Hot dogs — one of my favorite subjects. I relish eating them, never tire of discussing them, and, whenever we travel, if our destination is known for a style of hot dog, it’s one of the things I make a point of eating while I’m there. The New York-style hot dog is one I’ve not chatted with you about yet. That said, had I not had advance, concise, clarification of what “dirty-water-dog” means (the affectionate but unappealing nickname New Yorkers have given their dogs), cuing up in line at the closest pushcart would not have happened and I wouldn’t be writing this post.
A bit about dirty-water-dogs and pushcarts: It’s said that the first “dachshund sausages” (named after the little sausage-shaped Dachshund dog breed) were sold by German vendors pushing wooden carts in the Bowery of NYC, during the 1860’s. The first “hot dog” stand (a term which started as a humorous reference to the thin, long canine) opened on Coney Island in 1871 by a German butcher. He sold 3,684 hot dogs the first year. By 1890, college students coined the term “dog wagon” for vendors pushing and parking their carts across campuses, stopping to sell hot dogs outside of each dormitory along the way.
The problem with the wooden pushcart: Cooking hot dogs over any-type of open, portable flame was risky business. More than a few of them burned to ashes. The safe solution (circa the beginning of the 20th century): Cooking, storing and transporting hot dogs in insulated containers of hot water.
Modern pushcarts (photo courtesy of foodcartkingdom.com), made of stainless steel with hinged water boxes for the dogs along with bins and/or shelves for condiments, still operate using the same rudimentary method. Why? Permits. A non-processing permit only allows a vendor to sell pre-made food — like hot dogs and soft pretzels. A processing permit allows cooking on a grill/flat-top griddle, which expands the menu a bit, with hot dogs being the classic, must-have favorite.
The most famous dirty-water-dogs are found under the blue and yellow umbrellas of New York’s Sabrett hot dog carts. Sabrett is a famous brand of natural-casing beef frankfurters sold throughout the NY area. They are indeed delicious, especially topped with with their red-hued onion sauce, sauerkraut and brown mustard, and, the water the dogs sit in isn’t dirty at all. (In fact, NYC’s water is so high-quality, it’s coveted by pizza-dough makers all over the USA.) It’s got a foamy, grayish color due to the juices, salt, and flavorings that ooze into the steaming water from all the dogs that get added to it.
Rules mandate that the water must be kept at 140 degrees, but, hot dogs lose their flavor and texture if submerged for too long — no longer than 15-20 minutes. All you can do is trust the vendor on that one point, but, in order to participate in a traditional dirty-water-dog experience, even vendors with a grill/flat-top griddle on-board will tell you to eat your first dog drippy, right out of the water. After that, they’ll be more than happy to crisp one up on the griddle for you!
I use Hebrew National (my #1) and Nathan’s (a bit saltier, but still a close #2). Sabrett hot dogs are not #3. They are not available to me in Central, PA. For the purpose of writing this post, I went on-line to to order them, and, on Amazon with a Prime Membership, a 5-pound package would cost $84.99 + $16.24 shipping — sorry Sabrett, I have an ax to grind with that. When making dirty-water-dogs, be like me, use your favorite all-beef frankfurters. Experts can banter over who’s the top dog all they want, but, just like choosing chocolate, cheese or coffee, all that matters is what you like best.
For the pushcart onion sauce:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cups, 1/4″ half-moon sliced yellow or sweet onions
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon chile blend or chili powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper
1/4 cup Heinz chili sauce (Note: I like this better than versions of this recipe made with ketchup, tomato sauce or tomato paste.)
1 tablespoon Frank’s RedHot (cayenne pepper sauce)
1/2 cup cold water combined with 2 teaspoons cornstarch
Step 1. In a 3 1/2-quart chef’s pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add the onions, and, stirring almost constantly, saute until they are soft and limp but not browned, about 6 minutes. Stir in the honey, cinnamon, chili blend, sea salt and black pepper. Continue to cook until spices are nicely distributed throughout the onions, 30-60 seconds. Stir in the chili sauce and cayenne pepper sauce.
Step 2. Combine the water and cornstarch and add to mixture. Adjust heat to a simmer and cook until sauce is nicely thickened, 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and set aside for 30 minutes. Transfer to a 2-cup food storage container, cover, and set aside to cool to room temperature prior to serving.
Making sauerkraut is pretty straightforward. You can follow the instructions on the back of the bag if you like (I never buy canned sauerkraut), or, if you have a favorite recipe for sauerkraut, feel free to use it. This is my easy, all-purpose method for doing it, and, I hope you’ll agree that the slightly-buttery taste of this ‘kraut is just what a self-respecting dirty-water-dog needs!
For the sauerkraut:
2 pound bag fresh sauerkraut, rinsed and well-drained (about 10 minutes prior to cooking)
6 tablespoons salted butter
1 cup diced yellow or sweet onion
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper
Step 1. In 3 1/2-quart chef’s pan, melt butter over low heat. Add onion, pepper and salt. Increase heat to medium-high and saute until onion is translucent, 5-6 minutes. Add sauerkraut along with 1/4 cup water. Continue to cook, stirring almost constantly, lowering heat as needed to prevent scorching, until ‘kraut is tender, 15 minutes. Turn heat off, cover, and allow to steep on hot stovetop, 15 more minutes.
Just sour enough, buttery and mellow (the perfect complement to the onion sauce):
Simmer hot dogs in water 6-8 minutes, place each drippy one on a bun atop sauerkraut, top w/onion sauce & drizzle w/Gulden’s!
The NYC Pushcart Onions & Sauerkraut Hot Dog: Recipe yields 2 cups of pushcart onion sauce, 3 cups of sauerkraut/enough toppings for 16 hot dogs.
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef’s knife; 3 1/2-quart chef’s pan w/lid; large spoon; 1-cup measuring container; 2-cup food storage container w/lid; colander
Cook’s Note: While I think my version of pushcart onion sauce is better than store-bought, if you’re not inclined to make your own, you can purchase this condiment. Sabrett, the maker of the hot dogs, is obviously the most famous, but, there are several tasty brands to choose from. Here in Happy Valley, Sabrett is available at Sam’s club. It’s also available from several sources on-line, including Amazon.