Hot dog! Roasting an outdoor icon

Most folks who spend time in the outdoors – hunting, fishing, hiking, camping – have mastered the art of roasting a wiener. Surprisingly, a lot of other folks haven’t. (Photo by Mike Schoonveld) 

I went to a wiener roast recently with my daughter, son-in-law and grandchild at a function at their church. I’ve not kept track, but this may have been my thousandth, perhaps five thousandth, campfire, stick and hot dog soiree. (The campfire pronunciation of this French word is swar-ray.)

I grew up roasting wieners. I just supposed everyone did and had either learned on their own or were taught by grandparents, scout masters or big sisters the proper way to do it. I grew up in a rural area, as did my daughter, but as an adult, she’s firmly settled in “urbania” and it quickly became apparent most of the people who attended the cookout had never learned the “art” of the wiener roast.

The fire

It doesn’t take a large fire to get a cold hot dog up to “eating” temperature. Though a couple handfuls of twigs may do the job in an emergency situation, a miniature blaze is not a proper wiener-roast fire. A hefty armful of seasoned firewood might do the job for one or two people. Better is three or four arm loads. The fire is perfect when it has a good mix of still flaming logs, glowing billets, and heat radiating coals.

The stick

I’ve used fresh-cut wiener sticks, DIY “arm extenders” made from stiff wire, as well as hot dog prongs specifically manufactured to do the job. For both tradition and function, the green stick wins every time. Most “store-bought” wiener sticks are too short. Correct length starts at four feet and most of my custom sticks start at six feet.

Most any long, skinny sapling or bough will work; where I lived and grew up, willows were perfect and abundant. I’d select one a little over an inch in diameter, which would taper down to about 3/8-inch in about six feet. A bit of whittling would remove the bark and produce a sharp point at the tip.

The technique

There’s an even split between skewering the hot dog lengthwise by poking the stick into one end then threading on the dog, or sticking it on crosswise, letting the ends dangle freely.

Neither is wrong.

People who like to cook multiple wieners at a time choose crosswise. I favor the lengthwise skewer because it gives me better control. Besides, cooking is part of the fun! Why get it over as quickly as possible?

Until I went to the church wiener roast I thought selecting the correct position around the fire to cook from was obvious. I didn’t think it was something that needed to be taught.

Sure, sometimes you need to get into a particular spot depending on how the fire is burning, but that sweet spot is never downwind of the fire. The wiener is suppose to get smoked and cooked, not the hot dog chef.

When cooking, there are just two rules. 1.) Never touch the wiener to the glowing coals or burning firewood. Ashes are not a condiment. 2.) When cooking, never position the wiener in the flames. They’ll get sooty. The darkening of the skin of the hot dog should be due to the “Maillard” reaction, not from char and soot.

The Maillard reaction is a heat-induced chemical reaction that gives broiled steaks, grilled chicken, even roasted grains their distinctive, complex flavor. Many items are quickly seared to produce this reaction, then slowly cooked to bring them to their finished temperature.

Properly roasted hot dogs are slowly heated to temperature by holding them over the glowing coals while rotating the stick as they heat up. They’ll gradually turn from pink to an orange/brown color. That’s the sign it’s time to move the wiener closer to the coals or find a super-heated niche between two glowing logs. Watch closely as the color of the wiener darkens from brown towards black – that’s the Maillard reaction at work. It’s okay if the skin blisters a little or splits.

This finishing process should take only 30 to 45 seconds.

Then enjoy with your favorite condiments but keep it simple. The flavor of the wiener has been elevated by the campfire so don’t smother it. Let the savory flavor be the star of the party.

Categories: Michigan – Mike Schoonveld

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