At the height of the summer grilling season, we wondered: Which of the many budget brands sold in supermarkets qualify as the best cheap hot dogs? To find out, we assembled a panel of seven judges, who bellied up to plates loaded with unidentified samples of eight different unadorned franks: pork-based wieners from Oscar Mayer, Ball Park, and Eckrich; beef dogs from Oscar Mayer, Ball Park, Nathan's Famous, and Kroger. The results were surprising.
Hot Dog Taste Test
Two conclusions leaped out from the blind tasting: Pork hot dogs are rarely, if ever, a good buy despite their super-cheap price, and paying up for a supermarket-style hot dog or opting for a "healthy" version does nothing for the taste.
Prior to the tasting, several panelists volunteered that Nathan's Famous Beef Franks were their favorite. But in the end, Oscar Mayer (starting at 35 cents/serving) cleaned up, winning five of the seven votes for best cheap beef hot dog. Kroger Value (now marketed as Heritage Farm, starting at 32 cents/serving) and Nathan's Famous (starting at 37 cents/serving) each snared a lone vote, barely sufficient to justify a second-place finish (but those are the rules of the game). Both Ball Park (starting at 62 cents/serving) and Kroger Simple Truth (starting at 64 cents/serving) beef franks struck out with tasters.
The cheap pork-based hot dogs, which all contain turkey, chicken, and/or beef, displeased our judges all around. Although there were few positive words for any of the options, Ball Park (starting at 31 cents/serving) garnered six votes for best, leaving one for Eckrich (starting at 19 cents/serving) -- again, reluctantly declared a runner-up -- and none for Oscar Mayer (starting at 19 cents/serving).
Our blind tasting revealed that price had little bearing on each hot dog's standing with the judges. At the Kroger supermarket where we shopped for all the samples, prices for the beef franks ranged from 32 cents per serving (Kroger's Heritage Farm) to 64 cents per serving (Kroger's Simple Truth). Both finished as distant also-rans when the votes were tallied. The Kroger Simple Truth beef wiener, a so-called better-for-you hot dog with "natural" ingredients (no hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, or fillers), earned nary an affirming vote. Oscar Mayer Beef Franks, the second cheapest among those sampled, at 35 cents per serving, easily emerged triumphant.
Pork-based hot dogs are cheaper than their all-beef cousins, but the correlation between taste and price was again unclear. Both Eckrich and Oscar Mayer pork wieners cost 19 cents per serving at our local Kroger. The former settled into second place by default while the latter totally bombed. The winning wiener in the pork category, Ball Park (Original), cost 31 cents per dog.
The qualities our judges were looking for in a good hot dog became clear very early into the tasting. The first was real flavor. Our tasters pined for an essence of authenticity, whether the frank was beef or pork-based; flavors that seemed artificial were a decided turn-off. Spice and seasoning also played a critical role, with smoky overtones preferred, along with a zesty blend of paprika and other unidentified flavorings. Texture and juiciness affected votes, as well. A dry hot dog flopped with our judges, while mushy texture was declared downright gross (and the primary cause of the pork hot dogs' downfall).
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Best Cheap Beef and Pork Hot Dog Reviews
The taste testers unanimously concluded that cheap pork-based hot dogs come out way short in a direct face-off with cheap beef hot dogs. The texture is off, they said, and the flavor is awful. The word "gross" was frequently tossed around in the discussion of low-cost pork frankfurters. As one very frugal panel member said: "It is far worth the extra money, however much, to buy beef hot dogs over pork hot dogs." We can safely say there are now seven people who will not buy a pork-based dog again.
Beef Hot Dogs.As a category, beef hot dogs proved to be top dogs in a blind tasting that also included several pork-based versions. All the beef franks were preferred to the pork in our panelists' considered opinion. That said, some beefy dogs fared better than others. Oscar Mayer Classic Beef was the standout winner. One reviewer simply said "it tastes good, and the seasoning was right," while another remarked that "it has a good salty, sausagey, smoky flavor, and it's nice and juicy with a good texture."
Both Nathan's Famous Beef Franks and Kroger Value Beef Hot Dogs (now Heritage Farm) tied for a distant second place. Those who liked the Nathan's Famous hot dog said it had a "good flavor and good texture," although there were plenty of negative review comments, as well. Some declared it had a bit of an artificial taste, with a lingering aftertaste that was less than appealing. As for the Kroger hot dogs, supporters deemed "the initial taste" to be "good and flavorful" while the naysayers found the texture to be somewhat "grainy."
Neither Ball Park Beef Franks nor Simple Truth Uncured Beef hot dogs found favor with our review judges. The words "bologna" and "artificial" were used several times to describe the beef flavor of Ball Park's entry, and some considered the texture to be "mushy." The Simple Truth offering was described as "just bland" and "just okay," with one reviewer terming it "nice and juicy, but lacking flavor."
Pork-Based Hot Dogs.Our panel of reviewers was hard-pressed to say anything good about any pork-based hot dog they sampled. In fact, most seemed downright surprised at how unappetizing they deemed the products arrayed before them. Pork is present in all three brands, but is not the primary animal protein in any. The ingredient list for each is headed by turkey; chicken is used in the Oscar Mayer Classic Wiener, as well, and beef shows up in the Eckrich Frank and Ball Park (Original) Frank. After comparing them with their all-beef cousins, each taster declared they were off pork hot dogs forever more, but begrudgingly plowed ahead for the sake of research.
The Ball Park version was voted the best of the worst of those reviewed largely on the strength of its flavor. One taster summed up the consensus about this entry when she said, "It's not a bad flavor, but it has a mushy texture." Comments such as this were echoed by most of the panelists. One gave the Ball Park pork hot dog a passing grade for the taste while adding that "the texture is weird and it lacks any real juiciness."
Eckrich, a lesser-known hot dog label, garnered a single vote in the pork-based category, which was sufficient to land this dog in second place. The Eckrich supporter said he voted for the frank because "it's just okay, not great, but most importantly there's nothing too bad about it." And that was the best our review panelists could say about the Eckrich frank.
Just when we thought the assessments couldn't get any more negative, the tasters rendered judgment on the Oscar Mayer Classic Wiener. This variety tanked in every dimension. Panelists said the Oscar Mayer sample tasted "gross," had "a weird consistency," and was "the worst of the three."