Whether you’re at a backyard barbecue or a baseball game, there’s no question that hot dogs are a summer staple. Their satisfying saltiness, the vast array of toppings and that satisfying snap when you bite into one ― our mouths are watering already.
But what exactly makes that classic snap? Do we even want to know? Today, we’re doing a deep dive into the world of hot dog casings, with insights from industry experts. Here’s what you need to know.
What gives hot dogs that signature “snap” when you bite into one?
In the hot dog world, most products on the market are either skinless or have a natural casing. The latter is another way of saying intestines, and this is usually what gives hot dogs (and sausages) their snap. Sheep and pig intestines are most commonly used.
“The snap is most noticeable on hot dogs and sausages that use a natural casing,” Cara Nicoletti, a fourth generation butcher and the founder and CEO of Seemore Meats & Veggies, told HuffPost. “I personally find sheep casings to be snappier because they’re a bit thinner than hog,” she said. “You won’t get the same snap on hot dogs and sausages with non-natural casings,” which are cooked in a cellulose casing that’s later peeled off. She added that hog casings are more common for larger diameter sausages, while thinner sausages and hot dogs are often made with snappier sheep casings.
Skinless hot dogs aren’t quite as snappy, but they can get a subtle snap when cooked. “The ‘snap’ is created through very specific settings in the smoke house that closely control time, temperature, humidity, smoke and air flow over the hot dogs while they are being cooked,” said Chad Clem, director of research and development at Applegate. “These settings help develop a ‘skin’ on the surface of the hot dog with the naturally occurring meat proteins while locking in moisture on the interior of the product.”
Butchers and mass food manufacturers have been making hot dogs and sausages with animal intestines for thousands of years. “This is the traditional way to make sausage,” Nicoletti said. “Sausages were created with whole animal usage in mind, and stuffing small bits of scrap meat, blood and offal into an edible casing was the most efficient way to waste as little as possible.”
Jeremy Schaller, the third generation owner of Schaller & Weber in New York City, added that sausages were also a way of preserving meat that there wasn’t time to use fresh.
As far as food safety goes, Nicoletti notes that all commercial sausage casings in the United States are strictly monitored for cleanliness by the USDA, so there is little risk contamination or foodborne illness when you’re buying sausages from a reputable source. “Unlike the old days, casings now undergo a rigorous cleansing process done by machinery instead of humans before use, which has very little margin for error as the machines are able to clean more thoroughly,” she said. “That said, I wouldn’t eat anything stuffed into casings that haven’t been inspected by the USDA for safety, as there is great potential risk for foodborne illness if they haven’t been properly cleaned.”
For the snappiest hot dogs, boil them.
For flavor, you can’t beat the smoky taste of a grilled hot dog, but if a satisfying snap is most important to you, boiling is best. “The filling will expand without damaging the casing, which can happen when grilling or frying,” Schaller said. “Just make sure not to overdo it, or the casing will rip in the water, not in your mouth!”
Skinless hot dogs aren’t as snappy, but have other benefits.
To maintain their shape, skinless hot dogs are stuffed and cooked in a cellulose casing. Cellulose is an insoluble material made from plant and vegetable fibers, and it’s peeled off after the hot dogs are cooked and before they’re packaged. Since cellulose is permeable, it allows air and smoke to penetrate the surface of the meat, according to Clem.
“Skinless hot dogs exist for a number of reasons,” Schaller said. He explained that they are very uniform (which makes cooking a lot of hot dogs at once much easier), cheaper to produce and offer a different bite and flavor profile. “A bit of variety is a good thing; that’s why we make both of them here at Schaller & Weber,” he said.
Clem added that the consistency in size and shape of skinless hot dogs often leads to operational efficiencies at food production facilities. He notes that one of the easiest ways to determine if a hot dog is skinless or not is by looking at the shape. “Cellulose casings are designed to produce a finished link that is perfectly straight, whereas natural casings have an inherent curvature from the twisting and bending of the intestines of the animal that results in links that typically curve on both ends,” he said.
For companies that make chicken sausages, like Seemore, going skinless means the final product is completely pork-free. “Our chicken sausages are stuffed into cellulose, which then gets peeled off before packaging,” Nicoletti said. “Our other options were sheep casings, which most large manufacturers won’t use because they are expensive and very fragile, or collagen casings, which I personally do not prefer the texture of.” She likens the texture of collagen casings to the feeling of a thick skin on a pudding that’s been sitting out. “It’s just not a texture I love. It almost gives less of a snap than no casing at all.”
If you simply prefer skinless hot dogs, you aren’t alone. “We have found that consumers in most parts of the United States prefer the bite and texture of skinless hot dogs,” Clem said. “Natural casing sales tend to be concentrated primarily in the Northeast states.”
Are skinless hot dogs healthier?
As far as nutrition goes, Kris Sollid, a registered dietitian and senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council, notes that whether a hot dog is skinless or has a natural casing, it doesn’t significantly impact its nutritional value. The type of meat and seasoning is the real difference maker.
If you’re looking for healthier options when shopping for hot dogs or sausages, Sollid recommends checking out nutrition facts labels for saturated fat and sodium content. “If you’re looking for lower sodium options, choose those with less than 460 milligrams of sodium per serving, which is 20% of the sodium that is recommended in a day,” he said. “If you’re looking for lower saturated fat options, give chicken and turkey varieties a try.”