The first hot dog of summer is a sacred, precious thing, one of life’s simplest and most fleeting pleasures. It’s best consumed in a backyard, right off the grill. Or at the ballpark. Or next to a pool.
It is not best in a windowless, fluorescent-lit conference room, and it is certainly not ideal when it’s followed in close succession by the second through fifteenth hot dogs of summer. But these are the sacrifices we make for journalism.
Memorial Day weekend is almost here. We want the first hot dog of your summer to be the best one. So we ate 15 of them to figure out exactly which one that would be.
One week later, we still feel kind of puffy. How does Joey Chestnut do it?
Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard your jokes about what goes into hot dogs. We know they’re not healthy, and we don’t care. We wanted to rank the best hot dogs in America because hot dogs are America. At their essence, both hot dogs and America are a bunch of, uh, parts from all over the place that come together to create something special. They can be bad sometimes — and bad for you — but when they’re good, they’re really good.
We take our meat tubes seriously over here at The Washington Post. We judged the dogs — purchased in Washington from national retailers including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Safeway, Giant, Costco and Target — on four factors: taste, appearance, seasoning balance (a good blend of sweet, spicy, salty and smoky), and “snap.” You know snap — it’s what it should feel like to bite into a hot dog. A good hot dog isn’t too soft or mushy. A good hot dog casing bursts a little when you bite it (but it also doesn’t require too much chewing, which can be off-putting). We only included all-beef hot dogs in the test (we will circle back to veggie dogs soon).
Other publications that have done hot dog taste tests have boiled the dogs, so that the grill char can’t influence flavor, but we think that’s silly. We wanted to try the hot dogs the way that most people would prepare them at home. So, we made them on a grill pan and gave the tasters potato buns to accompany their dogs. But there was one strict rule: Their first bites had to be bun-free, so that they would taste the meat on its own. Condiments were strictly prohibited. And we invited some of our colleagues from the sports section — truly, experts on hot dogs — to help us out with the tasting.
Which one was the wurst, and which one was the wiener? (Ba-dum-tss.)
15. Niman Ranch Uncured Beef Franks Score: 57
Tasters loathed — and I mean loathed — this hot dog’s sweet flavor. “Sugar and fake smoky weirdness,” said one taster, while others complained that the flavor was “acidic” and “mapley” and “off-balance.” “Leave your sweetness to the ketchup!” They’re “plump, heavy-looking” “snappy” dogs, but perhaps had a bit too much snap: “I can barely chew through its exoskeleton,” one taster complained. And those good looks were deceiving. “It doesn’t really taste like beef.” “It’s like buying a 24-ounce Bud Light at the ballpark: It’s something to hold, and it will help fill you up, but it doesn’t taste like much.” One taster simply said: “I hate this.”
14. Hatfield Beef Franks Score: 59
The saltiness and blandness of this dog were what contributed to its second-to-last-place finish. “The salt sneaks up on you — and keeps coming,” said one taster. Others complained that this “very middle-of-the-road” dog had a “weird aftertaste” and appeared to be, as one taster described it, “a sickly pale” color. It was “rubbery.” And its lack of meaty flavor made two tasters wonder if we had sneaked a veggie dog into the lineup to trick them. “I’ve eaten hot dogs straight out of the package that taste better than this,” said one, concluding: “Mealy with no snap.”
13. Applegate’s The Great Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dog Score: 61
This dog was just confusing. “Did you let a lamb sausage in here? What is the deal with this one?” said one taster. “It sort of tastes like gyro meat?” said another. “The amount of salt in this — it’s like a South Dakota truck stop jerky level,” said one taster, who nevertheless found the dog “attractive.” Another taster agreed: It was “paler than most, but not in a bad way,” and had an “ombre sort of look.” But the taste? “Meat & feet.” “This is bad.”
11. (tie) Dietz & Watson Deli Beef Franks Score: 67
Is there such a thing as too much snap? Yes, there decidedly is, some tasters said. This “dense” hot dog with a “small, well-shaped visible casing” was “pretty pleasing” to some, but to others, the “casing is like a bank vault — it does not let you in.” Snap fans felt that it “starts strong, but then it’s all downhill from there,” because once you bite through the hot dog’s protective outer layer, flavor-wise, it’s “a letdown.” “IT’S ALL SNAP MAKE IT STOP OH GOD.”
Hebrew National Beef Franks Score: 67
These hot dogs might have fared better, if not for their appearance. Various tasters described it as “a sad brown,” “a dull brown,” and, simply, “they look boring.” “I like the kick to this,” said one taster, and another agreed that it had a certain spiciness. But other tasters marked it down for tasting “overly processed,” and being “super salty,” and for having an “aftertaste [that] is not super.” In terms of texture, they’re “more chew than snap.”
9. (another tie) Ball Park Beef Hot Dogs Score: 68
The nicely charred hot dogs earned a nickname: “These boys are Charizards!” said one taster, referencing the hot dog-colored fire-breathing Pok?mon. They had “discernible garlic and onion.” “Nothing spectacular, but it’s what I need in a hot dog.” Here is an oddly-specific thing I learned about one of my colleagues’ preferences: “I appreciate the pronounced dimple at the tip” of this hot dog. Okay. Snap-wise, they were lacking: “Could be snappier.” “So soft it could be gummed by a salt-loving toddler.” “Melts in my mouth, and not in a good way.” “Too mushy and oily for me.”
Safeway Signature Select Beef Franks Score: 68
Smoky and plump, and they fill out the bun. “This is an absolute unit.” It might be too big, one taster feared: “The proportion of dog to bun feels off.” They’re “beefy, plump, a little more umami than others,” but with a “salt to spice ratio [that’s] slightly out-of-whack.” It, um, “looked more like human anatomy than any other hot dog,” which was a pretty alarming comment from a taster, until you realized that, whew, she was talking about the “#hotdogsorlegs challenge.” “I appreciate the thickness, but the color verges slightly too much toward orange.”
6. (yet another tie) Roseda Farm Beef Franks Score: 71
Despite the pedigreed brand, our tasters were pretty divided on this one. “I like the density,” one taster said, and another praised it for an “excellent snap, thick without feeling like too much of a mouthful and with just a hint of spice. That’s a solid backyard barbecue hot dog.” Appearance-wise, it was both “thick, smooth and brown — just steps away from a jumbo pretzel” and “look[ed] like an oiled-up bodybuilder.” But many of the tasters were meh on the flavor, which they called “blandish”: “I’m overly-aware of the casing — it feels chewy.” “It’s the color of chorizo, but not quite as flavorful.” “GREASE-BOMB.”
Open Nature Uncured Beef Franks Score: 71
The remarks on this one were pretty middlebrow. It has “a nice dark red color” and was “plump and juicy, but too much of a salty aftertaste.” Another complained it was “too oily,” and several people remarked that it was “also a sweet one.” The seasoning was puzzling, but not in a bad way: “It’s paprika? Some sort of salt? I swear I’m getting an Old Bay note here.” “They look like they’d be called ‘organic,'” said a taster who was not cheating, we swear.
Whole Foods 365 Uncured Beef Hot Dogs Score: 71
I’m not sure what it is about this hot dog. Maybe it was the moment in the taste test when the nitrates finally started to go to our brains. But Whole Foods’ house-brand hot dog — “a good blend of salty and sweet,” “spicy, good size and thickness” — inspired some of the most descriptive comments of the entire taste test. “It’s a little bigger than I like to see in a hot dog, but this is a family newspaper, so I won’t make jokes,” said one colleague. “Did they put liquid smoke in this thing? Because it has a weird smoky note,” said another. For those of you who can relate to the colleague who has a specific appreciation for the tips of hot dogs, here’s this detailed feedback, verbatim: “Some of the tips curve upward, and I was excited to try, because I thought the texture would be chewy, but it was just mush. It’s a little wobbly and curvy, like the drunk uncle of hot dogs.” (When I followed up with said colleague to inquire about his thing for hot dog tips, he mused, “I wonder what Freud would say.”) Here’s some feedback in the form of pure poetry, from another taster: “Salty, thick meat stick. There’s not much more to say about this bad boy. I feel like Goldilocks rating these hot dogs. There’s a juuuust right size, and this ain’t it.”
5. Wellshire Sugar-Free All-Natural Uncured Beef Franks Score: 72
The one factor that kept this dog from climbing higher in the ranks seemed to be its sweetness, which persevered despite the dog being labeled as sugar-free. It’s a good looking one — several tasters remarked on its symmetry. But “there’s an odd sweetness here in a lovely and perfectly cylindrical dog.” (Maybe its symmetry made it untrustworthy — “artificial tasting, artificial looking,” was one comment.) It was “peppery and sweet” with “not much in the way of spice” and one taster claimed that it ” smells like ketchup,” even though ketchup was strictly forbidden from this test. “It’s got a sweetness to it that just doesn’t work.” “Why is this sweet? [It] kinda tastes like pancakes, or maybe I’m having a stroke.”
4. Trader Joe’s Uncured Beef Hot Dogs Score: 73
Trader Joe’s does nostalgic favorites well — its offerings came in first and second place in our mac and cheese taste test — so we were not surprised to see a high score for its dogs. Though the spices were confusing for some tasters — “Is there rosemary or some other Italian spice in this?” one asked, while another inquired about liquid smoke — they earned high marks for their bold flavor and spice blend. “These are sweet and a little tangy, which is weird but also kind of pleasant,” said one taster, while another noted, “I’m getting a smoky flavor, and I like it.” They are “tr?s snappy,” and “somehow looked less processed than most of the dogs.” And the pepper! “You can see pepper flakes in these,” said one taster, while another deemed them “a little more peppery than salty — one of my favorites.”
3. Oscar Mayer Classic Beef Uncured Franks Score: 82
The beloved hot dog brand remains at the top of its game. They’re on the slimmer side, but that worked for some of our tasters: “I like a good compact hot dog over a wider one.” “This hot dog packs a decent punch in its tiny frame, but it gets lost in a bun. A good option for someone who likes bread, condiments and just a little bit of meat.” People appreciated its appearance — “a very optimistic red with just a hint of brown” — and its “umami-ish” “smoky” flavor. “These are snaptastic.” “A top hot dog.” “This one tasted extremely Nats Park, hot dog + beer + summer day.”
2. Nathan’s Angus Beef Franks Score: 84
This Coney Island hot dog is an American classic for a reason. “In a bun — and with condiments, ideally — this is a well-balanced, tasty hot dog,” said one taster, and most agreed. It is “uniform with a nice sweat going” and “thinner than the others, the Kate Moss of this tasting.” It has a “good snap, but the casing is more on the rubbery side,” one taster complained. Nevertheless, an incredibly solid dog.
1. Costco’s Kirkland Beef Hot Dogs Score: 93
Surprise! The same place where you can buy a 36-pack of toilet paper also produces the best store-bought hot dog in America. They were universally loved by our tasters for their “solid salt and garlic balance,” “a very beefy hot dog with a lot of seasoning” and “good size, pretty good snap and well-balanced taste.” They have a quintessential hot dog appearance: “These pick up grill marks nicely.” “This one is more red, and I prefer red over brown.” All in all, this “pleasing overall” hot dog scored the most points for having the right combination of spices, beef and snap that reminded our tasters of the best summer days of their youth. They epitomize “classic dog taste.” “I could eat three of these at a ballgame.” They “taste like childhood.” They “taste like summer.”
And once you’ve had your first hot dog of the year, that’s when you know summer’s really here.