The ins and outs of vegan hot dogs

"What makes a hot dog a hot dog is, in a way, more about what it’s not"

Published April 16, 2024 3:30PM (EDT)

Putting mustard on a hotdog (Getty Images/vgajic)
Putting mustard on a hotdog (Getty Images/vgajic)

This article originally appeared on FoodPrint.


On the most recent episode of our podcast, “What You’re Eating,” we hear from comedian and writer Jamie Loftus, author of last year’s “Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hog Dogs.” While her deep love for this all-American delicacy is clear, Loftus also lays bare the realities of the animal cruelty, labor violations and other problems concealed inside the casing. Even she, a person whose love for hot dogs drove her to write a book about them, admits the case for an alternative is strong. She says as much a cheeky subtitle for her chapter on hot dog production: “A note to my vegetarians and vegans and those who do not engage with the meat dogs — you are right.”

If you were not eating meat in the 1990s and early 2000s, you might harbor painful memories of the wan, wet vegan dogs of yesteryear. But lately, things have taken a turn for the better. Iconic hot dog purveyor Ikea is rolling out its Plant Dog, already available in the company’s European locations, in the U.S. Later this year, the hot dog impresarios at Oscar Mayer will release their own vegan version in partnership with food technology startup NotCo. While fake meat companies have mostly stuck to the sausage sector — and yes, there’s a big difference — Impossible Foods says it’s launching a hot dog product in the near future. Are we seeing a golden age of the plant-based dog? And how much has really changed?

The FoodPrint team hopped on a Zoom from our respective kitchens and tried six different widely available vegan hot dogs to see what worked, what didn’t and what’s worth trying.


What makes a hot dog?

While the hot dogs we tend to eat in the U.S. are of the beef and pork variety, Loftus says that products can vary significantly and still fall under the hot dog umbrella. What makes a hot dog a hot dog is, in a way, more about what it’s not. As opposed to a sausage, which has a rougher grind to the meat, a hot dog is made from a finely processed emulsion, which is what provides its distinctive texture. The slurry is held in place by a casing — that is, an intestine — which will crisp up when cooked to give the dog that classic snap.

There are a few ingredients you’ll see often in vegan attempts to approximate the hot dog experience. Vital wheat gluten was present in nearly all of the dogs we tasted, often supplemented with soy products (tofu, soy protein isolate) or proteins from other legumes, like peas and fava beans. Some brands put a big emphasis on protein stats, advertising their offer of 20 or more grams per serving. “It’s interesting because when we think about plant based meats, people panic,” says research and policy analyst Ryan Nebeker, whose Upton’s Naturals Updog contained 19 grams of protein. “They think the macros are going to be way off. Whereas in this case, you’re doing better.”

On the flipside, some dogs felt less filling and more filler. Flavorless binders like potato starch, rice flour and konjac flour are employed to help hold things together. And many brands used significant amounts of various oils, perhaps in an attempt to keep things from drying out. “There’s really not much of anything,” said digital marketing and communications manager Kristen Link, who enjoyed the taste of her Lightlife Smart Dogs but noted that the first ingredient was water.

To help mimic the meatiness of a true hot dog, many vegan versions we tried were heavy on the seasonings. Onions and garlic, pureed or powdered, were common, as were savory spices like nutmeg and paprika. Tomato paste, soy sauce and apple cider vinegar were other ways to up the umami. Some brands rounded things out with sugar — granulated, brown, even hardwood-smoked — and many were very high in salt, with a few containing more than 20 percent of the recommended daily value of sodium.


Can a ‘fake’ frankfurter compete?

The vegan hot dogs we tried got generally positive reviews from the staff, most of whom are already mindful about how much meat they consume and are somewhat familiar with plant-based meat substitutes. But there were certain areas where these dogs fell short. Texture was a broad issue. “It was very crumbly, actually, so much so that I almost broke off the end of it taking it out of the package,” said content editor-writer Hannah Walhout, who tried out Tofurky Plant-Based Kielbasa (the closest to the the “sausage” end of the spectrum of the products we tested). “On the whole, it was pretty dry. It got a little crispy, but in a way that is, uniquely, a texture I’ve only seen in vegan meat products.”

Some dogs also demonstrated a distinct lack of “rubberiness,” with a tendency toward the mealy side, and none came close to achieving that coveted snap. “It wasn’t getting any sort of reaction in the skin of becoming nice and crispy,” said Link. “And that’s what I look for in a hot dog.”

Another widely shared complaint was that vegan dogs were sometimes hard to locate in the grocery store. Nobody found them anywhere near the “real” hot dogs, but rather in the freezer aisle, next to the tofu and seitan or relegated to a small “plant-based” section, depending on the store — suggesting there is yet to be a common retail vocabulary that will help shoppers know where to look.

When it came to taste, though, many certainly delivered. “I did legit think that it was flavorful,” said FoodPrint director Jerusha Klemperer, a sometime vegetarian who opted for a Field Roast Classic Smoked Plant-Based Frankfurter. “It didn’t have a lot of weird fake notes. It had tomato paste and apple cider vinegar and sea salt, onions, things that I recognize.”

“It was a little sweet and smoky, and I did enjoy that flavor,” said social media and community engagement coordinator Nat Geisel of their dogs of choice: Morningstar Farms Veggie Dogs. “I like regular hot dogs a little more, but it was better than I expected. I think in the future I would want to try grilling them to add a little bit of a char.”

Associate art director Samarra Khaja, a longtime vegetarian, admitted that “a regular hot dog generally skeeves me out,” but she would buy her Field Roast Signature Stadium Dogs again. “I found it enjoyable,” she said — “very satisfying and moist.”

In the end, the team agreed that trying to compare vegan hot dogs with the meat-based version was not an incredibly useful exercise. “They’re not well served by being compared side to side with a hot dog,” Klemperer explained. “It was missing some of the things that I appreciate about a meat dog, but I loved it on the bun with all the toppings and I would happily eat this again.”


Making the most of your vegan hot dog

The dogs themselves can be prepared in various ways: Some FoodPrint staffers tried pan frying, while others went with a boil. Still, none of the methods we tried, including toaster oven, microwave, broiler and even roasting over the flame of a stovetop, seemed to get us definitively to true hot dog perfection.

But often, even with “real” hot dogs, the experience isn’t entirely about the dog. To improve your meatless meal, take care with your toppings and accompaniments: Khaja loaded hers with brinjal (eggplant) achaar and Kewpie mayo, while Nebeker went with a mix of mayo, mustard and diced cornichons. Whatever your tastes, you can plan your condiments for maximum flavor. Take your bun choice seriously, too — our team are potato bun devotees, but there are plenty of gourmet options, including brioche and pretzel — and toast to reinforce it, keep things warm and add flavor and texture.

In the absence of that snap, create textural interest with something that provides crunch, whether it’s a pickle spear or a sprinkling of crushed potato chips. Or you can always try Nebeker’s more involved approach: “If you rub a hot dog in a little bit of sugar or honey and some gochujang, you get a spicy sweet glaze” when you roast it, he says. “I thought it might fix the ‘lifeless gray’ problem, and it really did.”

There are plenty of other ways to fill your bun if the vegan versions really aren’t cutting it, including the classic, crowd-pleasing carrot dog. Nebeker put it best: “‘Hot dog’ is an expansive concept. I think you can reach it from many different angles.”

By FoodPrint


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Food Foodprint Hot Dogs Partner Vegan Vegan Hot Dogs Veganism