Home Made Hot Dogs and Water Activity
To be fair, there really isn’t a good reason to measure the water activity of a hot dog – I’ve taken a reading on our water activity meter only because that’s what we’ve done with all our other products.
I’ve wanted to make hot dogs using the “Charcuterie” recipe since first reading the good book. I mean, the allure of the ultimate in commoditized super market junky Americana being reborn as a tasty home-made tube steak was just too strong. Still, the same question remains: will it taste better?
Actually making the hot dogs isn’t all that difficult, although the tedium and frustration set in when trying to fuss with the sheep casings. Unfortunately for me, I had misplaced the small nozzle for our LEM sausage stuffer, meaning I wasted precious time trying to wrangle the sheep casings onto a larger nozzle (do not attempt – you will fail). I also blew another hour trying to adapt the larger nozzle to a smaller size. This effort eventually succeeded, though, and everything went much quicker after that.
Another complicating factor was that I made 7 batches of these hot dogs at once to feed the teeming hoard that shows up for our weekly company lunch meetings. The food processor overheated after churning through the 10th or 11th portion of hot dog mix, but eventually produced a towering mountain of forcemeat.
A quick aside on the LEM sausage stuffer – since it’s useless without the proper nozzle size, it would probably be a good idea for the manufacturer to make the hollow base a little bigger and have snap-in brackets to hold all the loose parts when not in use. There are clamps, nozzles, and a nozzle ring that all need a home.
John (my colleague) hot-smoked the dogs until they were done, and then we taste tested. In the end, the hot dogs looked like this:
Here, the hot dogs are artfully displayed on a shop towel, making them look like they’re being prepped for surgery. It’s pretty clear which is the Hebrew National, and which is home-made. Inside, the hot dogs looked like this:
The Hebrew National (left) shows much more homogeneity, and even a smaller diameter. Now, to the results of our taste test. For the first time, we have a loser. Head to head, our hot dog (7.0) failed to beat the Hebrew National (7.4). Of 22 taste testers, 12 preferred the Hebrew National, while 9 preferred the home-made. I agree with the results – although different in taste, there was nothing I really liked better about the home-made link.
Now, Hebrew National is a well-respected brand that has won numerous national taste tests, so losing is no great shame. However, it does make me pine for 6 hours of my life I will never get back. There wasn’t even any cost advantage. At about $5.80 for a package of 7 (it appears that 7 has symbolic meaning in Hebrew). Our links cost about $0.90 each, as compared to $0.82 for Hebrew National. I could have made them a lot cheaper if we had just used regular ground beef instead of short rib meat, an extremely expensive and unnecessary extravagance that is endorsed by Ruhlman’s recipe.
Now on to water activity readings: both would be expected to be very high, but the Hebrew National read at 0.960 aw, while our hot dog read 0.975 aw. Hebrew National’s dog tasted saltier that ours, so this probably accounts for the difference, but the two are definitely not the same. Notice also that hot dogs need to be stored under refrigeration, since water activity alone can’t stop bacteria from growing, given a value that is above 0.95 aw.
All in all, an interesting experience. But no, the home cook should not spend his/her time making hot-dogs – leave that to the pros.