No backyard barbecue is complete, no baseball game is called a success, and no dreamy beach day is fulfilled without the appearance of hot dogs on the scene. While I don’t need to eat hot dogs on the reg, there’s something distinctly satisfying about chomping into the perfect one when I most crave it. Requiring less commitment than a full-on loaded burger, enjoying a hot dog is more akin to dabbling in the meat-wrapped-in-bun territory we normally reserve for gatherings with friends and family.
But not every hot dog is a good hot dog — it all comes down to how it’s cooked. If you find yourself in the position of having to cook up some hot dogs — whether for a group or just yourself — you definitely want to know which mistakes to avoid to ensure deliciously smoky, fabulously topped ones. Here a few of the most common mistakes to look out for plus suggestions to fix them.
Not prepping the grill
Since grilling is the best way to cook hot dogs to achieve all-around flavor nirvana, you don’t want to neglect preparing your grill before tossing the hot dogs on top. Make sure the grates are clean and free of gunk from previous grill sessions. If you’re worried about the franks sticking to the grates, spray them with a nonstick cooking spray, then preheat the grill for a few minutes before you start cooking. By doing these simple tasks and showing your grill some love, you’ll be setting yourself up for hot dog success.
Ignoring proper hot dog placement
If you’re anything like me, you’re usually starving when you decide to cook hot dogs, but try to avoid arranging them in the grill haphazardly. You want to place them just right so you don’t lose any between the grates, and (just as important) you want to get those stunning grill marks. Arrange your hot dogs perpendicular to the grill grates, spacing them apart. By doing so, you should be guaranteed grill mark victory with all the franks.
Buying cheap meat
While hot dogs belong in the category of casual foods, that doesn’t mean you should opt for the cheapest options available. As a rule of thumb, the simpler the dish, the more the quality of the ingredients you choose matters. From chicken and turkey to pork and beef, you’ll quickly discover that there are a wide array of hot dogs available to you at the supermarket. This isn’t always true, but wieners are usually made with a combination of beef and pork, and franks are usually made with pork. With all the choices out there, go with your taste preference. But don’t just pick the cheapest ones. The inexpensive varieties tend to come without casings and are made using a hodgepodge of meats, tons of sodium, and lots of preservatives. Instead, I like to opt for higher quality all-beef hot dogs with natural casings, which are delicious and hold up well to a variety of condiments. Moreover, higher-quality beef franks just taste better all around. With more nuanced flavor and fewer shady additives to contend with, you can just sit back, fire up the grill, and enjoy the crisp snap of biting into a perfectly cooked hot dog.
Splitting open the hot dogs
While some might argue that splitting a hot dog partway down the center or making small slashes on top keeps the casing from bursting and lets the frank cook all the way through, I see it as a wholly unnecessary step. Since most store-bought hot dogs are precooked anyway, they’re already cooked through. Splitting them open lets out all the juices that make the meat tender and moist. Throwing them on the grill heats them up just fine and lends smoky flavor to boot. If you’re working with encased hot dogs that have been precooked, skip the butterflying. Instead, try using the tines of a fork to poke a few holes on the surface to allow steam to escape. However, if you’re using raw hot dogs you get at the butcher’s, you might find that splitting them open helps them cook more thoroughly.
Letting the casings burst
If you’re cooking your hot dogs with care, the casings shouldn’t burst open at all. If they are busting open at any point, that’s an indication that the heat level is way too high. While hot dogs benefit from charring since it adds unbeatable smoky flavor, you don’t want to overcook them, especially since most store-bought varieties are already precooked. To prevent the casings from splitting, use the tines of a fork to poke holes all over the hot dogs and cook them over indirect heat on the grill grate. Doing so allows steam to escape and avoids burning the exterior before you’re finished cooking.
Not moving the hot dogs around
Hot dogs are small portions of meat, so they cook quicker than you think. Because they can burn or cook unevenly, it’s crucial that you pay attention to them during cooking. Using tongs or a spatula, be sure to move the hot dogs frequently, rolling them around continuously so every side gets touched by the heat source.
Using the wrong buns
The hot dogs are as important as the buns that hold them. Hot dogs are a classic food, so don’t treat them like any other meat and bread combo. It’s not a hoagie so you don’t want a bun that’s overly firm. It’s not a sandwich, right? Avoid flatbreads. For the ideal hot dog presentation, choose buns that are similar in texture to the most exquisite burger buns. These should be soft, squishy, and just the right length for the hot dogs you’ve chosen to pair them with.
Not toasting the buns
You’ve come too far to not toast the buns for your perfectly cooked hot dogs. While I can see why many people choose to skip this step out of extreme hunger or laziness, I say it’s a no-no. To toast your bun, simply brush both cut sides with a small amount of butter and plop them on the grill or the pan for a few minutes. By taking the extra time to do so, you get to enjoy all the layers of textures that can be tasted in a truly satisfying hot dog.
Grilling the hot dogs at the wrong heat level
The heat level matters when it comes to cooking hot dogs. While you shouldn’t shy away from high heat since you want to achieve that coveted char on the outside, you also don’t want to burn the franks before the insides have cooked all the way through. To avoid undercooking or overcooking your hot dogs, place them on the grill grate in indirect heat away from the flames. Doing so allows you to cook the hot dogs quickly and effectively without any chance of going too far.
Topping the hot dogs thoughtlessly
While I understand that condiments for hot dogs are personal, can we also all agree that squirting watery ketchup and mustard on top is sad and pathetic? I personally love the combo of acid, sweet, and savory when I choose toppings for hot dogs. If you use ketchup and mustard, be sure to shake the containers to avoid the watery mess. Add relish, sauerkraut, or even kimchi if you’re feeling adventurous. Hot dogs are a great food for experimenting with balancing different flavors.
Enjoy cooking your hot dogs!