Hot dogs and bologna share one key similarity: they’re both emulsified meat products. That means these culinary masterpieces have been created with meat and other ingredients that are ground into a fine paste before being cooked. This technique gives them their fine smooth consistency and that soft bite we’ve all come to know and love. The two are curiously alike in flavor as well, similarly spiced and seasoned. So that got me seriously wondering, as I plowed down a hot dog the other day, are hot dogs and bologna really the same thing, just different shapes and sizes?
I sought to answer this question by polling some meaty professionals in my life. Sean Hofherr is a long-time friend of mine, and he owns a fantastic butcher shop in Northfield, Illinois, called Hofherr Meat Co. (if you’re in the northern suburbs of Illinois, go visit!). Part of what he does is make all sorts of sausage products, including bologna and hot dogs.
So I straight up asked him, “Is there a difference between hot dogs and bologna?”
Hofherr’s answer surprised me. “We make both products in house at Hofherr Meat Co. as part of our standard repertoire. Which goes to say that eight years and thousands of pounds of whipped, smoked meat later, the only difference between our hot dog and bologna recipes remains: the size of the casing.”
Wait. That’s pretty definitive. According to Hofherr, they’re the same damn thing. I asked if there were any differences in spicing or seasoning.
“Not in our recipe!” he says. “We make about 40 different sausages in house and that includes making huge batches of particular spice blends which can be very labor intensive (roasting/toasting, grinding, sifting) so when we hit on our hot dog blend back in the day, I was like ‘this is the exact same process as bologna, just a different diameter casing?!’ So, we made a test batch using our hot dog mix and it was fucking delicious so we figured ‘if it ain’t broke…’ and not one single person has ever made the connection.”
Holy crap! I feel like I unearthed a great meat secret. A meatcret, if you will. But not all meatcrafters share the same techniques, so I reached out to another butcher, Ted Rosen, who’s the executive chef at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in New York City. He is also familiar with the emulsified meat making process, having made plenty of hot dogs and bologna during his career as a meat guy. Dovetailing the conversation I had with Hofherr, we had a great and enlightening chat about hot dogs, bologna, and all emulsified meat products.
The Takeout: Is a hot dog just a small bologna?
Ted Rosen: I’d say technically yes. Bologna and mortadella are all emulsified sausages. I think in the U.S. people have a looser definition of what a hot dog is, where you can do like a Ballpark [the style of hot dog], which is super super emulsified, whereas if you go to an artisanal butcher, they might serve you a hot dog that is a little more coarsely ground and maybe not a totally emulsified sausage.
The process of making a hot dog, bologna, and mortadella is extremely similar, where you’re doing progressive grinds. You’re going from big pieces of meat, to smaller pieces of meat, and even smaller pieces of meat, until you’re turning it into a paste or an emulsion, where you’re getting the fat and the meat to mix by adding things like milk powder, water, and ice. Gun to my head, yeah, I’d say a hot dog is small bologna.
TO: Is there a difference in seasoning?
TR: There’s definitely a difference in flavor profiles. Hot dogs are going to be smoked, or have some kind of smoky component to them. At Dickson’s, we cook our hot dogs in the smoker the entire time, so our hot dogs are particularly smoky. We find that smoke gives it a really nice snap, especially with the natural casing.
That’s the other thing. Typically when you’re eating bologna, you’re removing whatever casing it’s in, whether it’s collagen or a hog bladder or whatever. You’re going to remove that before you slice it, whereas with a hot dog, especially if you’re using a natural casing, you’ll want that snap. That’s part of the experience.
Also, mustard powder is a pretty prevalent flavor in hot dogs that you’re not going to have in traditional bologna or mortadella. Our recipe for both bologna and mortadella has some wine and fresh garlic in it, as opposed to our hot dogs where we use a powdered garlic to kind of mitigate that kind of spiciness that you’d get from raw garlic.
TO: Is a hot dog bologna, sort of like the way bourbon is a whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon?
TR: The tricky thing here is we’re dealing with regional things; bologna is a really large sausage that comes in a really large casing from Bologna. And mortadella is an emulsified large format salami from Northern Italy. And a hot dog is a small format emulsified sausage from Frankfurt [Germany], if we’re really going back.
I’d say they’re close enough to be called the same thing, especially at their core. A pretty high-fat emulsified salami that goes into a casing. If that’s where we stop the description, then that’s the same thing. But to someone from Bologna [Italy], saying my Oscar Meyer hot dog is the same thing as the artisanally crafted bologna that’s been crafted in their family for 1,000 years, I think they’d probably take some umbrage to that.
I’m sure there’s something slightly different about the two, whether it’s ratios, the amount of pink salt, spices, the amount of water, but I’d hazard a guess that they’re pretty close.
When it comes to the taxonomy for birds, they all start on the same branch of a family tree, but depending on how far out you want to go, you can get to different genuses and species. Maybe hot dogs and bologna are the same genus, and it’s the species that differentiates the two.
So there you have it. According to the experts, it turns out hot dogs are a small version of bologna, if you look at it from multiple angles. For practical purposes, I’ll still call a hot dog a hot dog, and bologna a bologna, but in my heart, I’ll just consider them all a part of the same big happy family. Hell, maybe I’ll ask someone to bake me a huge bun and I’ll park an entire tube of bologna, dress it Chicago-style, and have it for lunch. As to whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich, however, we’ll just let that particular debate rage on.