Monday, November 4, 2013

Hot Dogs: First Attempt

Americans with relatives in Israel are used to being treated as couriers, hauling everything that is either unavailable (Ziplocks) or more expensive (laptops) here. They've brought it all. Still, my parents thought it was a little strange when I asked for the meat grinder and sausage stuffer Kitchenaid attachments. They came through, though (thank you!), and now I'm ready to start making sausage.

The setup

Hot dogs actually aren't the easiest sausages to start out with, but it's tough to find good ones here, and so they're at the top of my list. I used this recipe, although there were several issues:

1. I don't have cure (nitrates)
2. Hot dog meat needs to be pureed in a food processor, and ours is dairy
3. I don't have a smoker

I decided to just skip the cure, especially since there wasn't going to be any smoking. Cure is important because it preserves the meat during smoking, which is done at temperatures that can allow bacterial growth. It also keeps the meat red after the hot dogs are cooked.

I also left out celery seeds (didn't have any), and used nutmeg instead of mace. Also, I used table salt, not kosher salt, which is important because if a recipe calls for kosher salt, you use half the volume in table salt.

The spice mix
For meat, I went with #3 because it was the cheapest I could find that day being sold in a 1 kg package. #3 is brisket, not chuck, but with hot dogs it doesn't really matter.

The first step is cutting the meat into pieces that can fit through the grinder, and then grinding on the smallest setting. Then the ground meat is thoroughly mixed with the spices, and ground a second time.

After grind number two, the meat sat in the fridge for 30 minutes.

At this point, the cold water was added, and the meat needed to be pureed. A stick blender was my only option. At the time, I thought it did a good job, but in hindsight I think the mixture was supposed to be smoother, stickier and pastier. Total emulsification is important to getting the texture right, and my final hot dogs had texture issues.

Blended meat, but not smooth enough.
Next, stuffing the hot dogs. I used dry collagen casings (if you're looking for casings, get in touch with me; I have an inside connection through whom I can sell you some), because they are easier to deal with than natural casings. 

Here are a couple lessons I learned:
- The meat really needs to be forced down with the pusher, it won't just flow by itself into the casings
- Collagen casings are pretty fragile, so don't overstuff them
- You can't load more than about an inch or two of casing onto the stuffer spout

This is about how much casing you should put on the sausage stuffer
The meat gets pushed through the top with one hand, while the other hand guides the casing as it is being filled. You end up with one long snake of hot dog, which then gets twisted into links, or individual hot dogs.

At this point, they look perfect!

Another thing that happened was that air pockets form due to not-perfectly-even meat filling. The solution is to gently prick the air pocket with a toothpick or the end of a knife.

At this point, hot dogs are supposed to be smoked. Instead, I tried simmering them in hot water for 12 minutes. That's when everything started to go downhill. First of all, the meat turns brown, which always going to happen without cure, but still looks bad. Second of all, I didn't do the best job twisting the links and popping the air pockets, so a bunch of my dogs started leaking and swelling in the water, causing them to lose their casings and deform. After 12 minutes, I collected the finished dogs.

The final product - the picture makes them seem reddish, but they were totally gray
I could forgive the cosmetic issues if the taste made up for it, but as soon as I bit into one, I realized the texture was off. The flavor was there - that hot dog seasoning was unmistakable - but instead of being springy and juicy, they were dry and crumbly, like eating an overcooked burger or kebab.

The question became, what did I do wrong? I figured it was either incomplete blending, or maybe overcooking them in the hot water. I'm not sure about the second theory, though, because I cooked one raw hot dog directly in a frying pan, and it had similar issues (although it was a little bit juicier). It's also possible that if you leave out the cure, you should replace it with a little more salt, since the nitrates also help dissolve/emulsify the meat.

Ultimately, I think fixing the consistency of the pureed meat will do the most in improving the texture. This was especially true in my case since I used brisket, which is a pretty tough and fibrous meat.

Still, Rachel and I enjoyed the hot dogs. We put most of them into a cabbage tomato soup.