Hot dogs are pre-cooked. And yet you shouldn’t eat them raw. Here’s why that is—and what it means for your home cooking.
Hot dogs are America’s favorite food in the summer.
Just on Independence Day, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council reports, Americans enjoy 150 million hot dogs—enough to stretch from Washington, DA, to Los Angeles, CA, five times.
Some like their hot dogs boiled and snappy. Others prefer them grilled and lightly charred. In the Midwest, they even like to prick their hot dogs on a stick, dip them in cornmeal batter, and deep-fry them to crispy deliciousness.
But if it’s a weekday and you don’t have the time to stay on the stove or the inclination to fire up the grill, can you eat your hot dogs raw? After all, hot dogs are pre-cooked, so you should be able to eat them right out of the package… or should you?
Why You Shouldn’t Eat Hot Dogs Without Reheating
A lot of people mistakenly believe that hot dogs can be eaten without reheating because they are already cooked. However, this isn’t entirely true, as eating unheated hot dogs can make you sick.
Yes, hot dogs are already cooked. But they can nevertheless be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes—the pathogenic bacteria that cause listeriosis—when they are processed and packaged at the factory. So eating unheated hot dogs puts you and your family at increased risk of food poisoning.
In an article on its website aimed at moms-to-be, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration leaves no room for interpretation of its position: “Actually,” the federal agency writes, “it’s important to always reheat hot dogs until they’re steaming hot.”
It goes on to explain that hot dogs, like other ready-to-eat foods, can become contaminated with Listeria at the plant, which is why they must always be thermally treated for safe consumption. “If it’s not possible to reheat hot dogs,” the FDA says, “don’t eat them.”
Why Unheated Hot Dogs Are Unsafe to Eat
“How can that be,” some of you are probably thinking, “when there are all these food safety procedures that meat processing plants have to follow?”
Well, let’s just say that some bacteria are very good at survival, and Listeria monocytogenes is one of them.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes is commonly found in the intestinal tract of animals, which is what makes processed meats particularly vulnerable to it, and it can grow slowly at refrigerator temperatures.
The USDA says that hot dogs, luncheon meats, cold cuts, fermented or dry sausage, and other deli-style meats can all be breeding grounds for Listeria, and so can soft cheeses and unpasteurized milk.
It is a dangerous bacterium, and the infection that it can cause shouldn’t be taken lightly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1,600 people get listeriosis each year, and about 260 of them, or 16.25% of those infected, die.
How to Enjoy Hot Dogs Safely
First and foremost, remember that hot dogs are a highly perishable food item that shouldn’t sit out at room temperature for more than 1-2 hours and that must be refrigerated for safe keeping.
Second, even though hot dogs are pre-cooked, you should treat them as uncooked meat products because of the possibility that they’re contaminated with Listeria bacteria.
This means that you should wash your hands with soapy water for at least 20 seconds after handling unheated hot dogs straight from the package. And you should wash all cutlery, utensils, and cutting boards or countertop surfaces that they came into contact with.
This also means that you should keep hot dogs in the lowest compartment of your fridge, where it is coldest, and in such a way that no juice comes into contact with other foods in your fridge, especially those that you eat raw and without heat treatment.
Last but not least, reheat your hot dogs until they’re steaming hot. Many like to boil them for 4-5 minutes if refrigerated and 9-10 minutes if frozen. On the grill, the hot dogs are ready to remove from the heat when they’re golden brown and lightly charred.
Hot dogs are already cooked, but they can still be infected with Listeria bacteria. This is why you should always reheat them until they’re steaming hot, whether in boiling water, in a frying pan, or on the grill.