What Are Hot Dogs Made Of, Exactly?

We get to the bottom of what goes into hot dog production, and learn about all the ingredients. Hint: It's not mystery meat!

We are a country crazy about hot dogs—from Coney Island to Chicago to the California coast, every state in America has a special spin on the humble hot dog. And here’s some food facts trivia for you: Each year, Americans eat over 20 billion hot dogs. That’s about 70 hot dogs per person!

Yet for such a well-loved meat product, it raises a lot of questions. Like, is a hot dog a sandwich? Why are there fewer hot dog buns in a pack than there are hot dogs in a package? And maybe most important of all: What are hot dogs made of? Read on to find out!

What is actually in a hot dog?

Every hot dog brand and recipe is unique, but according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, anything that markets itself as a hot dog or frankfurter must be a sausage that is cooked and/or smoked. The amount of fat and water, when combined, cannot make up more than 40 percent of a hot dog. Products are also allowed to contain up to 3.5 percent nonmeat binders, extenders, and fillers such as pulverized cereal grains and powdered milk products. This means that the main ingredient in hot dogs is real meat.

Aside from the meat, here are some other hot dog ingredients you may see:

  • Spices for flavor, such as pepper, garlic, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, paprika, and allspice
  • Meat stock to intensify meat flavors
  • Yeast extract for savoriness
  • Sodium nitrite to cure and preserve the meat
  • Sugar or corn syrup to promote browning
  • Cherry powder for color
  • Modified food starch to thicken the filling
  • Natural or artificial casing for shape

Are hot dogs made out of pork?

Yes, and that should come as no surprise. Americans love pork products. We pile our plates with bacon, snack on pork rinds, and grill up pork weiners every Fourth of July.

But though pork is one of the most popular meats used in hot dogs, it’s not the only option. You can also buy beef, chicken, or turkey hot dogs—or products that combine pork and beef or meat and poultry.

What’s in a beef hot dog?

Along with pork, beef tops the list of the most popular hot dog fillings. While you can buy pork-and-beef blends, most hot dogs include only one filling. Because people who follow a kosher diet cannot eat pork, all kosher hot dogs are made from 100 percent beef.

What cuts of meat are used in hot dogs?

Though there are many funny jokes and not-so-funny rumors about what sort of meat goes into hot dogs, they’re not actually made from “everything but the oink.” And that “pink slime” you’ve heard about? It’s what the meat industry calls lean, finely textured beef. According to the American Meat Institute, high-tech food processing separates lean meat from the fat, and FDA-approved food-grade ammonium hydroxide is added to get rid of bacteria. The process is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The result is, admittedly, a little pink and a little gooey, but it’s safe for use as filler in hot dogs.

So if not pink slime, what are hot dogs made of? Real, boneless cuts of meat, just like anything you’d buy from the butcher. That, and casings that give the meat its characteristic shape.

There are four primary types of casings used in the hot dog and sausage industries: Natural casings are made from animal intestines; collagen casings are made from collagen rendered from beef bones; fibrous casings are made from colored filament paper; and cellulose casings are made from viscose, a material derived from the cellulose that comes from wood or cotton processing. Though hot dogs can be sold “skin-on,” the most popular hot dog varieties on the market are skinless and have their cases removed after cooking.

How are hot dogs made?

Fans of frankfurters aren’t just flummoxed about what hot dogs are made of. They’re also a bit confused by how they’re made.

Hot dog production goes a bit like this: Boneless cuts of meat, trimmings, and chunks of animal fat are placed into a meat grinder. Once ground, the mixture is moved to a mixer where it’s blended with salt, spices that give it a wonderfully umami flavor, curing agents like nitrites, binders, and other ingredients to make a smooth emulsion. The meat blend is placed in a stuffing machine, which pumps it into casings and twists the hot dogs into individual links.

Next, the long strands of linked hot dogs are cooked in an oven, a steamer, or a hot water bath. After cooking, some hot dogs are smoked to add additional flavor. The hot dogs are then placed in cold water to cool completely, and in the case of skinless hot dogs, separate the cellulose casing from the finished frankfurter. Once the casing is removed, the hot dogs are vacuum packed to retain freshness, then packaged, boxed, and shipped.

Are organic hot dogs healthier than regular ones?

Organic hot dogs aren’t healthier per se, but they do have some distinct advantages over the regular kind. The meat used in organic hot dogs is of higher quality, coming from animals that have been fed grains or grass that was certified organic and been raised without the use of hormones, pesticides, or antibiotics.

In the end, though, processed meat—including hot dogs, sausages, spam, and deli meat—isn’t very healthy. Your favorite frank is high in fat, loaded with sodium, and includes preservatives, none of which does your health any favors. In fact, when it comes to cookouts, a hamburger with a slice of American cheese may be a healthier option.

That said, while organic hot dogs might not necessarily be healthier for humans, they’re definitely healthier for the environment. And because of the high-quality meats used, they can taste better too.

And with that, you can finally answer the age-old question, “What are hot dogs made of?” Keep learning about the food you eat by finding out the secret ingredient that makes McDonald’s french fries so addictive.

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Allison Robicelli
Allison Robicelli has nearly 20 years of professional experience in the worlds of food, lifestyle, and parenting. She is the author of three cookbooks, one travel/history book, and has written for a variety of national magazines, websites, and newspapers.