How to Grill the Perfect Hot Dog

How to Grill the Perfect Hot Dog

It’s summertime, people, and that means heat rash, going to work even though it’s a really nice day, and grilling hot dogs! The humble frankfurter may have been invented in Germany, but it has become a distinctly American and Australian food. Although us Aussies prefer a good sanga sandwich.

Let me begin this guide to making awesome grilled hot dogs with disappointment (I like to start everything on a note of disappointment): Although I set out to discover some previously unknown nuance that would make your grilled hot dogs sing, I learned only that, if there is such a nuance, I was unable to uncover it. Whether you dress it up with high end condiments or spiral-cut it, ultimately, a hot dog is just a hot dog. It’s immutable hot-doggy-ness is the wiener’s greatest strength and most terrible weakness.

How to grill hot dogs like a king

Photo: Stephen Johnson/North Hills Hot Dog League
Photo: Stephen Johnson/North Hills Hot Dog League

Part of what makes hot dogs great is how easy they are to prepare. You can boil ‘em, throw ‘em in a microwave, air fry ‘em, stick a fork through ‘em and cook ‘em on your stove’s open flame, sous vide ‘em, or just eat them right out of the package like a caveman. But the best preparation method is grilling. The slight char on the outside, courtesy of the Maillard reaction, enhances the flavour, and you’re usually outside with friends and loved ones while you’re doing it, which makes any food taste better.

Here’s how to grill hot dogs right.

  • Make sure your grill is clean and non-stick. You can spray some nonstick spray like Pam on it, or wait until it heats up and dip a paper towel in canola oil or peanut oil and drag it across the grates. Use tongs, though. Long ones, so you don’t burn yourself.
  • Heat up your grill. We used a propane grill, and set all the burners at around 3/4 power, closed the lid and gave it 15 minutes or so to heat up. It was around 350℉ when we put the dogs on. If you’re using charcoal, make sure there’s a not-too-hot area for the initial heating. Check out this article for info on setting up two zones in a charcoal grill, and a ton of other in-depth grilling biz.
  • Put them on indirect heat. Hot dogs are already cooked right out of the package, so you’re really just heating them through in this step, so put your dogs on indirect heat, away from the hottest portions of the grill, whether that’s the rack you see in the picture above, or just away from the coals. Let them heat for 5 to 7 minutes or so, turning them as frequently as you remember to. If you’re using jumbo dogs, give them another two minutes or so. There’s no exact number because grills are different and dogs are different, but you’ll know they’re finished when the ends begin to burst a little.
  • Sear ‘em and mark ‘em. Now that they’re heated through, move your dogs to the hottest part of the grill and position them to sear some diagonal grill marks on them. (This is the idea, anyway. We weren’t able to achieve any picturesque grill marks, try as we might.) Marks or no, you want a slightly crackly, bubbly skin on your frank. Among chefs and foodies, this called “reverse searing” and it works as well with filet mignon as it does your wiener. I assume my Michelin star is in the mail.
  • Toast the bun? Some people like to toast the buns up a little, but not me. I like a mushy, spongy style hotdog bun — that’s why you should steam your buns. (Heh, “steam your buns.”)
  • Do not overcook: The most common hot dogs grilling mistake is also the worst one: Overcooking them. If you leave them on the heat too long, they’ll get all shriveled and dried out, or worse, end up with a burnt, charcoal-flavored skin.

What kind of hot dog is best for grilling?

We tried out a variety of widely available dogs for this experiment — chicken and beef dogs, turkey dogs, beef dogs, kosher beef dogs, jumbos, skinless, and jumbo skinless from Nathan’s, Farmer John, and Oscar Mayer — All the different varieties of dogs we tried cooked about the same on the grill, although the skinless ones dried out a little more.

We didn’t try soy dogs or other meatless dogs because that’s a whole different thing. We didn’t go to the butcher shop to get really high-end frankfurters and we didn’t buy the cheapest possible hot dogs either. All our dogs were OK-but-nothing-special, in keeping with the soul of the hot dog itself.

In the end, our panel of four expert wiener-eaters were unanimous in the opinion that beef hot dogs are superior to any other variety, and that the worst was the combination of beef and chicken dogs. We split evenly on jumbo vs. regulation size dogs — it depends on your bun-to-meat preference, ultimately.

To spiral cut or not to spiral cut?

If you want to get extra with your hot dogs, you can spiral cut them before you cook them. Our panel agreed that spiral cut hot dogs are marginally tastier than non-spiral cut dogs, due to the extra surface area available for browning. They get a little more “grilly” flavour, and the condiments drop in the cracks as a bonus.

Whether it’s worth the trouble depends on the kind of person you are. Some might say, “I will make this the best hot dog experience I can, so of course I’ll spiral them.” I’m more like, “It’s just a hot dog, man; don’t knock yourself out.”

Here’s how to spiral cut them, if you choose to:

  • Slide a skewer through the dog.
  • Hold a sharp knife at an angle to your dog and roll it. Try to get it to be even, but if you’re like me, yours will look like a serial killer hacked at it.
  • Give the knife to someone with manual dexterity and have them do it.
  • You can make a second spiral inside the first for a barber-pole effect if you want to get extra-extra.
  • Grill them the same as uncircumcised hot dogs.

What topping should you put on your hot dogs?

Photo: Stephen Johnson/North Hills Hot Dog League
Photo: Stephen Johnson/North Hills Hot Dog League

I’m sure you already have a favourite hot dog topping, and are probably well aware of the variety of things you can put on top of a hot dog, so I won’t bore you with advice like “try mustard!” I will make one suggestion, though: grilled onions. If you sauté some onions in oil and butter with a pinch of salt, and put that on your dog, you will have achieved the best hot dog topping possible — it’s subtle, and doesn’t detract from the overall hot-dog-ness of your frankfurter like sauerkraut can, but adds texture and je ne sais quoi to your tube-steak.

A brief note on how disgusting hot dogs can be

When we set out to cook these dogs, everyone in our blue ribbon hot dog panel was excited, ready to spend the day sucking down different kids of hot dogs (and beer). The excitement did not last long. The final consensus was: “Hot dogs are really gross if you eat more than one of them.”


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