Hot dog season is upon us. Summer is the perfect time to bust out your grill (or make your way to a park that has one you can use for free) and start slinging dogs. Whether you’re more of a beef or pork dog person doesn’t really matter. It all comes down to the toppings. Although some may be happy with little more than a squiggle of high-fructose corn syrup-infused ketchup, others need a heavy sprinkling of onions to truly reach hot dog nirvana. And while I respect all those who choose to dress their dogs differently than I do, I will not hesitate to inform you that you are, in fact, wrong.
That’s why I’ve decided to rank some of the most popular hot dog toppings, starting with the ones we wish didn’t even find their way to the cookout. Read to the end if you want to discover the best of the best, the toppings that will elevate your hot dog from a simple sandwich to a true culinary masterpiece.
Look, I don’t have anything against chili, but does it belong on a dog? Not really. Chili is an iconic wintertime food, served piping hot, preferably with plenty of melted cheese on top. How does that possibly belong on the epitome of summertime foods, the hot dog? Plus, I just don’t understand why anyone would think that a hot dog, a meat-centric dish, would be best complemented by more hot meat on top. Sorry to all the chili dog lovers, but this is just not it.
There is nobody on this planet who loves pickles as much as I do. And that’s why I am vehemently against pickle relish in almost all its forms. There is absolutely no reason that this salty, acidic food should be disgraced with the addition of sugar. Sweet pickle relish is truly the bane of my existence, and I frankly can’t even believe it’s allowed to exist. Pickles on your hot dog? Weird, but go for it. I support you completely. But you will never, ever find relish at a hot dog party I throw.
In 2016, just two years before Anthony Bourdain’s death, the giant of the food world sat down to a meal with President Obama in Hanoi, Vietnam, and asked him whether ketchup on a hot dog was ever acceptable. Obama answered appropriately: “No. I mean that. That’s one of those things—let me put it this way, it’s not acceptable past the age of eight.” No matter how you feel about the former president, he was 100% right on this front: Ketchup is for the kids. Expand your hot dog topping vocabulary.
This is a controversial one, and I’m sure many people out there will refuse to even try it. Peanut butter on hot dogs is not my favorite topping, but it’s not as gross as it may sound. I think the important thing to remember here is that you’re going to want to find a peanut butter that’s more salty than sweet. Natural peanut butter seems to be your best bet, especially if you find the stuff that’s fatty enough to drizzle over the dog. If you’ve never tried it before and you’re brave enough to give it a try, you may just be surprised to find out that it’s not that bad.
For all the spice lovers out there, this one is a no-brainer. Jalapeños taste great on just about anything, and hot dogs are no exception. Some may prefer raw jalapeños, which is certainly a possibility, but personally, I prefer my hot dog jalapeños pickled instead. Not only do they offer plenty of spice, but they also have a lovely acidity to them that plays well with the juiciness of the dog. The only caveat here is that jalapeños aren’t great on their own—they require a saucy carrier to reach their true potential.
Maybe I’m biased because sauerkraut is one of my all-time favorite foods. How can you not love fermented cabbage? I know it’s not everyone’s thing, but a juicy, acidic vegetable is just what a hot dog needs, in my opinion. Pile it high to transform your plain, boring dog into a crunchy, zesty symbol of pure, uninhibited summertime joy.
No matter what other toppings you’re putting on your hot dog, in my house, raw onions are a must. A white diced onion is my onion of choice, but I won’t balk at a red onion or even chopped scallions. Hot dogs on their own can be pretty bland, but raw onions offer just the right crunch and intensity of flavor to transform the most boring dog into a summertime dream come true.
Finally, we come to the best, the truest condiment of them all: mustard. Raw onions are essential on any hot dog, and sauerkraut and jalapeños can only make them better. But truthfully, no hot dog is complete without the addition of mustard. You can go a few different directions here. Dijon is my first choice because I’m annoying, and if I can get it grainy, that’s even better. But I’m certainly not opposed to a simple yellow mustard either. That blessed yellow sauce is essential to every bite of hot dog, in my less-than-humble opinion.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.