I love hot dogs. In my youth, they were the Holy Grail of junk food, since we were only allowed to get them for summer cookout parties or eat them at other peoples’ houses. Every now and then, my Grandfather would make me some real Frankfurters from the Kosher deli: bunless, fatter than dogs, and with skin that I peeled off uneasily, they tasted right but the context was all wrong. I would murder hot dogs in high school when they were on the lunch menu, and once wandered Central Park with a friend eating a dog at every stand we passed. I think we had eaten seven each by the time we made it the Met to look at some paintings. Now, much later, they’re something that all three of us agree are a tasty treat, and we buy a pack of good organic ones every month or so. So making them from scratch for this month’s Charcutepalooza seemed like a no-brainer.
Except for the fact that I was pressed for time and not really feeling it when the time came. That intangible feel is my secret ingredient in the kitchen, and its absence usually means that mediocrity is on the menu. I got the seasoning and grinding done (local grass-fed short ribs) ahead of time, basically following the recipe in Charcuterie, and including a two-day rest before the blending. I was worried a bit about the emulsion breaking, but I kept everything cold and there were no problems. Come stuffing time, though, I was rushed. I got the family involved, and we stuffed a dinner plate-sized coil in about half an hour. The Kitchen Aid stuffing attachment had some issues with the very sticky forcemeat, and the thin nozzle we needed to use for the sheep casings only made for more resistance. There were a couple of blowouts, but it went smoothly enough. I was quickly nostalgic for the ease of stuffing regular sausage, though, where the coarse meat fairly tumbles through the hopper and leaps eagerly out into the waiting casing.
The next problem came because I left the coil to sit for a bit while I lit the smoker and did some other things. I had twisted a few links for us to try pre-smoking, and those were easy. And pretty good at that, just simmered up dirty water-style. But for whatever reason the rested coil blew out at every single twist. This was not relaxing. I rigged up a grate on some bricks in the smoker, and put them in there to smoke, except I took my eye off the ball for a bit too long and they full on cooked to a sputtering, charred doneness. So we ate them for lunch. Not the worst outcome, but a far cry from my visions of lovingly vacuum-sealing six-packs of them for the chest freezer, where they’d take their place alongside the miso-cured bacon and other stunningly good homemade meat products.
I had some grand plans for these, but those will have to wait until I have something I’m prouder of. If I hadn’t been out of town, I could have taken a preliminary stab at this beforehand and learned some lessons. But such is life. Photos were also a problem, given that I had messy hands and little time. You’ll just have to imagine the splendor of my smeary, irregular links. So this post sucks on pretty much every front. I do think, though, that it’s important to be honest and celebrate failures and disappointments; the learning curve can’t be pushed without breaking sometimes. And it was a good education for Milo, who really understood the process for the first time and got a visible thrill from twisting the first batch of links.
If I do this again, I will stuff them into hog casings so they fill more readily and don’t cook so quickly. I’ll also tinker with the seasonings a bit, since these lacked a certain something. A bit of heat, maybe, and some acidity. Korean pepper and kimchi brine would work well, I think, and cold-smoking would make for a more consistent result. But I have to say–and this as an earnest and accomplished advocate of making every damn thing possible from scratch–these were nowhere near as good as the ones we buy. A second attempt would surely improve the result, but right now I rate homemade hot dogs as roughly equivalent to using Doctor Bronner’s peppermint soap as a personal lubricant: it’ll get the job done, but the pain far outweighs the pleasure.