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Even without trimmings, Chicago-style hot dog in league of its own

Mark Shainwald manager Romanian Kosher Sausage Co. 7200 N. Clark shows off company’s signature kosher hot dogs. National Hot Dog

Mark Shainwald, manager of Romanian Kosher Sausage Co., 7200 N. Clark, shows off the company’s signature kosher hot dogs. National Hot Dog Day is July 23. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times File

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Updated: September 20, 2011 12:28AM

Frankly, when it comes to the Chicago-style hot dog, much more attention tends to be paid to what goes on it than to the wiener itself.

Yet under the yellow mustard, the neon-green relish, the chopped onions, pickle spears, sliced tomatoes, sport peppers and celery salt, the centerpiece sausage is uniquely flavorful. If you tasted a naked Chicago dog against undressed wieners from, say, New York City or Detroit, two cities with their own distinctive hot dog styles, you’d still find them very different.

The quintessential Chicago dog, as served all over town, is all beef, except for the casing. No one knows just why beef franks became a favorite in the town Carl Sandburg called “Hog Butcher to the World,” though we can speculate. Prominent early manufacturers such as David Berg, who began making hot dogs in 1860, and Vienna Beef founders Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany, who peddled franks at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, were Jewish. They might not have stuck to rabbinically supervised kosher products, but they made their wieners “kosher-style,” without pork.

Vienna Beef’s expansion in the late 20th century also played a part in popularizing the style. The company now supplies the lion’s share of local hot dog stands.

“All-beef didn’t start to become very popular till the mid-1980s,” says Nicole Makowski, president of Makowski’s Real Sausage Co. and the Chicago Midwest Meat Association. Although her company makes several types, she prefers hot dogs made from a mixture of beef and pork.

No fillers

The most prominent local manufacturers, Vienna Beef and Red Hot Chicago, make their wieners from about 75 percent bull’s meat. “It’s high in protein and low in fat and has a lot of bind to it,” explains Bob Schwartz, senior vice president of Vienna Beef and author of the 2008 book, Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog (Chicago’s Books Press, $27.50).

Compared to steer or cow’s meat, “it’s more robust, darker in color and richer in flavor,” says Scott Ladany, president of Red Hot Chicago.

The rest of the wiener is trimmings from beef briskets and navels, cuts used for corned beef and pastrami. Most local hot dogs are pure meat, without fillers, binders, meat byproducts or “mechanically separated” poultry parts, as found in some cheap hot dogs.

“No cheek meat, no jowls,” says Gary Longo, director of research and development for Bobak Sausage Co.

The beefy character gives the dog its distinctive density.

“It has to be a protein that’s going to stand up well to being steamed,” explains Cliff Eisenberg, president of Kelly Eisenberg.

Casing in point

The best Chicago dogs have “snap,” a satisfying resistance when you bite in. The quality, connoisseurs say, is enhanced by natural casings, usually sheep’s gut for regular-size wieners. (Larger sizes, five-to-a-pound and up, are packed in pork casings, as at Vienna Beef, or in collagen, an edible, manufactured casing extruded from cattle hide.)

But softer, skinless franks have a claim to Chicagoan status, too. Erwin O. Freund invented the method of making wieners encased in removable cellulose (now often plastic) in 1925, and set up shop in the Union Stockyards.

Freund made a fortune — his 200-acre retreat near Lemont is part of the campus of Argonne National Laboratories — and his business, Viskase Companies in Darien, is still going strong.

“Natural casings are very expensive,” says John Zicha, president of Crawford Sausage Co., makers of Daisy Brand, which sells both types. “There’s lots of hand labor involved.”

Skinless hot dogs can be made less expensively with automation. Mark Shainwald, manager of Romanian Kosher Sausage Co., which makes skinless hot dogs, recently experimented with newly available glatt-kosher natural casings.

“The machine shredded it. We’d have to do it by hand,” Shainwald says.

Natural casings also don’t generate uniformly sized wieners, which is why you rarely see them sold in grocery packaging. Most supermarket hot dogs and a majority of those served at area stands are skinless, according to Makowski.

To tell the difference without biting in, look at the wiener’s ends. Natural-casing dogs taper to a fairly smooth point, often with a tag end of the casing protruding. Skinless franks show a pattern of gathers around a dimple.

Spice profile

No hot dog makers will share much about their seasoning, but Ladany says, “Paprika is an important component in Chicago hot dogs. There’s less garlic because of the influence of Vienna and Austria.”

“The New York dog is a more garlicky profile,” agrees Schwartz.

There’s also salt, a touch of sugar and a noticeable but not overly strong flavor of natural smoke. Local wiener makers smoke their dogs a batch at a time in a smokehouse, rather than using the huge continuous conveyors of big national producers.

The difference between the ubiquitous Chicago-style wiener and specific producers’ styles may soon be spelled out in court.

On June 6, Vienna Beef filed suit against Red Hot Chicago, alleging that Ladany, a one-time part owner of Vienna and Sam Ladany’s grandson, either stole Vienna’s proprietary recipes or falsely claims to use them.

Leah A. Zeldes is a local free-lance writer.

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