The Science of Hot Dogs

To many, the Fourth of July means getting together with friends and family, playing games, watching fireworks, and of course, BBQing. Some might argue that there is nothing better than the smell of charcoal, or the sound of hamburger patties sizzling on the griddle, or even the perfectly charred look on a hot dog. Throw in some baked beans, potato salad, and a slice of apple pie, and it’s an all-American holiday!

According to a recent article in Washington Examiner, 150 million hot dogs are eaten on the Fourth of July. And According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, that is enough links to make a line from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times.

But what if you knew something about your food…especially your hot dogs. What if you knew how those perfectly cylindrical meat links came to be? Would you still be grilling them this Independence Day?

Against our better hot dog-loving judgement, we looked into it.

ScientificChannel.com tracked the full journey hot dogs make from the raw meat at a factory to local street vendors.

(via How It’s Made)

Traditional hot dogs are made from a mix of pork, beef, and chicken. The cuts they start with are called “trimmings”, which are pieces of meat left over from cutting steaks or pork chops. The trimmings are ground in the same way butchers chop hamburger meat by pushing the cuts through grated metal plates.

Next, processed chicken trimmings are added to the ground meat, followed by food starch, salt, and other flavorings. Water is then sprayed into the mix and so that everything blends together in a big vat. Corn syrup is added for a dash of sweetness, and the addition of even more water helps to disperse the ingredients and make the hot dogs juicer.

The meat mush is then pushed through another machine that purees the meat batter into a fine emulsion and vacuums out any air. Long rolls of cellulose tubing are loaded into stuffing machines that pump the meat puree into the individual casings. It takes just 35 seconds to make a chain of hot dogs that would span a soccer field twice. The chains are then linked together to make several extremely long chains of hot dogs, that are then draped onto racks and sent through a liquid smoke shower, then into an oven with several cooking zones. The liquid smoke seeps into the casing, and adds flavor to the dogs as they bake. Hot out of the oven, the franks are drenched in cold salty water to chill them in preparation for packaging.

After learning how these delicious BBQ staples are made, some might not even want to go near one again. Others might try to find some…healthier alternatives. Going down the refrigerator aisle in your local market, you see the various packages and think, “hey maybe I’ll buy the hot dogs with no added nitrites! That has to be healthier!”.

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We hate to disappoint, but the New York Times published an article, “Science Says: Hot Dogs Minus Added Nitrites May Be No Better”, citing the Center for Science in the Public Interest saying, “nitrites from natural sources aren’t that different from artificial nitrites in processed meats. But the group has cited the WHO report in calling for a cancer warning label on processed meats, regardless of how they’re made. It also says nitrite-preserved foods tend to be high in salt and should be limited or avoided anyway.”

However, it might not be all doom and gloom for America’s favorite frank. The article continues by saying “while natural preservatives may not make hot dogs any healthier, they fit with the growing preference for ingredients like celery juice that people can easily recognize.”

Historians believe that the hot dogs origin can be traced all the way back to the era of the notorious Roman emperor Nero, who’s cook, Gaius, may have linked the first sausages. However, it was the Germans who took the sausage as their own, creating scores of different versions to be enjoyed with beer and kraut. In fact, according to History.com, two German towns battle to be the original birthplace of the modern hot dog.

“Frankfurt claims the frankfurter was invented there over 500 years ago, in 1484: eight years before Columbus set sail for America. But the people of Vienna (Wien, in German) say they are the true originators of the “wienerwurst.””

No matter where the delicious meat link originated from, it is a national staple in America, especially on Independence Day.

According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Los Angeles residents consume more hot dogs than any other city (more than 36 million pounds), beating out New York and Philadelphia. And according to data for the year 2016, nearly 1 billion pounds of hot dogs were sold at retail stores. That number represents more than $2.4 billion in retail sales.

So whether you are chomping down on a juicy hot dog or going for another great BBQ option, have a safe and happy Fourth of July!

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