I used to write a lot on the subject of our particular Capital Region style hot dogs and their ubiquitous meat sauce. Hot Dog Charlie’s has been my personal favorite since childhood and I’ve been trying for years to recreate their sauce at home.
I’d penned a couple of posts where I experimented with various formulations with marginal success.
Sometime ago I received an email containing the following -
“I was born in Troy and my dad took us to Charlies all the time. I am 65 so I do miss that sauce. I can tell you just this.
I remember going in there one time when it just opened for the day. We were in the booth. We were the only ones there. I went to the counter and just watched. I was around 7. So think 1957. He put ground hamburger meat into a deep pan. He added some water to it. He talked to my dad and it just boiled. He came back and mashed it for about a minute. Then he added 3 things. I do not know what they were. I do think the original recipe has to be simple. The 50’s were not that complicated as some of the recipes I have seen. The red I saw could have been tomato paste. But I do not know.
Living now in Idaho hoping Charlies opens in heaven for me.”
I had the feeling that I had been getting too precious in my attempts. So I was overjoyed to receive this firsthand account of how it was done all those years ago.
Here is the rub. Do I really care about being able to recreate Hot Dog Charlie’s sauce at home? No, not really. It will probably never be as good as the real mccoy. I can easily partake in a couple with the works at any time I feel the urge. That is not the point. The technique of making this hot dog sauce deserves to be maintained in living memory.
Read that email. It is a 7 year old girl’s remembrance from over 50 years ago! Is the sauce that extraordinary in it’s red greasy power? Probably not. It is a memory linked to a memory. I guarantee the joy of sharing an experience with her father all those years ago is what allowed her to recall the sauce-making in such vivid detail.
I can attest to the power of eating hot dogs with family in early childhood. I can remember specific instances of Hot Dog Charlie’s consumption with my mother at around age 6 or 7. Now I take my own son (daughter is meat averse) about twice a month (went this very afternoon!).
I have a sinking feeling that the days of the traditional Capital Region hot dog restaurant are numbered. So I feel it is my duty to preserve this particular bit of knowledge.
In the small chance you may have read my past attempts on the (now defunct) ridiculousfoodsociety blog, forget all that garbage. I’ve used the knowledge contained in the above email to formulate what I think is a good and traditional answer for a Capital Region style hot dog recipe.
Below are passages from the email with my thoughts and interpretations.
“He put ground hamburger meat into a deep pan. He added some water to it. He talked to my dad and it just boiled.”
That is about 2.5lbs. of 80/20 ground chuck submerged in 6–7 cups of water. You need to use a high fat beef to get that wonderful red grease (sweet nectar of the god of hot dogs) that floats on top of the Charlie’s cauldron of meat sauce. I let that come to a boil whilst mashing away with a sturdy whisk until the meat was particularly obliterated.
“Then he added 3 things. I do not know what they were….The red I saw could have been tomato paste.”
I gave no small thought to this observation. I don’t think the red she saw was tomato paste. I have a couple ideas about what those 3 things were, but I am going with the following: 1) “red stuff” = a spice blend composed of a relatively large amount of paprika, chili powder, powdered garlic, and cinnamon. 2) dehydrated onion. 3) salt+pepper.
I had been perplexed about what gave Charlie’s sauce its red hue and particular tang. In the past I had figured maybe vinegar or tomato past were involved. But wisened 35 year old Dave thinks this can all be attributed to paprika. Cheap, bright red, garden variety paprika. In shocking amounts. I used somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 cups in this recipe. You sort of have to just keep going until the color is right.
A note on the chili powder. There is a clue on the label of the jarred sauce that Charlie’s sells in local stores. It says “chili powder (ground chilis).” I am starting to think many of the “off” flavors in my past attempts were from the varying degrees of cumin/oregano/garlic in the various brands of “chili powder” I’ve used. This time I used straight cayenne. About 1/2 teaspoon.
A teaspoon of garlic powder and 1/8th teaspoon of cinnamon rounded out the “red stuff.”
I added 1/3 cup of dehydrated onion. This is crucial. Fresh onion is another false path I went down in the past. Dehydrated onion is a necessity. About 1/3 cup, and I think you could do with more. About 2 1/2 teaspoons of salt and dash of pepper and then let it all bubble away for an hour or so.
Then you taste it. Still not right. Let it cool overnight and then reheat it for about 4 or 5 hours in a crockpot. There you go. Then you have something you will recognize.
“I do think the original recipe has to be simple. The 50’s were not that complicated as some of the recipes I have seen.”
Simplicity was what I was missing. I would cook off the beef, saute the onions a bit, blah blah blah… Nope. Put all the stuff in a pot and boil it off and then hold it at temp all day. That is the secret. I actually think I may have used less “secret spices” in my version then Charlie’s does. But I think this is for the best.
“Living now in Idaho hoping Charlies opens in heaven for me.”
Sigh… What more can you say? I hope you find your Charlie’s in the sky JoAnn. Thank you.