Precisely what do I mean by this epithet? It is probably best explained by example. The beloved hot dog is perhaps the quintessential example, with the possible exception of SPAM. If you take a mess of meat or poultry (with or without the addition of filler, chemicals, etc.) and turn it into an entirely different form, such as sausage, luncheon meats, nuggets, and so forth, this has the potential of being mystery meat. It is only saved if you know exactly what “meat” and amendments it is made with and you can reasonably vouch for its origins. Now the definition of “meat” is very broad on a commercial level. It’s much too broad for my eating comfort. You see, the USDA allows the processors of meat and poultry to leave in or on the ingredients and the end-product a certain amount of fecal matter, hair, bones, or just good ol’ generic “debris.” My fear of mystery meat caused me to give up hot dogs and bologna for a long while. Like I said, I just don’t eat mystery meat.
It may therefore surprise you to hear me say that I LOVE hot dogs. I really miss eating them freely whenever the mood strikes. But knowing what I know, I learned to turn up my nose and act disinterested when ever a hot dog opportunity arose. In truth, I am tortured at a baseball game: who can watch the game when all around me they are indulging. I have to walk quickly past the vendor outside the Home Depot. I absolutely have to avert my eyes when I am in New York City and just happen to walk the guy selling the Sabrette’s on the corner. Hot dog deprivation is a tough thing. But now, in exchange for some hard work, I don’t always have to do without hot dogs. I just have to make them for myself.
It is an arduous process requiring concentration and endurance. But it is well worth the energy. To begin, you need to find the right meat. Actually, that is probably the easiest part. Just go to your local farmer and get some pure, organic, grass-fed and finished, beef. Any lean cut will work. You are going to require some fat, too. The best kind of fat is the most solid and pure stuff you can procure. If you are into the all beef variety, this means you will need to buy a good brisket, to go with the lean stuff. Brisket has plenty of solid fat attached to it so you will be able to cut it up and portion out what you need. If you can, instead, get a clod of navel, even better. Navel is the belly of the cow – think bovine bacon. Either way, a batch of dogs requires about 4 pounds of lean meat and 1 pound 3 ounces of fat. If you are one of those “I never gain any weight no matter what I eat” kind of lucky duckies, feel free to up the fat portion by another 1/2 to 3/4 of a pound. Likewise, if you want more German style franks, add a pound of lean pork in place of the same amount of beef. Fancier yet, use good red veal.
Where it gets labor intensive is in the prep, the grinding and the processing. Oh, and then there is the stuffing. The meat must be ground separately from the fat. This happens only after both parts have been cut into small cubes and partially frozen. Freezing is required because otherwise it comes through the grinder all smushed and bruised, only to release its juice. You do want a juicy hot dog, don’t you? The ground fat is kept separate. After the first run through the grinder (I use a 3/4 hp grinder of the sort sold to hunters), the lean meat is mixed with a cure mix consisting of salt and pink salt (“instacure #1″). Both fat and meat then get spread out on cookie sheets separately and re-frozen for another 30-45 minutes to get it nice and “crunchy.” The crunchy stuff is ground a second time and now the fun begins.
After putting the twice ground meat and the fat in my fridge to keep it good and cold I make up my spice mix.
At this point I must digress. There are many recipes for hot dogs out there in the blogosphere and beyond. Every time I make hot dogs I review as many on-line choices as I can find and after I hit the books. I own at least 5 books with frankfurter recipes. Everyone is different. Oy! This time I made a list of all the various spices people recommend and the other dry ingredients. The latter includes non-fat dry milk, dextrose and soy products. The purpose of these is to bind and to help get the dogs to the right texture. All are varieties of processed foods. The easiest to procure (and pure enough for me) is the non-fat dry milk and it does its job like a charm. All you have to remember (and many recipes don’t tell you this) is to reduce that powdered milk to the consistency of confectioners sugar with your blender, food processor or (in my case) spice grinder. The spices include mace, marjoram, dry mustard, coriander, sweet paprika, granulated garlic, onion powder and white pepper. I left out the marjoram. I added about 10 grams of each except for the garlic and onion which I limited to 5 grams each. You can add more garlic if you like. No problem there but I am not a garlic lover. I put everything in my spice grinder and make it into a fine powder and then add back the dried milk. All of the dry ingredients are then mixed well together and weighed out into 4 equal portions.
So now starts the fun. Weigh out the meat and fat and divide it into 4 even batches. Using my food processors – yes I have 2 of them (my favorite is your basic Cuisinart DLC-7 and I also have a Cuisinart Elite a friend gave me) – I carefully process each batch of meat with 125 grams of crushed ice plus a portion of the spice mix until it is very well emulsified. At this point I take the temperature of the mix – it has to be 40 degrees F. No problem – the machine generates a bit of heat so the mixture gets to that temp fast. Now it is time to add the fat. The object of the exercise at this point is to have the meat molecules encapsulated by the fat in a beautiful emulsion.
The trick is to keep the temperature below 50F. Otherwise, your sausage will “break” and instead of hot dog, you’ll have dog food! Broken sausage has a very unpleasant texture that makes you leave it on your plate after the first bite. I know this from experience, trust me. The first time I made franks, I broke the mixture. It is also very embarrassing since it shows what a novice you are. The way to help ensure that you won’t break the emulsion is to add another 125 grams of crushed ice and pulse the machine to achieve perfection. If the emulsion becomes a little to hard to process, add a few tablespoons of ice water to get it moving. But get it moving only enough to achieve the incorporation of the fat so that it becomes one with the meat. (A Buddhist frankfurter?)
Put each batch in the tank of the stuffer while you process the rest of the dogs. (I have a 5 pound stuffer I bought at, you guessed it, the hunting supply store). Keep it in the fridge until you have finished preparing all of the batches.
Now let’s talk about sausage casing. All casings are not created equal. For the kosher style dog, you will need sheep casings. For the small-sized dog, you will need small sheep casings and for the jumbo dog hog casings will work fine. Be certain to soak them for hours and flush them 3-5 times through. You do this because they are packed in salt and the salt is nasty. Flushing out all the salt is also supposed to make the casings more tender. I have had problems with tough casings even though I do all of these things religiously, even though the instructions tell you to just soak them for 30 minutes! I think it is just the luck of the draw but I suspect that stuffing the links nice and tightly also helps. Finally, cook the dogs from the fridge, in cold liquid, and bring them slowly to a boil. This helps to tenderize the casings too. I like mine to “snap” when I big into them. I’m still working on this.
Stuff your casings. I’ll give you a lesson on this someday if you need it but for now I suggest that if you are really into it, buy Michael Ruhlman’s book Charcuterie. Make the links any size you like. It is totally a matter of personal preference. I like them on the short and fat side because I only want to eat one bun. Once stuffed, the dogs can either be poached or smoked, in any order. If you don’t have a smoker, I really don’t think it is the end of the world. Poach them in water that is flavored with liquid smoke, if you like that sort of thing, or use just plain water. The emulsion should have enough spices to give them plenty of flavor without the smoking. They only get smoked for a short while anyway – it took me just about one hour to bring mine up to the 140F required at that point.
Poaching is a little tricky because you do not want to boil them. Actually, you want to heat them up in water that is 180F and no hotter. Once you have brought them to the same temp as the water, they are ready to go. One way to do this is to use a slow cooker held at the right setting to achieve the desired temperature. You can do it on top of the stove too but this takes real vigilance and confidence in your stove. I don’t have that confidence since my stove doesn’t go very low. Enter the immersion circulator – the precision cooks tool that enables you to regulate the temperature of the water within a minuscule tolerance.
Still there are tricks. First, bring more water than you need up to temp with the circulator. Those of you with the Sous Vide Supreme can certainly use this, too. Fill the tank as high as you can – to the “max” line. Heat up the water to 180F. Meanwhile, place all of your dogs in a couple of big zip lock bags, leaving plenty of room. You are going to add the 180F water to the bag to cover the dogs. Then, carefully, very carefully, lower the partially closed bag into the sous vide vessel. As you do this you will watch as the sous vide water surrounds the contents of the zip lock bag and pushes out most of the air. While doing the lowering, slowly close the zipper the rest of the way until the air is pushed out and the bag is fully immersed in the sous vide vessel. If you need to, you can put a pot lid on top of the bag to make certain it is fully immersed in the water. I use a heavy meat tenderizer I have and it works great for this purpose.
Since you put the water inside of the bag and the sous vide machine keeps it at temperature (after it has equalized in the bath), you are able to “poach” the links and bring them to the desired temperature in about one hour. Use your meat thermometer to test a random dog in one of the bags, just to be sure.
When you have determined that the sausage is at the right temp, remove them from the water bath, place the bag in the sink and cut off one corner to let the hot water drain off quickly. Immediately put the drained dogs in an ice bath (50/50 water and ice) to cool them down as fast as possible. Add more ice if needed. Once they are well cooled, take them out and let them dry off a bit. I package mine with the food saver making sure there is a little space between each dog. That way I can remove one at a time for my eating pleasure. They will keep in the freezer for many months – if they last that long.
To be certain, this is a lot of work and it takes a great deal of time. I made about 30 big fat dogs in about 6 hours. It goes faster if you have help. It goes even faster still if you have good equipment. Also, you could cut the recipe in half if you just want to give it a try or you don’t have the patience.
For this fanatic, making my own frankfurters fills a sorely missed hot dog hankering.
Special note: Yes folks, I am back. I am well. I am sorry to have kept you all waiting. Please forgive me.