Americans buy 9 billion hot dogs a year, but are they any good? I pondered that question at one of the dozens of kids’ birthday parties I’ve been sentenced to in recent years, as I wolfed down a backyard dog that tasted like almost every other hot dog I’d ever eaten: just OK.
Then, last fall, my whole life changed. I made a stop at Herman’s Meat and Deli in Venice, where, on a whim, I picked up a bundle of fresh hot dogs made with a natural casing—in this case, sheep’s intestines. (Most hot dogs are made with an artificial cellulose casing.) Inspired, I lit a charcoal fire and prepared them with the method outlined by J. Kenji López-Alt in his excellent 2015 cookbook, The Food Lab.
López-Alt suggests nestling the dogs in a pile of sauerkraut inside a foil package and gently baking them over the coals before transferring them to the grate of the grill for a final blistering. The result: magnifique. The meat remained plump and juicy, while the natural casings had grown crispy and delivered the “snap” when you bite down that aficionados say is the key to a quality dog.
I had to know more. Herman’s gets its hot dogs from Geier’s Sausage Kitchen, which operates a butcher shop on the South Trail, but makes almost all of its products in a small plant just north of the airport. The facility supplies 80-plus shops and restaurants in the area, plus some of the state’s biggest theme parks.
To make hot dogs, butchers at Geier’s break down and grind whole cuts of beef and pork before putting the meat in the sheep casings and then smoking the links 400 pounds at a time. Geier’s makes and ships fresh hot dogs every day, which means when you buy one it’s no older than a couple days, which accounts for their top taste.
Next time you’re firing up the grill, read the fine print on that hot dog package or ask your butcher for a product with natural casings. It might just change your life—or at least a kid’s birthday party.