It’s hard not to love a hot dog, with a soft, fresh bun and hot mouthwatering meat. But as wonderful as the basics may be on their own, adding some sweet-n-sour snap to that bad boy turbocharges that humble hot dog into manna from heaven.
But what, exactly to add? Ah, there’s the rub. Some say ‘kraut, some say relish, some insist on coleslaw. Since they’re all delish, does it even matter? Well, that depends on where you’re from and what you’re used to.
The Case for Coleslaw
Here in West Virginia, we have our own ideas. You’ll find variations on the theme throughout the state, but the common elements are a spicy chili and sweet, creamy coleslaw. The wiener itself is important, of course, but for a true West Virginia hot dog, the magic is in the way the slaw and chili work together: the chili spicy enough to cut through the sweetness of the coleslaw, while the slaw has to provide tartness and crunch. The perfect combination is greater than the sum of its parts.
The perfect WVHD is a sweet and creamy concoction made from finely chopped cabbage, mayonnaise, and a few other ingredients. Go light on the vinegar, if it’s used at all: the slight tang comes from the cabbage itself. The focus here is on the sweetness.
The Reality of Relish
Unlike coleslaw, relish is based on that vinegary taste. It’s created by chopping, cooking, and pickling a fruit or vegetable, with a few other ingredients like onions thrown in for good measure. Relishes in our country come in a variety of flavors, often depending on the city or region. New York City dogs, for example, feature relish heavy on the red onion sauce…while Chicago hot dogs rely on a “neon” relish which is bright green and sweeter.
While the vinegar tartness is important here, you’ll find a discernible difference between relish and simply adding pickles to your frank. Where pickles are preserved primarily using vinegar and salt, relish also adds a variable amount of sugar, as well. This “sweet with bite” sensation is what gives relish its unique flavor: fans insist there is no substitute.
The Sturm und Drang of Sauerkraut
New York’s famous “dirty-water” dogs feature a nice topping of mild sauerkraut: finely cut raw cabbage that has been fermented, resulting in a sour taste. A product of necessity, “sour cabbage” was created as a way of preserving fresh cabbage for longer periods of time. The chopped leaves are mixed with salt and pressed, which releases water and microbes that in turn ferment the plant’s natural sugars. Sauerkraut is low in calories, high in Vitamins C and K, and adds a nice chunk of fiber and iron to your diet.
As for the taste, well, it’s sour–what did you expect? With more of a tart briny taste than traditional relish and nowhere near the sweet snap of coleslaw, sauerkraut can easily overpower the nuance of the frank, if one isn’t careful.
It’s probably pretty obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: we’re big fans of the coleslaw on our dogs. Relish will work in a pinch, but added to the chili, mustard, and onions of a true WVHD, you start having too many flavors going on there. And while ‘kraut adds an interesting tartness, the lack of subtlety is a huge issue. But the cool, sweet, creamy awesomeness of the right coleslaw can complement the other ingredients in just the right way … it’s hot dog perfection.
In the end, however, the customer is always right (right?), so however you want to savor your red hot is absolutely fine with us.