Taste Test: Natural Casing Hot Dogs From Michigan
"In a state full of great dogs, who makes the best?"
Best Overall: Greenfield Village
Best Traditional: Kowalski
Hot dogs are a bit of a thing in Michigan. Unlike the kosher all-beef franks with heavy garlic, paprika, and smoke you'd find in New York, Michigan hot dogs are based on German wieners with their warm spicing, sweet and mild flavor, and pork-beef mixture. These are the kinds of dogs you want to eat with chili and mustard: something mild that takes well to powerful condiments.
In Michigan, hot dogs are most commonly served Coney Island style, that is, with a beanless chili sauce made from beef hearts with Hungarian-style spices—paprika, garlic, some celery seed—though spicing can vary widely from operation to operation. The dogs are griddled (though lesser establishments will steam or boil them), slipped into a soft steamed bun, topped with the chili and a spoonful of diced onions, and finished with a couple squirts of yellow mustard.
There are regional variations in flavor and style, but the basic concept is pretty much the same state-wide (and into New York state) and relies heavily on the quality of the hot dog.
Michigan has some of the highest hot dog standards in the country, disallowing the use of mechanically separated beef, an excess of fat and offal, and limiting the amount of water a hot dog can contain to just 10%. I can't tell you for sure whether these standards actually make for better dogs since comparing a Michigan dog to a non-Michigan dog is apples to oranges, but I can tell you that the dogs sure are tasty. The best come in natural hog casings to offer snap and spring with each bite.
Question is: in a state full of great dogs, who makes the best?
There are some folks who contend that a Michigan Coney just ain't a Coney if it ain't made with a Koegel Vienna dog. On the other hand, there are those who'd claim that Kowalski is the only dog for them.
We held a blind tasting with the seven brands we found in a Detroit supermarket, limiting our selection to those made with pork and beef and featuring a natural casing.
The Brands We Tasted
- Alexander Horning
- Greenfield Village
- National Coney Island.
All hot dogs were heated in simmering water (to avoid introducing any flavors that grilling or griddling might impart) and served both plain and with mustard. Tasters were asked to comment on flavor and texture, and to rate the dogs on a scale from 1 to 10 for snappiness, saltiness, and overall preference.
Interestingly, we found that there was a very strong correlation—nearly a one-to-one mapping—between snappiness and overall preference. The snappier the dog, the more people liked it. Mushy dogs or dogs in which the skin was too tough for the soft interior were scored poorly. Indeed, the only exception to the rule was Alexander Horning, a brand that was knocked down for using too much sugar.
You might also notice that there's a strong correlation between saltiness and preference. It's not a coincidence that saltiness and good texture go hand in hand. Salt is absolutely essential to the texture of any forcemeat, not just hot dogs. It breaks down meat proteins and allows them to bind together to form a tight matrix that traps in fat and moisture and provides the bouncy texture that we love about hot dogs. (For more on the subject, read this).
Our favorite dog was the snappiest of the lot and the second saltiest.
Check out the full results below:
The Winner (smoked): Greenfield Village (7.4/10)
Overall Score: 7.4/10
Hot dog, we have a wiener! This hot dog stood out for having a deep smoky flavor that our tasters enjoyed, despite the fact that it's not a traditional component of a Michigan-style wiener. Perhaps we're all used to the smoky all-beef NY-style dogs? Even discounting the smokiness, they had by far the best, snappiest texture and an ideal level of seasoning. An all around tasty dog, if not archetypical.
The Winner (traditional): Kowalski (6.43/10)
Overall Score: 6.4/10
Kowalski dogs, along with Koegel's, form the two most popular brands of hot dogs in Michigan by far, and with good reason. Kowalski's have a great, bologna-like bounciness and excellent snap to their skin with a nice balance of salt and sugar. Of all the brands we tried, with the exception of Greenfield Village, Kowalskis were the only ones to have a distinct (but very mild) smokiness. The perfect partner for coney sauce.
#2: National Coney Island
Overall Score: 6.1/10
A surprise powerhouse, beating out the top seeded Koegel's by a 0.3 point margin for their saltier, snappier dogs. National is a chain of Coney shops with a couple dozen locations throughout Michigan. They sell their dogs and chili at supermarkets across the state. They've got the saltiness and bouncy texture of bologna, which is basically exactly what a Michigan-style hot dog should be. Good contrast between the snappy skin and the dog.
Overall Score: 5.8/10
The other one of the most popular brands in Michigan, Koegel's, made in Flint, are almost de rigeur for a Michigan coney joint, rivaled in popularity only by its rival Kowalski. I'm personally a big fan of their sweet and salty flavor, though others found the spicing to be a bit too mild and the texture a bit too soft. Fair criticisms both.
Overall Score: 5.7
Dearborn dogs are mushy, but they're at least relatively tasty with a good level of seasoning. Heavy on the garlic, they were just salty enough and reminded tasters of "what a hot dog should taste like." If only they weren't the close to the least snappy of the bunch, they'd have done significantly better.
#5: Alexander Horning
Overall Score: 4.4/10
Very sweet with not enough salt to balance it out. Snappiness was decent, but a lack of flavor marred these dogs.
Overall Score: 3.5/10
While the skin of Winter's dogs is firm, the interior is far too mushy and greasy, as if it hasn't been salted and bound properly. Rather than snapping, the meat pretty much squishes itself out of its casing. Not pleasant!
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.