Hot Dog Illustration

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If you think about it, a hot dog is a truly bizarre culinary invention. At first glance, the pale brown cylinder doesn’t even look like food (let alone meat), which might have you asking: What’s in it? 

How does the sausage get made?

While the process might be unpleasant, we won't shy away from the stomach-churning details, explaining how hot dog manufacturers turn a slurry of slaughterhouse trimmings into perfect tube steaks. 

But we’ll start with a little history first.

Raw sausages on racks in storage room at meat processing factoryPhoto credit: izikMd/istockphoto

A Brief History of Hot Dogs

You can’t tell the story of the American hot dog without starting in Europe.

After all, modern sausage culture was born in Germany before traveling to the U.S. in the mid-1800s by way of immigrants.

But when the Germans came, they didn’t just bring franks. According to sausage historian Bruce Kraig, they also imported sausage culture — that is, the practice of eating them at home, at beer gardens, and on the street. That wurst-centered lifestyle caught on in the U.S., leading to a proliferation of street vendors in the mid-to-late 1800s.

As for the modern bun, the baker and German immigrant Charles Feltman developed the hand-sliced roll when he started a street dog operation on Coney Island. In his first summer, he sold 4,000 hot dogs, according to Coney Island historian Michael Quinn who spoke to CNN. Feltman parlayed his hot dog cart’s success into the Ocean Pavilion restaurant, which became so popular that it was selling around 40,000 hot dogs a day by the 1920s. Ever since, hot dogs have soared in popularity, becoming a backyard barbecue staple.

If you can believe it, these days Americans eat around 20 billion hot dogs per year, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. (Need a good laugh? You should also check out the council's completely unhinged hot dog etiquette rules.)

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Hot Dog Ingredients

There are a lot of off-putting myths about what hot dogs are made of, but the answer is pretty simple. We go over some of the most common ingredients below.

  • Meat: It’s no secret that hot dogs are made from meat trimming, though exactly what kind will depend on the frank you buy. Some hot dogs are made of pieces of meat cut away from beef and pork, while others include chicken or turkey that’s been separated from the bones (labeled as “mechanically separated”). Combination hot dogs that include multiple meats are common, too. If variety or organ meats make their way into hot dogs, the package will be labeled “with variety meats” or “with meat byproducts.”

  • Water: Manufacturers sometimes add water or ice to help blend the ingredients.

  • Spices: Companies typically add pepper, garlic, coriander, and other spices to their franks for flavor.

  • Sugar or Corn Syrup: Companies add these to sweeten and brown their product.

  • Beef Stock: Beef stock gives hot dogs a meatier flavor.

  • Citric Acid: Adding citric acid controls the acidity of the hot dogs.

  • Flavor Enhancers: Manufacturers will add flavor enhancers to boost or complement the hot dog’s taste. Common additions include autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and monosodium glutamate (commonly known as MSG).

  • Casings: Hot dog meat is typically encased in collagen made from beef protein, though some franks use natural hog or sheep intestine casings.

  • Colorants: As you might imagine, colorants add color. Cherry powder derived from the fruit is a common colorant.

  • Thickeners: Thickeners like modified food starch give hot dog meat a consistent texture. Think of it like corn starch.

Related: Where to Find the Most Extreme Hot Dogs Across America

How Hot Dogs Are Made: A Step-by-Step Guide

1. Step One: Grinding the Meat

Selected meats (usually beef, pork, or a blend) are ground to a fine consistency, ensuring an even texture for the hot dogs.

2. Step Two: Adding Spices, the Curing Agent, and other Ingredients

Spices, curing agents, and other ingredients like garlic are mixed in to enhance flavor and preserve the meat.

3. Step Three: Adding Water and Blending

Water is added to the mixture for moisture, and the blend is thoroughly mixed to achieve a uniform, paste-like consistency.

4. Step Four: Stuffing Them Into Casings

The meat mixture is then piped into casings, traditionally made from animal intestines, but often from beef collagen, forming the hot dog's shape.

5. Step Five: Cooking and Smoking the Hot Dogs

The filled casings are cooked, often with a smoking process, to impart flavor and fully cook the meat.

6. Step Six: Peeling the Hot Dogs

For hot dogs sold without casings, the outer casing is removed after cooking, leaving the smooth, uniform hot dog surface.

7. Step Seven: Packaging the Hot Dogs

Finally, the hot dogs are cooled, packaged in plastic, and vacuum-sealed for freshness.

The Bottom Line

While hot dogs might not be as gross as you imagined, the behind-the-scenes process isn't exactly appetizing. I mean, they're literally taking a bunch of leftover animal flesh, turning it into a meat smoothie, and then packaging the slime in a tube. Still, it's rare to find a hot dog with "variety meats" in North America, and if you do find an organ-filled dog, the package should be labeled thanks to federal regulations. But if you need a reason to stay away from franks beyond the ick factor, there are plenty, from environmental to health concerns.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which parts of the animal are in hot dogs?

Unless otherwise indicated, hot dogs are made of pureed meat trimmings (pieces leftover after meat is cut) and mechanically separated pork and poultry. If your hot dog contains tongues, lips, snouts, or organ meats, the package must say “with variety meats” or “with meat byproducts,” as food labeling regulations are fairly strict.

Are hot dogs healthy?

Hot dogs are not healthy. In fact, they’re pretty unhealthy. To begin with, hot dogs can increase your risk for certain cancers, with the World Health Organization classifying all processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans.” Hot dogs also contain high levels of saturated fats and sodium, both of which can push you over your daily limit.

How were hot dogs originally made?

The modern hot dog traces its origin back to Germany, where sausages (called Frankfurter wurstchen) are made using ground pork and a natural sheep casing, according to Taste Atlas. The sausage is then boiled and smoked. To prepare these pre-cooked würstchen, Germans typically heat them in simmering water.

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