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Here's how to enjoy grilling season without derailing your diet.
Grilling season is upon us, which means it's time to spend time outside (and eat lots of burgers and dogs). Whether you're wanting a veggie burger with heft, a hot dog with all the fixins', or a fluffy bun that'll hold your favorite meat and condiments, we've got you covered. Here are our favorites from each category.
The Healthiest Packaged Hot Dogs
Eating healthy should still be delicious.
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All-Beef Dog Boar's Head Skinless Beef Frankfurters: 120 calories, 4.5g sat fat, 350mg sodium. This wiener's authentic beef flavor made it stand out among its beefy brethren. Although it was one of the lowest in sodium of the ones we tried, you won't feel like you're missing a thing: Salty-garlicky notes are rounded out by a hint of spicy smoke. It's sans skin, but still snappy. $6.59 (10 per package)
All-Poultry Dog Applegate The Great Organic Chicken Hot Dog: 80 calories, 1.5g sat fat, 410mg sodium. Turkey dogs may get bypassed because shoppers fear trading flavor for health, but we were delighted by this all-chicken version: It's a tasty frank that is pleasantly salty with a mild, delicately smoky chicken flavor. $6.49 (7 per package)
Trader Joe's Italian Chicken Sausage: 110 calories, 1.5g sat fat, 410mg sodium. If you want something that tastes like a brat, pick up container of Trader Joe's sweet Italian chicken sausage the next time you're at the store.
Hot Dog Toppers: Want to jazz up a plain ol' dog? Try one of our healthy hot dog toppers—they're all delicious, and under 100 calories.
The Healthiest Packaged Burgers
Trader Joe's Chile Lime Chicken Burgers: 110 calories, 1g sat fat, 270mg sodium. Ok, so these aren't beef hamburgers, but they're crazy delicious. Chicken and lime bring decidedly southwest flavor—plus, one patty packs 15g of protein!
MorningStar Farm Grillers Original Veggie Burgers: 130 calories, 1g sat fat, 260mg sodium. These plant-based burgers pack as much protein as the chicken burger from Trader Joe's (15g!) Talk about veggie power.
Applegate Organic Turkey Burgers: 140 Calories, 2g sat fat, 55mg sodium. We love that these turkey burgers are super low in sodium and free of any antibiotics. Plus, they boast 17g of protein per patty.
The bottom line: Pre-packaged beef hamburgers are not great when it comes to calories, sodium, and sat fat. Try making your own burgers —they're cheaper, healthier, and way more delicious.
The Healthiest Hot Dog and Hamburger Buns
Udi's Classic Hot Dog Buns: 170 calories, 0g sat fat, 330mg sodium, 30g carbs. These hot dog buns are gluten-free, but you'd never be able to tell by the pillow-soft texture and bakery-like taste.
Ezekial 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain Hamburger Buns: 170 calories, 9g sat fat, 170mg sodium, 34g carbs. Sprouted organic whole grains get a star role in these hamburger buns, and the toothsome texture would be delicious with almost any grilled burger.
Rudi's 100% Whole Wheat Hamburger Buns: 140 calories, 0g sat fat, 240mg sodium, 28g carbs. These buns have a hearty whole wheat flavor that'll make you want to eat the bread first.
5 Healthier Hot Dogs
I used to be totally against anything related to a hot dog. Two kids later, I find myself turning to them as a viable option for the occasional backyard barbecue or last-minute weeknight dinner. Part of the reason I changed my mind was because of healthier options. After reading TONS of ingredient labels, I found some decent choices out there, with something to please everyone (including vegetarians). In honor of National Hot Dog Day, here are some of the top dogs.
Beef, spices and that's about it. These tasty hot dogs are free of nitrates and have only 70 calories and 6 grams of fat. Organic versions are also available and Applegate Farms uses no antibiotics with their animals.
Super popular among vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, this 2.75-ounce "frankfurter" contains 180 calories and 8 grams of fat. It's made from wheat gluten, tomato paste and spices. It's a bit high in the sodium department (690 milligrams), so reserve for occasional enjoyment.
Soy and pea protein isolate make up this 50-calorie dog. Two grams of fat and 330 mg sodium keep it light. The flavor could be slightly more robust but a solid veggie option nonetheless.
Applegate Farms wins out for poultry too. Nothing but simple ingredients going into this 60-calorie dog. Sodium and fat are also in check at 370 milligrams and 3.5 grams.
The name made me giggle but these dogs are no joke. Made with skinless breast and spices, these nitrate-free dogs have 70 calories, 2.5 grams of fat and 230 milligrams of sodium.
A typical dog is highly processed and may contain low-quality meats and oodles of preservatives. Nitrates are often used to enhance color and increase shelf-life.
Classic hot dogs may be made of pork or beef (or both). They contain about 150 to 180 calories per link. Where it gets really ugly is the fat and sodium. One link has (on average) 14 grams of total fat, 5 grams of saturated fat and 400 to 500 milligrams of sodium, or nearly 20 percent of the daily recommendation.
Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana's full bio »
What to look for when choosing a veggie burger
Suzannah Gerber, a food behaviorist and a senior medical researcher at Inova Medical, explains that the definition of "healthy" may be harder to pinpoint when it comes to veggie burgers. "There are veggie burgers that are great for low-fat diets, low-carb diets, high-protein diets, some that are nutritionally composed for optimum values but are mostly processed foods, and some that are made from whole plant foods with no additives and added oils." She recommends evaluating your dietary goals and figuring out exactly what you're looking for in a veggie burger "I prefer burgers with whole plant ingredients, like Engine 2 and Dr. Praeger's. If protein composition or allergen/inflammation are part of the equation I may look at Field Roast, and if keto diet is the direction then Beyond Meat."
In any case, there are many options for veggie burgers that can become a healthy part of your diet.
What’s The Healthiest Fast Food Burger Chain?
If you’re careful about what you eat, you probably don’t frequent chains like McDonald’s or Burger King, but where do you go when you want a burger? There are several higher-end and “farm-to-table” burger chains popping up, advertising their “all natural”, “organic” and “grass-fed” burgers. So I had to find out, are they really legit? Are they serving GMO ingredients? Do they really serve grass-fed burgers? Or, is their meat really just from a filthy factory farm with a slick marketing campaign?
We reached out to over a dozen burger chains on a quest to find a better burger… and were shocked by our findings.
After investigating how food is produced and raised in this country, one of the first commitments I made was to stop eating “factory farmed” meat. That’s why I usually opt for veggie burgers and vegan dishes when eating at restaurants, where almost all the meat is “conventionally” grown on a factory farm. Whether I’m eating at home, a friend’s house, or at a restaurant – I try my best not to eat meat unless I know it wasn’t grown in some dirty feedlot in horrible conditions.
Why to avoid burgers made with “conventional” beef…
Most cattle in this country live crammed together in inhumane living conditions (aka “factory farm”), subsisting on a diet of chemical-laden GMO grains (instead of grass) which makes them bulk up fast for mass production and an early slaughter. They are further fattened up with added hormones (linked to cancer), growth stimulating drugs, and antibiotics – a system fraught with numerous environmental and health problems.
When you eat conventional meat, you’re probably eating hormones, antibiotics, resistant bacteria, steroids, and chemicals created by the fear and stress suffered by the animal during slaughter.
This is NOT how we should be raising animals for food. These animals are not healthy. And when we eat animals that are not healthy – we become unhealthy. If you want to change the food industry, your body, and get healthy, you have to make the commitment to stop eating conventional (factory farmed) meat.
If you eat beef – only choose 100% grass-fed. Here’s why…
Raising cattle on grass takes too long for the typical factory farm. When cows are raised on grass, they aren’t eating “Roundup Ready” GMO corn and candy like Skittles to fatten them up insanely fast.
Cows’ digestive systems are not designed to easily process starchy foods like corn and candy, and these can make conventional cows sick. That’s one reason why grass-fed cows are rarely given antibiotics. They are less likely to get sick, spending more time outdoors and not in a crowded and filthy feedlot. Sustainably raised grass-fed beef is also less likely to harbor deadly bacteria , such as E. coli and S. aureus (a bacteria that produces a toxin that is not easily destroyed by cooking).
100% grass-fed cows are fed grass and forage that grows on the pasture during the growing season, and during the winter they’re fed hay and compacted grass. This has a major effect on the nutrient composition of their meat. These cows produce meat with significantly more omega-3 fatty acids and almost twice as much CLA (a fatty acid that is good for you and associated with fat loss ). It’s also packed with more vitamins A and E than conventional beef.
That being said… some grass-fed beef is a fraud.
Sometimes “grass-fed cows” are moved off the pasture and into a feedlot where they’re fed GMOs and live in the same horrible conditions as conventional cows before slaughter. Meat from these cows can still be called “grass fed” because this term is not properly defined by the USDA. That’s why ultimately you want to look for meat that is certified 100% grass-fed and finished.
Unfortunately most restaurants do not serve 100% grass-fed burgers and there is a lot of greenwashing going on – so you’ve really got to do your homework and search them out.
There are some options that sound better than the typical burger place…
You’ve got Shake Shack’s % all-natural Angus beef”… Five Guys “handcrafted” burgers… Red Robin’s “gourmet” burgers… Smashburger’s “fresh, never frozen beef”…
That all sounds nice, but be aware that terms like 100% pure beef, all-natural, Angus, gourmet, free range, and handcrafted really don’t tell ya a whole lot.
- That it is grass-fed.
- That it is organic.
- That it is non-GMO.
- That it was humanely raised.
- That it was raised without antibiotics.
- That it was raised without growth promoting drugs.
- That it was raised without added hormones.
- That it has never seen the inside of a factory farm.
Sometimes a burger is labeled as “Natural” and actually does mean some of those things.. but often that’s not the case.
According to USDA regulations, you can call your meat “Natural” if it’s minimally processed and has no artificial ingredients in the meat itself. This applies to most fresh meat, so that’s why the natural label doesn’t mean much.
As for “Certified Angus” , this is just a breed of cattle that has met some quality requirements , none specifying how the cows were raised. When a hamburger has “100% pure beef” that simply means that no other meats were added to the burger patty – it’s just beef.
In all these instances, this beef could be (and likely is) conventional. Don’t fall for these marketing terms! Instead, look for burgers made with organic ingredients and 100% grass fed and finished beef .
Here’s what we uncovered about these “healthier” burger chains…
Shake Shack – They admitted to us, “our beef is produced within the conventional farming industry and is not GMO free”. Although they never use hormones or antibiotics, it is still grain-finished. They refused to provide complete ingredient lists for their food, but confirmed the ShackSauce contains canola oil (high risk GMO ingredient) which is “not listed as “non-GMO.” Something to note: I always refuse to eat at any establishment that hides their ingredients from consumers.
Smashburger – The beef at Smashburger is “pasture-fed corn finished”. That means it is not 100% grass-fed. And, it may have been raised with hormones and antibiotics. They told us, “There may be hormones used in the growth of the beef cattle. We do not specify or source hormone free beef. Antibiotics may be used in both our ground beef and chicken as a precautionary step to prevent illness. They are not used as part of a regular or routine process. We do not specify that either product be antibiotic free.” What they are sprinkling on top of those burgers is not very good either. Smashburger’s burger seasoning is packed hidden MSG additives like hydrolyzed proteins and yeast extract, which cause you to eat more than you should and are linked to health issues. They sent us the ingredients in their food (oddly listed in alphabetical order), but you can see their burgers are PACKED with controversial additives… (and see what’s in their fries here)…
Five Guys – The beef is grain-fed. They told us via email their beef comes from cattle “mainly raised on corn” and “a diet… that includes vitamins, corn, and etc”, who “will be administered Anabolic Steroids only if the animal gets sick and needs to be nursed back to health”. When pressed for more information on antibiotics, Five Guys said animals may receive antibiotics if sick and not “without good reason”. They only provided a partial ingredient list for their buns, claiming their bread is “proprietary”, but admit it’s “not GMO free” and contains soy.
Carl’s Jr. – Contacting Carl’s Jr. was like talking to a brick wall. They did not respond (at all) to multiple undercover emails and phone calls. They apparently do not want to discuss their meat which makes me want to run far away from this place and never look back. We were told when we called that they’re in the process of discontinuing their “All-Natural Burger” (which was made with grass-fed beef without hormones, steroids, or antibiotics) – so now you’ll only be able to buy their burgers made with conventional beef. No thanks. Just look at all those nasty additives and high fructose corn syrup in their burgers…
Red Robin – According to Red Robin’s website, “Our Gourmet Burgers are made with all-natural, domestic, Government-inspected beef.” In other words – it’s conventional. They told us, “We do not mandate our suppliers to use GMO free food. We also do allow our suppliers to treat sick animals with antibiotics.” The Red Robin sesame seed buns are filled with high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil.
The Habit Bar & Grill – The beef is “corn fed”, not grass fed and not organic. They refused to provide ingredients in their burger, but we were able to confirm that the seeded bun contains soybean and cottonseed oils (both high risk GMO ingredients).
In-N-Out Burger – The meat comes from one of the largest factory farms. I posted a video of what it looks like on Instagram – check it out here. Critics call it “cowschwitz” because thousands of cows can be seen crowded and walking in their own excrement. After our investigation and working together with consumer advocacy groups, In-N-Out told the media that they’re phasing out routine antibiotics – but there is no timeline . They still do not publish their ingredients online and hide the ingredients in their burgers.
Culver’s – I recently asked on Facebook where you like to get burgers, and this spot was the winner. I’m really sorry to say that Culver’s burgers come from cows that live in a feedlot during the last few months of their lives, where they are given hormones and eat corn/grain diets. They also may be administered antibiotics if deemed necessary. Culver’s buns are also made with high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, and additives like DATEM and artificial flavors.
Umami Burger – The beef is grass fed, but grain-finished. Umami said that although they have “antibiotic free” meats available from their supplier, they don’t request those and “most of them use antibiotics”. Although they don’t use MSG additives in their food, they wouldn’t provide us with a list of ingredients.
These chains serve better burgers, but you might want to BYOB “Bring Your Own Bun”…
Elevation Burger – They are doing the right thing as far as their meat goes in sourcing 100% organic grass-fed beef and organic chicken… but I hate to tell ya that the rest of their burger ingredients are pretty horrible. I was incredibly disappointed to find that only their meat is organic, and their buns and toppings are full of additives. Elevation’s buns and sauces are not verified Non-GMO, so they may contain GMOs. They really could do better by cleaning up the ingredients, stopping the use of soybean oil in practically everything, getting those artificial colors out of their sauce, and serving organic buns. Elevation Burger’s “Veggie Patty” isn’t a good option either because it’s not organic and spiked with “autolyzed yeast extract” a hidden form of MSG. A better option is their organic “Vegan Patty”, but ultimately if I ate at Elevation burger, I would stick with their Elevation Salad (sans their dressing) instead of a burger. You could top that with organic grilled chicken tenders or an organic burger without the bun and toppings. Another option would be a lettuce wrapped burger, without the Elevation Sauce.
BareBurger – The meat is completely grass-fed and finished and not given antibiotics or hormones. But, where I really get hung up is on their buns. Corporate offices didn’t respond to several emails asking for the ingredients in their bun, whether it is organic, and if they use any GMO ingredients. One restaurant told us the buns are NOT organic. Another restaurant told us the brioche buns contain sugar, margarine, soy oil, and canola oil which are all high risk GMO ingredients. I’d say the healthiest option is to wrap your burger in a nutrient packed organic collard leaf (they have this option) and skip the bun. Beware that they serve the “Impossible Burger” as a vegan option which is made with SLH (soy leghemoglobin), a new protein made in a lab with GMO yeast. This protein has never been in our food before and even the FDA has questioned its safety.
Whole Foods Market (restaurant) – The beef standards don’t allow for antibiotics or hormones, however they do allow for 1/3 of the cow’s life to be spent off of the pasture. Our local Whole Foods told us they DO NOT use grass-fed beef for the burgers. The beef they use is Step 2 Global Animal Partnership meat taken from their meat department, which is at least partially “vegetarian fed”. This means it was likely fed grains. The hamburger buns are made locally and varies per location. Here in Charlotte, they told us the package doesn’t specify whether the buns are Non-GMO and that they contain canola oil and sugar (both high risk GMO ingredients). The ingredients and specific beef used will vary per location, so definitely ask questions before you order.
B.Good – They are transparent about their suppliers and use (partially) grass-fed beef without antibiotics or hormones. That being said, sadly they are not organic and their beef is grain-finished. Their buns are also not organic and contain GMO sugar. B.Good is doing some good things and are far better than most chains, but I would love to see them go organic and 100% grass fed. I personally love their salads and bowls.
BurgerFi – The meat is grass-fed and grain finished, and they never use antibiotics or growth hormones. We have contacted them for ingredients and will update when we hear back from them.
Questionable veggie burger ingredients…
Next Level Burger – This vegetarian burger place uses organic buns and toppings, but beware that not everything is organic. Their “house-made” burger patties are organic, but the “meaty patty” is not. I want to love this place, but they said their ingredients are “confidential and proprietary”, so we have no clue what additives may be lurking in there. (We are still trying to obtain ingredients (we contacted the owner), and will update this post if they disclose).
Amy’s Drive-Thru – This vegetarian 100% organic fast food place is pretty great (but with reservations). They provide ingredient lists at the register, so you can see exactly what you’re ordering. They are good in a pinch, but beware their burgers contain some unhealthy ingredients like hydrolyzed soy protein and soybean oil.
When I get a burger, this is where I go…
Farm Burger – The beef is 100% grass fed and finished and never fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Their buns are not organic, but they are baked locally without additives. They also have amazing chicken burgers! I hope you’re lucky enough to have one of these in your area, I love this place.
True Food Kitchen – For their beef burgers, they use sustainably-raised 100% grass-fed beef and an exclusive Dave’s Killer Bread bun. They did tell us though that the bun is not organic and that they follow the Dirty Dozen for their produce. When I’m traveling I love to eat here. I personally prefer to eat their turkey burger.
Usually, the best burgers are not found at chains!
Seek out local farm-to-table restaurants in your area. If that isn’t an option, your best bet is to buy some grass-fed beef from local farmers or Butcher Box (my partner) and make burgers at home. Butcher Box is offering an exclusive $10 off + 2 lbs grass-fed ground beef free (for a limited time to new customers).
Questions to ask your local burger place…
If the answer is NO, it likely was raised on some grains or GMO feed. You can also ask:
- What is your policy on antibiotics in the raising of your meat?
- Is your beef raised with growth hormones?
- Can I see the complete ingredient list for your burger?
Consider eating less meat and choose veggie burgers…
Our demand for beef is escalating out of control and the only way that we can transition to more sustainable farming methods is for all of us to eat less meat.
Anyone with small children knows that pasta with butter is a staple, and for good reason: It's delicious, easy to prepare, and filling. Is pasta the healthiest meal? Not in excess. But, dried pasta keeps on your shelf for ages. Plus, there are so many healthy pasta options now, like whole wheat, chickpea, or veggie pasta (which you can make by putting zucchini through a spiralizer or getting spaghetti squash).
Like beans and rice, nuts are shelf-stable foods that are full of protein and (mostly) not processed, making them a healthy snack option if consumed in moderation. Hot tip: Topping your salad or dessert with some crushed-up nuts can add taste and texture, as well as make your meal more filling.
Dig This Story? Bite Into These.
Boost Your Backyard Grill Out With a Bacon Hot Dog Topping Bar
Hungry for patriotic party ideas? Try a buffet that combines two of America's favorite foods: hot dogs and bacon! Nathan's Famous can help you make it happen.
It’s a Hit! How to Make Stadium-Style Hot Dogs at Home
Hungry for a baseball stadium hot dog, but can’t make it to the game? Try this Nathan’s recipe for an authentic, major league-worthy hot dog right at home!
The Middle of the Pack
These hot dogs were good over all but missed greatness because of one attribute: The sausage was either too sweet, too salty, too smoky or too tough.
APPLEGATE THE GREAT ORGANIC UNCURED BEEF HOT DOG, $9.99 FOR 8 “Not bad but the salt balance is off — and where are the spices?” I wrote in my tasting notes. “The kid hot dog par excellence.” This was the only grass-fed hot dog that the panel liked.
NATHAN’S FAMOUS SKINLESS BEEF FRANKS, $5.59 FOR 8 A mild, juicy frank that “melds in a nice way” with bun and condiments, Melissa said. But sweeter than we would have liked.
OSCAR MAYER CLASSIC BEEF UNCURED FRANKS, $5.99 FOR 10 “Superfragrant, smoky and sweet,” Sam said. But the small size of these dogs was disappointing.
BOAR’S HEAD BEEF FRANKFURTERS ORIGINAL FAMILY RECIPE, $5.29 FOR 8 Good texture and great beefiness, but the casings toughened on the grill this would probably make a great boiled dog. According to Sam, “Not a snap so much as a crust.”
THE BROOKLYN HOT DOG COMPANY SMOKED AND UNCURED CLASSIC BEEF DOGS, $9.99 FOR 6 The smokiest of the bunch, with good beef flavor. But at almost a foot long, it did not seem like a backyard barbecue hot dog to me.
The Best Hot Dog Brands, Ranked
We tasted hot dog after hot dog after hot dog to determine the best.
Chances are that when you're buying hot dogs, you're not thinking too much. You go with a familiar brand or the kind that's a few cents cheaper. A hot dog is a hot dog right?
Flavor-wise, maybe. With the exception of a few, it was pretty difficult for us to taste the difference between a lot of the franks. But don't forget about texture. The range of textures here was drastic.
This was a very difficult task (as you've probably already assumed) and one that we wouldn't wish on our worst enemies. Even when sliced into 1" coins, you still end up eating a ton of hot dog. Plus, these were boiled (grilling would've given them an unfair advantage) AND there was no ketchup, mustard, or bun allowed.
So! As you make your most important summer plans, please keep this meticulous ranking in mind.
As New Yorkers who have trekked to Coney Island for Nathan's infamous hot dogs, we can always get down with a Nathan's. They're definitely on the saltier side, but we're not mad.
Their familiar flavor was nostalgic they truly taste like childhood. One bite and it all comes rushing right back.
What we were into: the strong beef flavor and chewy exterior. And while it's a bit lacking in the salt department (nothing a bunch of condiments can't fix!), these guys are a solid crowd pleaser.
"It tastes like real meat!" one person exclaimed. Hebrew National prides itself on using only "premium cuts of beef from the front half of the cow." So the "whole hot dogs are scary because you don't know what's in them" argument doesn't apply here.
This is the dog they sell throughout the streets and parks of New York City, so you know it's legit. Thankfully, it's available outside of the Big Apple, too.
Visually, it's very shiny. It's also longer than average, so when you're eating it at a cookout, expect more hot dog than bun. Most importantly, it has a "snap so loud you can hear it as you chew."
The healthiest foods you can grill
It’s easy to throw ground beef, steak, or hot dogs onto the grill — you’ve probably done it for years. But you don’t have to limit yourself to grilling only meat and potatoes. It can’t hurt to take a step back from red meat and try something new. If you don’t like the taste of raw vegetables, grilling is also a great way to sneak more fiber into your diet.
These are some of the healthiest foods you can slide onto your grill this weekend:
- Romaine lettuce
- Potatoes, white or sweet
Now for a few healthy recipes to try. There’s something on this list for everyone. Whether you’re craving seafood, a juicy burger, or you want to eat a vegetable that isn’t canned or doused in oil, there’s a healthy recipe here for you. Enjoy!
What’s the best hot dog in America? We tried 15 popular brands to find out.
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 15th 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 Voraciously HQ. We judged the dogs — purchased in D.C. 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
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
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
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.”
Dietz & Watson Deli Beef Franks
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
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
The nicely charred hot dogs earned a nickname: “These boys are Charizards!” said one taster, referencing the hot dog-colored fire-breathing Pokémon. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 “très 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
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
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
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.