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Know your wiener!

Natural casing hot dog (Photo ©2010 by Leah A. Zeldes). Skinless hot dog (Photo ©2010 by Leah A. Zeldes).

The ends of a natural-casing hot dog, left, and a skinless wiener, right, are a visual means of telling them apart. (Photos by Leah A. Zeldes.)

Part 3 of a series in honor of National Hot Dog Month.
Is the critical part of a great Chicago hot dog the wiener? Or the condiments?

Both. A top-notch Chicago-style red hot is more than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, you can’t achieve a great banquet on a bun without a fine frank at its core.

That means a snappy, kosher-style, beef hot dog.

“Snap” is that distinctive bite. “Beef” here refers to the filling of the sausage; the outer casing is usually sheep’s gut. “Kosher-style” refers mainly to the seasoning, which has a high garlic and paprika content, and the absence of the pork common in other kinds of hot dogs. (Actual kosher hot dogs must be made under rabbinical supervision, and are mostly either skinless or stuffed in collagen casings — made from beef hides — because kosher natural casings are hard to come by in commercial quantities.)

A natural casing helps to give a hot dog that essential “snap” and burst of juiciness when you bite in. Snap is also due to the density of the emulsified meat. Peter Sload, spokesman for Bucktown-based Vienna Beef, explains that its recipe allows Vienna to create a fairly firm frankfurter even in its skinless version, though many skinless hot dogs tend to be somewhat soft. It helps to have a fairly large-diameter frank, too, such as the six-to-a-pound proprietary-recipe wiener served at Superdawg in Norwood Park and Wheeling, which stand up better than most skinless varieties against natural-casing hot dogs.

Skinless dogs date to 1925, when Erwin O. Freund invented a method of making franks in removable cellulose casings and set up shop in the Chicago Union Stockyards. Freund made a fortune — his 200-acre retreat near Lemont is now part of the campus of Argonne National Laboratories — and his business, now Viskase Companies in Darien, is still going strong.

How the hot dog is cooked and at what temperature also affects its taste and texture, says Scott Ladany, president of Red Hot Chicago. “If they leave it in the water too long, it takes some of the flavor out of it.”

Most Chicago-area doggeries serve either skinless or natural-casing dogs. You rarely find both styles in the same place, unless the restaurant offers more than one size of dog. Among the hundreds of hot-dog vendors around town, you’re as likely to find one style as the next, although minimalist doggeries, such as Gene & Jude’s in River Grove and Jimmy’s Red Hots in Humboldt Park, tend to be good bets for natural casings. However, plenty of dragged-through-the-garden Chicago dogs, such as those served at Alley Dogs in North Center or Wolfy’s in West Rogers Park and Northbrook start with natural casings, too.

If you want to know what kind of wiener a hot-dog stand serves, look at its ends. Natural-casing dogs come to a fairly smooth, tapered point, often with a little tag end of the casing protruding. Skinless franks show a pattern of gathers around a dimple.

That’s the innie and outie of hot-dog identification.
Chicago hot dog series:

  1. The Chicago-style hot dog: ‘A masterpiece’
  2. Eat this! The Chicago hot dog, born in the Great Depression
  3. Know your wiener!
  4. Friday food porn: Seasons’ sexed-up hot dog
  5. It takes big buns to hold Chicago hot dogs
  6. Origins of neon relish and other Chicago hot dog conundrums
  7. Do only barbarians put ketchup on hot dogs?
  8. Chicago’s Schmidt the real Mr. Footlong Hot Dog Inventor
  9. Chicago’s Oscar Mayer has a way. . . .
  10. Relishing Chicago’s 10 funniest hot-dog joints