Chicago Hot Dog Haters, Try This Rachael Ray Salad

Lean into the Chicago dog's most divisive quality by turning the whole thing into a salad.

Let me explain the winding path that led me toward making Rachael Ray's Chicago Dog Salad. Last month I wrote about Portillo's Chicago Dog vs. Wienerschnitzel's, and in that taste test, I came to realize that I am simply not a fan of your run-of-the-mill Chicago-style hot dog. These dogs, topped with tomatoes, pickles, onions, sport peppers, celery salt, and relish, are always subjected to the same insult: It's a salad on top of a hot dog. To many folks, a hot dog is best when it's simple: beef tube, condiment, bun, maybe some onions. Too many vegetables tend to turn people off. Unless, of course, the vegetables are the point.

The old Chicago dog insult rang in my mind to the point where I couldn't stop thinking about the concept of a hot dog salad. Maybe a hot dog salad isn't that bad, I thought. Wait, I bet hot dog salads are already a thing, I thought. Sure enough, a quick Google search of "Hot Dog Salad" yielded plenty of results.

The hot dog salad, explained

Those results come in the form of many recipes. Even The New Yorker has a recipe for a hot dog salad, in which author Tamar Adler makes a case for the hot dog salad as a sound use of leftovers, much like Jacques Pépin would use braised meats to make a salad the next day. Adler uses yum goon chiang, a Thai sausage salad, as inspiration:

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"Hot-dog salad" is not a phrase that naturally ignites the appetite, but please hear me out. The sweetness and saltiness and tube-iness of hot dogs makes them a viable option for a salad inspired by a Thai yum goon chiang, which is typically made with sweet Chinese sausage. Thinly slice the hot dogs on a bias and sear them quickly—or, even better, cut them into matchsticks and then sear them until the edges are crisp—then combine them with copious amounts of herbs and shallot, plus chili, lime, fish sauce, and sugar. The cook Leela Punyaratabandhu adds cucumber to her yum goon chiang. I think my hot-dog salad benefits from cucumber, as well. And peanuts.

The recipe sounds phenomenal, and it proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that with the right ingredients and balance of flavors, hot dog salad can absolutely work. The question I have is whether a Chicago dog salad can work.

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With a Chicago dog, people often complain that the bun gets too soggy. That shouldn't ever happen, and if the vegetables are dried properly it won't. But what if, to sidestep this issue, you got rid of the bun entirely? What if you embraced the salad-ness of the Chicago dog and stopped thinking about it like a sandwich at all? Would the flavors still work? Rachael Ray sure as hell thinks so.

Rachael Ray’s take on the hot dog salad

One of the first Google searches for a hot dog salad yields a recipe from celebrity chef Rachael Ray. Essentially, it is the ingredients of a Chicago dog, minus one or two components, mixed into a bowl. Here's the full recipe from the Food Network.

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Reading Ray's recipe, it's easy to be judgmental of the whole concept, but there's something reassuring and even familial about this salad. We've all had leftover hot dogs (cooked or uncooked) sitting around after a barbecue, so why not repurpose them in all kinds of ways?

On paper, the hot dog salad isn't the most sensical thing in the world, but it's a thrifty use for one's groceries. I had to find out if it tasted any good.

How does Rachael Ray’s hot dog salad taste?

Ray's "salad" looks less like a leafy salad and more like a cruciferous coleslaw studded with hot dogs. It's got a real side dish vibe to it. Still, the flavors do work. Let's talk about the good here.

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For starters, I really like the thrifty vinaigrette she makes with yellow mustard, vinegar, oil, and sugar. It's tangy, slightly sweet, and packs the necessary punch to tame the hot dog's pure fatty flavor. I will say, however, that yellow mustard in a salad dressing feels profane. Using Dijon would be preferred, but hey, after a barbecue you probably don't have Dijon laying around. You've got yellow mustard.

The salad itself contains romaine, store-bought coleslaw blend, tomatoes, pickles, and red onion. When mixed with the mustard vinaigrette, it forms a crunchy, tangy base, but the salad is not very good at this stage; the mustard flavor is just too pronounced. It needs something. It needs hot dogs.

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In the accompanying video, Ray really cooks the living hell out of her hot dogs. They are dark—caramelized, crispy, and nearly burnt. And they have to be, because steamed hot dogs wouldn't work here. I know there's some debate as to whether Chicago dogs should come steamed, water-simmered, or charcoal grilled. Food writer Whitney Moeller covers this in her Substack newsletter, Dig In!: On a bun, steamed works. On a salad, the hot dogs need some additional texture and flavor. Much like in yum goon chiang, the meat needs to be seared and crisped.

What strikes me about the hot dog salad is how weirdly romantic it is. Each component needs each other: The plain hot dogs don't work without the salad, and the mustardy salad certainly doesn't work without the hot dogs. The mustard cuts through the meat while the hot dogs add necessary fat to the bright and tangy salad. True symbiosis.

If you want to nitpick, you could say that this salad is missing some key components of a Chicago dog. Sport peppers are notably absent, as is the celery salt. After tasting a few bites of the salad, I threw on a few pickled banana pepper rings, which added tangy heat akin to giardiniera. Perhaps even the bun of a Chicago dog could be recreated with some poppy seed croutons. As it stands, this recipe isn't a straight 1:1 recreation of a Chicago dog in salad form. It's just a practical use of leftovers repurposed to feed a family. I can't help but see culinary giant Jacques Pépin in this recipe.

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I'm sure Ray's recipe has been shamed to high hell in the years since it was introduced, but I support it. The Chicago Dog Salad works, and for the hot dog critics, it might even be preferable to the iconic regional delicacy.

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