added it to the nearly-pureed meat before paddling it with the KitchenAid. This is the stage that usually leads to my fiancée’s astonished queries about how meat ended up on the ceiling. This time was no different. I had to climb on the counter with the Lysol wipes the next morning.
By now, it was 1:00 a.m. and I still had casing and smoking to do, so I clamped my five-pound sausage stuffer to the counter and went to work with the sticky emulsified mess. I had some apprehension about how it would work with just one set of hands (usually my buddy Mike joins me for the sausage making adventures), and I was proved right. It takes practice I don’t have to coordinate cranking and guiding the casings off the stuffing tube. I ripped a few casings, got another tangled up in itself, and had to start over once or twice, but eventually I finished a decent looking bunch of links and tied them to a rack for smoking. After an hour or so on my Big Green Egg, enveloped in sweet smoke from apple wood harvested in my backyard, they were done. It was nearing 3:00 a.m.
As with many of my ambitious food experiments, it took me a couple days to recover enough emotionally to taste the product. I was really happy with the smoky, spicy flavor, although the texture did not meet the Anda test. Poaching instead of smoking and using sheep casings instead of pork would’ve made a difference. But that’s the maniac in me talking, because the dogs were delicious.
A few days later, I had some friends over for a proper tasting with beer, pickles, mustard, and sauerkraut. The night ended with a buddy offering to back me in starting a sausage business. I only half heard him. I was too busy murdering another poor, unsuspecting half smoke.
To read more about the cooking adventures of Sam’s Good Meats, search the author on this site or visit www.hypervocal.com/samsgoodmeats.