THE BEST BARK FOR YOUR BUCK
July may be National Hot Dog Month, with the annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest in Coney Island and National Hot Dog Day on July 23, but hot dogs are a cheap staple for many families year-round. For hot dogs that will tickle your taste buds without leaving much of a scratch on your budget, Cheapism.com has rounded up several widely available brands, including a couple of not-too-costly "natural" options, to determine the best in show. Taking into account prices from a national supermarket chain, nutritional information, online reviews, and feedback from a tasting panel conducted in 2014, we've ranked nine inexpensive hot dogs from unpalatable to "Pass the mustard, please!"
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THINK TWICE: OSCAR MAYER CLASSIC WIENERS
Consumers shopping for the perfect frank should know: Pork-based hot dogs (which also contain turkey, chicken, and/or beef) may be a cheaper choice, but their all-beef counterparts perform heads and tails above in terms of texture and taste. Walmart shoppers give Oscar Mayer's pork-based hot dog mixed reviews: For some consumers, this is a well-loved standard and the only brand they buy, while others complain of a chemical taste or no taste at all. Similar comments on the brand's website suggest that the particular meat combination (which includes turkey and chicken) may be the culprit. Oscar Mayer Classic Wieners (19 cents each) also bombed with our tasting panel. One taster pronounced them "not at all juicy," with "an odd texture," while another declared, "The aftertaste is just not good."
CHEAPEST CHOICE: ECKRICH FRANKS
The primary ingredient in Eckrich Franks (17 cents each) is turkey, followed by pork, with beef listed alongside other flavorings at less than 2 percent. Online reviews of Eckrich "Original Meat" Franks are hard to come by (comparisons that include the brand tend to focus on the beef franks -- and place them toward the bottom). When our panel took the plunge, these pork-based dogs failed to impress. While they had a decent smoky flavor, tasters said, overall the cheap franks were too dry at worst and simply "okay" at best. Better to spend a few pennies more for an all-beef hot dog.
PASSABLE PORK-BASED DOG: BALL PARK CLASSIC FRANKS
Our tasting panel struggled to identify the best pork-based hot dog among the contenders but reluctantly awarded the distinction to Ball Park Classic Franks (37 cents each). They contain an apparently ever-shifting combination of chicken, turkey, pork, and sometimes beef. The few Walmart shoppers who have weighed in with reviews seem to favor this brand, with most saying it's a great-tasting family favorite. Our testers didn't find the taste or the texture tantalizing, but the wieners weren't universally panned, which is a high compliment for pork-based dogs. Although some judges described them as "mushy," a few liked the flavor. One panelist who preferred them to the rest of the mixed-meat competition noted that they weren't juicy, but the consistency was better than some.
BOTTOM-RANKED BEEF DOG: BALL PARK BEEF FRANKS
Although the brand's pork-based dogs finished at the head of the mixed-meat pack, Ball Park Beef Franks pulled in last among beef hot dogs. Our panelists noted "a weird texture" and said the dogs were "lacking a good beef flavor." Some described "kind of a fake taste" akin to bologna. Reviewers at Good Housekeeping found Ball Park Beef Franks more to their liking, noting a mildly salty and sweet flavor with a side of garlic, although the interior texture was a downer. These dogs have the highest sodium content of any brand on our list, at 550 milligrams, or 23 percent of the recommended daily value. They also have a relatively high price (54 cents each). Still, they fared better than any pork-based hot dogs in our tasting.
GOOD CHEAP BEEF DOG: HERITAGE FARM
A majority of our tasting panel agreed that these Kroger-brand hot dogs were good enough to be one of two runners-up overall. At first bite, supporters deemed the initial taste of Heritage Farm Beef Hot Dogs "good and flavorful." Others said they liked the smoky and salty flavor, although some considered the texture a bit of a turn-off, describing it as somewhat "grainy." However, at about half the price of the other runner-up (31 cents each compared with 62 cents for the Nathan's Famous brand), these beef franks make up in value what they lack in va-va-voom.
GOOD BIG-BRAND BEEF DOG: NATHAN'S FAMOUS BEEF FRANKS
Nathan's Famous has a rich history, and before taking a single bite, several participants on our tasting panel mentioned that the brand's beef franks were their favorite hot dogs. Yet the perceived top dog loped into second place alongside the much cheaper Heritage Farm. Nathan's Famous Beef Franks (62 cents each) were said to convey a "good" or "great" flavor upfront "but not a good aftertaste." Some panelists noted that the hot dogs were "kind of tough." In line with that assessment, Good Housekeeping reviewers concluded that the hot dogs had a balanced taste but an "off" texture. Still, Nathan's Famous gets a nod from The Huffington Post as the top recommended beef hot dog, with a perfectly balanced sweet/salty flavor.
BEST IN SHOW: OSCAR MAYER CLASSIC BEEF FRANKS
The collective opinion of Oscar Mayer Classic Beef Franks (45 cents each) is very positive. On Influenster (which offers consumers free samples to complete product surveys), these hot dogs garner an average rating of 4.5 stars from nearly 1,500 reviewers. They rave that the budget-priced franks are plump, juicy, flavorful, cheap, and easy to cook at home or around the campfire. With our own tasters, these beef dogs bested all competitors. Panelists found them appropriately salty and said they balanced "a nice, firm texture" with "the right amount of juice." As one of the judges summed it up, "The good flavor, smoky taste, and juiciness all combine to make me want to eat the whole hot dog."
BONUS 'NATURAL' BRAND: SIMPLE TRUTH UNCURED BEEF HOT DOGS
Simple Truth Uncured Beef Hot Dogs (64 cents each) are relatively pricey but also relatively healthy, made with meat from cows that have been humanely raised, fed a vegetarian diet, and kept free of antibiotics and hormones. A Simple Truth hot dog contains 140 calories and 12 grams of fat, including 5 grams of saturated fat. It has 260 milligrams of sodium -- far less than any others. Simple Truth franks also don't contain any preservatives, fillers, MSG, or gluten. This Kroger private label didn't make a huge impression on our panel of tasters, however. "Bland" and "average" was the collective opinion of these so-called "natural" hot dogs. While Simple Truth Uncured Beef Hot Dogs should suffice as a solid, budget- and health-conscious alternative to traditional frankfurters, they tied for the lowest finish in the beef division.
BEST 'NATURAL' BRAND: APPLEGATE NATURAL BEEF HOT DOGS
While the price is high on these beef hot dogs (81 cents each), it seems to be the going rate for a "natural" hot dog worth recommending. Applegate offers "healthier" hot dogs a step beyond Simple Truth Uncured Beef Hot Dogs, with half the calories (just 70 per dog), half the fat (6 grams) and, apparently, twice the taste of that less expensive entry. Applegate Natural Beef Hot Dogs are uncured, made with quality cuts of meat from animals raised with no antibiotics. They have no added nitrates or chemical preservatives. Consumers reviewing the hot dogs on the Walmart website have nothing but positive feedback. Many are blown away by the taste, saying these dogs are perfectly seasoned, and the texture is good and juicy. For health-conscious shoppers willing to spend a little more, these are a relatively affordable and enjoyable choice. (Tip: Look for them at warehouse stores such as BJ's Wholesale Club for a lower price per dog.)