Hot Dogs: Better With Cuts, or Without?

by Elizabeth Skipper | May 28th, 2014 | Ask the Chef

sausage-7245_640My father always makes cuts in hot dogs before grilling them.  As this is going to be first summer with my own place (and a grill!), I was wondering if I need to make cuts in the hot dogs?  My dad’s answer is, “It’s just how I cook them.”  Will making cuts improve the way they cook or taste?

This reminds me of the apocryphal story about the woman whose daughter asked her why she was cutting the end off the ham (or maybe it was leg of lamb) before roasting it. “Well, I’ve always done it that way. That’s how my mother taught me to make it,” the woman replied. Both now curious, they called Grandma to ask why she did it that way. “I had to cut off the end, or it wouldn’t fit in the roasting pan,” was the answer. So much for traditions.

There are two schools of thought with regard to slicing hot dogs prior to cooking them. One side agrees with your dad, claiming the dogs cook through faster, get a nice sear on more surface area for more tastiness, and don’t split uncontrollably.

The other side claims that making those cuts serves no positive purpose and more negatively, allows meat juices to escape, thus drying out the dog. Who’s right?

Well, to a degree, both are. The desired result is a juicy hot dog which is heated through, browned nicely without burning, and not bursting through its skin. This is achieved by using moderate heat – too low and the dog will toughen before it heats through, and too high it will burn and split. If you want more of a sear, use direct heat first to quickly brown the surface, then finish heating it through over indirect heat.

Now, let’s get technical about the hot dogs themselves. There are those made with different kinds of meat including chicken or turkey (bizarre, I know, but people buy them), but I’m going to narrow the discussion to those made with beef. There are three kinds of beef hot dogs – natural casing, collagen casing, and skinless. Most people prefer either natural casing or skinless. The natural casing gives you that snap when you bite into it, and an explosion of juices in your mouth (not, one hopes, on your shirtfront.)

The skinless dogs don’t offer that snap, but neither will they burst when you cook them. Cutting or scoring them serves no purpose. The natural casing dog will build up pressure as the interior heats up, and will split if it’s not handled carefully. The trick in that case is to turn them frequently as they cook, so they heat through evenly.

Why don’t you get a package of both, and try both methods of grilling. Then decide which you prefer. And whatever you decide, don’t forget the toast the bun, too. That adds tremendously to the flavor, in my opinion.

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