The hot dog goes upscale

Carol Ness, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 28, 2006
New designer dogs, hitting the market just in time for th…

Mustard or ketchup? Boiled or grilled? Skinless, or with skin’s distinctive snap? When it comes to the great American hot dog, the one thing people seem to agree on is: Don’t think too much about what’s ground up inside them.

Until now.

New designer dogs, hitting the market just in time for the Fourth of July, shout out their ingredients. And that’s because they’re made from the kind of meats more often associated with seasonal, local cuisine than with the original fast food — they’re grass-fed, or organic, or both.

Applegate Farms, a New Jersey company whose uncured meats are staples of naturally oriented food stores, is just now rolling out its “great organic hot dog,” made from organic, 100 percent grass-fed beef ($4.99 for eight). They’re expected to be in some Bay Area Whole Foods markets any day.

Applegate’s blue label doesn’t say “grass-fed” because the company didn’t secure a guaranteed, affordable supply of the leaner, often seasonal beef until after the labels were printed.

Also soon to hit retail shelves is the long, skinny grass-fed Let’s Be Frank hot dog, made locally and introduced last year at a cart outside the Giants’ ballpark in San Francisco. A packaged version ($6.99 for four), whose “dogs gone good” label brags about grass-fed beef’s healthier fat profile, will be introduced Saturday at Bi-Rite market in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Organic dogs landed on the grill sooner than grass-fed. Prather Ranch started grinding its own organic, grain-finished beef into hot dogs ($7 for five) earlier this year. They retail at the Mount Shasta-area company’s store in San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, as well as through its Web site.

Organic Prairie’s organic hot dogs — either all-beef ($5.99 for seven) or beef and pork ($5.69 for seven) — also debuted earlier this year. They’re from Wisconsin-based Organic Valley.

“Grass-fed” and “organic” tend to roll off the tongue in the same breath, but they’re very different. Organic meats come from animals raised according to federal organic rules. They can’t be given antibiotics or hormones and their diet consists exclusively of organic feed. Generally, though, the critters roam pastures only when they’re young, and are fattened up on corn in feedlots, however roomy.

There’s no federal definition for grass-fed (although one is in the works), so anything goes. Grass-fed meat animals may actually be raised entirely on pasture, but they also may be corralled and fed cut hay or alfalfa — or even some grain.

Corn is what gives American beef its distinctive sweet, beefy flavor, and it also fattens animals for slaughter in a flash, so it’s often fed during the critical last few months of meat animals’ lives. The meat may be sold as pastured, grain-finished or grass-fed.

The difference in what the animal eats also translates to the chemical makeup of its fat. Proponents of grass-fed beef argue that the meat is more nourishing because it has more l omega-3 fatty acids and a lower melting point.

The diet also affects the taste of the meat. Consumers sometimes find that the fat in grass-fed meat has a mineral tang or even what might be taken for an off flavor.

In developing his grass-fed dog, Larry Bain, co-owner of Let’s Be Frank, says he and his partner Sue Moore, a meat forager for Chez Panisse, worked through dozens of formulations using grass-fed beef before hitting one that would deliver the right juicy texture.

“It cooks differently,” he says of the lean grass-fed meat.

Applegate Farms founder and CEO Steve McConnell says he thought his new hot dogs would need a flavor boost from corn-fed beef fat when the package label went to print last month. So he left off the words “grass-fed.”

Then, at the last minute, company technicians discovered that by tinkering with its recipe — the way the meat is chopped, how much water is added — the organic beef raised on Uruguayan grasslands would deliver the juicy flavor they were after. Amping up the amount of garlic, McConnell says, is intended both to make the dogs more New York-style and to cover any pronounced grassy taste. This grass-fed version is an entirely new hot dog, not to be confused with an earlier Applegate Farms organic hot dog packaged with a red and white label.

All these brands are labeled “uncured,” but that’s not strictly true. None is cured in the traditional way, which uses curing salts containing sodium nitrite.

Nitrites give meat a pinkish hue and keep it from spoiling and breeding toxic bacteria, but they’ve long been anathema in natural foods and are prohibited in organic foods. Yet without curing, the meat would teem with germs, so these dogs are made with nature’s nitrate and nitrite — in the form of celery, usually juice or seed extract.

Celery, spinach, beets and cabbage are all high in natural nitrates, which turn into meat-preserving nitrites in processing. Along with salt and, usually, lactic acid, they cure the meat.

For a long time, celery was the deep, dark secret of natural meat producers, appearing as “natural flavor” on ingredient labels. But word is getting out, and both Applegate Farms and Let’s Be Frank declare celery on their labels.

Prather Ranch general manager Steven McCarthy says his label still uses “natural flavor” but the company is rethinking that.

In an unfortunate typo, the label on Prather Ranch’s organic hot dogs left off a crucial word — “no” in front of “nitrite or nitrate added.” Until new labels can go through the long approval process, they’re stuck with the error.

Still, most of the designer dogs sport none of the pinkish hue of humbler versions. They tend more toward shades of brown.

“We were initially concerned that the kids wouldn’t go for it,” says Let’s Be Frank’s Bain. “But that turned out not to be a problem.”

In fact, Let’s Be Frank’s original cart was such a hit it cloned itself, with new stands now at Crissy Field in San Francisco and in a Cisco Systems cafeteria in San Jose.

Reformulating the Let’s Be Frank dog for retail sales, which means they must maintain freshness and flavor for a longer time in the store, has been challenging.

With its debut scheduled for Saturday at Bi-Rite, the final version of the packaged Let’s Be Frank hot dog isn’t being made until Thursday at Engelhart Gourmet Foods’ sausage processing plant in Fairfield.

In an informal blind taste test in The Chronicle test kitchen on Monday, a preliminary version of Let’s Be Frank’s retail dog wasn’t ready for prime time. But the packaged ones will be same recipe as the brown wieners sold at the carts, with the same thick, natural skin and meaty, nontraditional flavor.

Altogether, nine hot dogs competed in the informal tasting: Applegate Farms’ new grass-fed and older organic beef hot dogs, Organic Prairie’s beef and beef/pork dogs, Prather’s large, brown organic sausages, plus three traditionally cured brands of all-beef dogs: Schwarz, which won the most recent Taster’s Choice tasting, plus the popular Niman Ranch and Hebrew National hot dogs.

Applegate Farms’ new grass-fed dog emerged as one of the favorites, with a salty, garlicky taste and mild smokiness, though a spongy texture. The older organic version got a thumbs-down as vegetal.

Mild with a finely ground texture, the Prather sausages had more beefy taste than the rest. Muted salt, sweet and smoky flavors were a hit with some tasters, but others found them flat. Organic Prairie’s beef dogs came across as bouncy and salty, but the spicy, salty beef/pork combos did better.

None drew quite the praise showered on Hebrew National.

When it comes to cooking, Bain offered a two-step approach designed to keep his grass-fed dogs at their juiciest. He likes to steam them until they’re hot, and then toss them on the grill for full scorched-fat flavor. Then he serves them on an Acme hot dog bun.

We figured the Fourth of July might be just a little too hectic, what with fireworks and all, to worry about that. So we tossed them in a grill pan on the stove and cooked them up.

Steam or boil? Barbecue?

Like mustard and ketchup, that’s entirely up to you.

The lowdown on upscale dogs

Applegate Farms. Certified organic and made with 100 percent grass-fed beef, currently sourced from Uruguay. Available at Whole Foods Markets, $4.99 for a 16-ounce package of eight. Package’s blue label currently doesn’t say “grass-fed.” Older organic (but not grass-fed) Applegate Farms hot dogs carry a red-and-white label.

Let’s Be Frank. 100 percent grass-fed beef, raised at Hearst Ranch in Southern California. Beef is not organic, but it’s raised on pasture without antibiotics or hormones. Starting Saturday, available at Bi-Rite Market, 3639 18th St., San Francisco; (415) 241-9760. $6.99 for a 13-ounce package of four; www.letsbefrankdogs.com.

Organic Prairie. Certified organic. An Organic Valley brand made with organic beef, or organic beef and organic pork. Available at Whole Foods Markets. $5.99 (beef) and $5.69 (beef/pork) for a 10 1/2-ounce package of seven.

Prather Ranch. Certified organic and humane. No chemical nitrates or nitrites added, but typo on current label left off the “no.” Available at the Prather Ranch store No. 32, Ferry Building Marketplace, Embarcadero and Market Street, San Francisco; (415) 391-0420. $7 for a 16-ounce package of five; www.pratherranch.com.