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All-Beef Hot Dogs

Published June 2016

How we tested

From the “hot water” sausages of Coney Island to the pineapple-topped “puka dogs” of Kauai, you can find a hot dog in nearly every corner of America. While how you dress your dog varies with regional custom (like your hot dogs with ketchup? Don’t show your face in Chicago), the sausages themselves remain relatively constant across all 50 states—a mixture of meat trimmings, water, salt, and seasonings is stuffed into casings (sometimes natural but usually made from cellulose) and then smoked and cooked. Cellulose casings are stripped off after cooking, so most supermarket hot dogs are skinless.

Traditional frankfurters—the kind originally brought over by European immigrants in the mid-1800s—are primarily pork-based and can still be found in supermarkets nationwide. But nearly every hot dog manufacturer we talked to told us that all-beef hot dogs now vastly outsell traditional frankfurters because of their punchier meatiness and more straightforward ingredient list. (Pork frankfurters today are often bulked up with added poultry or soy.) With the goal of finding the best supermarket all-beef hot dogs, we cooked up the seven top-selling national varieties of skinless dogs for 21 America’s Test Kitchen staffers. To keep everything consistent, we locked away the condiments and served the hot dogs two ways: first boiled and bunless and then grilled and stuffed into buns.

Tasters immediately took issue with thin or skimpy dogs that practically disappeared when we nestled them into standard buns. Almost half the samples were deemed too petite by tasters, so we broke out a scale and calipers to measure the dogs. Top dogs were up to 12 percent plumper than lower-ranked ones, allowing for a higher meat-to-bun ratio in each bite. Our favorite hot dogs were also almost 20 percent heavier than low-scoring products—51 grams per dog versus 41 grams.

But bigger wasn’t always better, as some larger dogs had texture issues. Two products were downgraded for their off-putting textures: one was too dry, the other too wet and squishy. The ideal hot dog has a bouncy, snappy texture and a moderate moisture level; from our prior investigating in other sausage stories, we know that this ideal texture is achieved, in part, by a proper balance of fat and protein. So we scrutinized the ingredient labels and compared fat and protein levels. Though they all contained similar amounts of protein, the dog that tasters deemed dry was far too lean, with less than half the fat of our winner—about 7 grams of fat compared with 15 grams of fat in our top-ranked product. We preferred dogs with more fat, which were tender and juicy with just the right amount of bounce and snap.

But what about the wet, squishy dog? While it had fat and protein levels similar to the top-ranked products, it contained twice as many carbohydrates as any of the other samples. While most manufacturers bulk up their hot dogs with added corn or corn syrup for a smoother texture and a sweeter flavor, our science editor explained that this product likely used too much—as evidenced by the high carbohydrate levels—making for a mushy and wet dog.

As for flavor, too much corn or corn syrup also had a big impact. Hot dogs that listed corn products as primary ingredients tended to be too sweet, while our favorites either contained no corn products or reported adding “2% or less” on ingredient lists. Spice was also important: While manufacturers wouldn’t tell us exactly what spices they used, tasters docked lower-ranked products for flavors that seemed out of place. Strong notes of celery salt, paprika, cabbage, or warm spices were no-gos; we preferred dogs with prominent smoky, beefy flavor and strong saltiness. Our favorite hot dogs contained the most sodium of any product—550 milligrams versus as little as 292 milligrams per dog in other samples—and tasters thought these dogs had the punchiest flavor.

In the end, Nathan’s Famous Skinless Beef Franks earned the top spot for their robust, meaty flavor and juicy, tender texture. These large, beefy dogs had a substantial heft and a bold, meaty flavor that held its own in a bun. We’ll be keeping Nathan’s on hand for summer barbecues and easy weeknight dinners.

Methodology

Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers sampled seven top-selling nationally available all-beef hot dogs, first boiled and served plain and then grilled and stuffed into hot dog buns. Sales data was obtained from IRI, an independent Chicago-based research firm. Weights, fat, carbohydrates, protein, sodium, and ingredients were all taken from nutritional labels and, where applicable, recalculated to a standard 50-gram serving size to aid in comparing them. Size measurements were taken using calipers.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*