In search of America’s best hot dog: 14 supermarket varieties, taste-tested

Wondering what to grill this Fourth of July? Our panel of experts and amateurs in California sampled a range and found a few clear winners

American food and drink

Life is full of tough choices. For instance: are you a burger person, or a hot dog person? While I tend to lean burger, there are times when only a hot dog will do: at the baseball game; on a New York City street corner; walking home tipsy as bacon-wrapped sausages perfume the night.

But no occasion is more perfect than the Fourth of July. Its estimated Americans will eat 150m hot dogs on Independence Day alone, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. Boiled or grilled, with mustard or ketchup, sauerkraut or relish a frank in a bun is the best way to celebrate the holiday.

As with many American traditions, the hot dogs origins lie in the immigrant story. Most agree it began with the frankfurter, brought by 19th-century Germans along with their love of all things sausage. Todays supermarket aisles are stuffed with choice, making grocery shopping a daunting task. As a fellow shopper lamented just days ago, while I loaded my arms with cold meat for this contest: Which damn hot dog do I buy? Nothings worse than biting into a bad hot dog.

Which is why we decided to face down the ultimate challenge: 14 American supermarket varieties pitted side by side, so you can shop with confidence.

Judges gather in Charlotte Simmondss backyard during the taste test. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

The ground rules

In pursuit of authenticity, we opted for a backyard barbecue, cooking on a charcoal grill. The tasting would be blind judges would try the anonymous hot dog unadorned, and then, if they wished, dress it up with their favorite condiments. Each judge would score the hot dog on a scale of zero to 10, the final score being the average of all scores.

We opted to try 11 meat and three vegetarian/vegan-friendly varieties. And yes, we know processed meat is killing us, but we felt it killed the fun to disallow hot dogs that contain sodium nitrate and other preservatives (still, we do feature plenty of organic options).

The judges

We needed an expert. Luckily, Tim Milojevich, 37, the owner of Barrio restaurant and a longtime San Francisco chef, was on hand to help. Milojevich worked as a professional sausage and pastrami maker for several years, and he knew a hell of a lot more than most of us. Lets just say he added the word snap (the pleasing resistance of a good sausage casing) and emulsification (how well the liquids and fat bind to lock in juiciness) to our hot dog vocabulary.

And whats a cookout without the kids opinion? Our neighbors Kaylee, 12, and Genisse, 11, assured me 14 hot dogs was no challenge as they helped lay pickles on the table. Mix in hungry friends and family, and we were good to go.

Passing out the bounty. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

The results, in the order we tried them

Ball Park beef franks $4.99 for eight*

This whimsical brand dates back to 1950s Detroit. First off the grill, it didnt disappoint. Classic was a word that came up. Tried plain, it was very salty, making us realize just how much work that bun does. And there was no denying this tasted highly processed, if delicious. Definitely grocery-store, commented one eater.

Average score: 7.2
Tims score: 7

365 organic uncured grass-fed beef hot dogs $5.99 for six

Whole Foods own-brand, organic grass-fed beef dogs seemed promising, but didnt quite deliver. Its OK, said Kaylee, looking a little let down. Do we have any more of the first one? Most agreed that this had a milder, less smoky flavor but was lacking in juiciness, and that the casing had an odd way of separating from the meat itself.

Average score: 4.87
Tims score: 3

Kaylee, 12, tries a slice of hot dog. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Trader Joes all natural uncured all beef hot dogs $5.49 for eight

The checkout lady at Trader Joes assured me we were in for a treat, and the spice mix mustard, pepper, nutmeg, allspice and paprika promised big flavor. She was right: this was a pretty darn tasty dog, plump and with a pleasant hint of sweetness. Almost too sweet, noted Tim, who gave it high marks for emulsification, that sought-after juicy texture.

Average score: 7.4
Tims score: 7

Oscar Mayer classic beef uncured franks $4.99 for 10

Would this classic deliver? One taster definitely thought so. 10 out of 10. Beefy smoky flavor, and juice that seems like broth! There were definitely a lot of sevens and eights here, with Tim dubbing it our juiciest so far. The only downside: it felt a bit too skinny. Leaves me wanting a bigger mouthful, said one.

Average score: 7.2
Tims score: 7.5

Sampling the offerings. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Tofurky original sausage beer brats $4.39 for four

I hoped our veggie options might fool judges in a blind tasting, but as soon as I began cutting into these hefty brats my hopes were dashed. They overcooked quickly, and the outer casing was tough while the inner flesh was distinctly bread-y. Bland and bad texture was the general consensus. No snap, Tim lamented.

Average score: 1.75
Tims score: 1.5

Nathans Famous skinless beef franks $5.99 for eight

This Coney Island stalwart claims to be the worlds most famous hot dog. But when it came to taste, it slightly split the room. While I found it delightfully greasy and meaty, with a good, crispable skin, Tim described it as more water than meat. The expert was in the minority, though, with most deeming this a solid option.

Average score: 7.1
Tims score: 4

Condiments were available to see how they paired with the hot dogs. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Hebrew National beef franks $4.99 for six

This kosher dog was among the few we tried containing sodium nitrate (Caspers and Nathans did, too), so bear that in mind. But ploughing on undaunted, we found these pretty tasty, if not slightly too salty. The skin didnt crisp as nicely as others, but one taster complimented its satisfying pop. It also went down well with the kids. This one is gooood! smiled Kaylee.

Average score: 7.1
Tims score: 6.5

Fork in the Road Mighty Good dogs with pasture-raised beef $7.99 for five

With its family farming backstory, Fork in the Road looked the most wholesome dog in the pack. Just picture those cows free to thrive in their natural environment before being squeezed into natural sheep casings. While it was delicious, the top quality ingredients didnt necessarily translate into mind-blowing flavor. Slightly sweet and salty. Decent flavor, said Tim. For a higher welfare alternative, though, a solid choice.

Average score: 7.4
Tims score: 5

A taster considers her opinion of the latest hot dog. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Light Life Jumbo Smart Dogs meatless veggie hot dogs $4.39 for five

These have been commended on veggie blogs as shockingly realistic, and the spongy, reddish flesh was certainly more convincing than the tofurkys. Then things started to fall apart. Non-natural taste, noted Tim of its slightly chemically flavor. Not one for the kids, either. Nooo! whined Ginesse, putting a zero on the score sheet. Points for trying was the nicest another could muster.

Average score: 1.7
Tims score: 0.5

Caspers Famous hot dogs $7.99 for six

This was our only pork-beef mix of the night, and people could taste the difference. Pork rules! crowed a happy taster. The combo was a winner with the kids, who scored it 100 out of 10. But for our sharp-palated chef, it was nothing special. Non-assertive and mild. Not memorable was Tims verdict, leaving this somewhere in the middle.

Average score: 7.1
Tims score: 4.5

A chef at work. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Field Roast frankfurters (vegetarian) $5.69 for six

This was the top veggie dog of the night. One taster appreciated the carrot-y undertones, while I picked up notes of sweet potato. But while zesty seasonings helped things along, we were still left craving something juicier, and, well, meatier. It seems the greasy, salty, trashy world of hot dogs may be one realm where veggies cant compete.

Average score: 3.1
Tims score: 2.5

Wellshire Premium all-natural uncured beef franks $7.99 for eight

This won the New York Times hot dog taste test, and it definitely found some fans here. The beefy-ness was there, as was the right amount of salt. One taster mistook it for her favorite hot dog, Hebrew National, which we viewed as a compliment. Tim called it meaty and well balanced, awarding it a score to tie Oscar Mayer for his highest of the night.

Average score: 7.4
Tims score: 7.5

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