What Makes New York Hot Dogs Taste Unlike Any Other

Americans are big hot dog fans. Every summer, citizens across the United States display their love for the national food by consuming approximately 7 billion frankfurters between Memorial Day and Labor Day (per the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council). Whether it's a "through the garden" Chicago dog or spicy southwest Sonoran dog, there are so many regional specialties. 

But nobody brags about their hot dog of choice quite like New York City. Big Apple residents are the second-highest consumers of frankfurters (behind Los Angeles), and they also lead the pack in retail sales. Their speciality? A 'dog that comes smothered in onion sauce. 

Practically any hot dog cart worth its salt in New York City serves up the famous topper, typically using Sabrett's jarred onion sauce variety. The Sabrett company was founded in 1926 as The Sabre Meat Co., and quickly established itself as a purveyor of hot dogs. The company's iconic blue and yellow umbrellas soon dotted the region, with most hot dog carts using the brand's meat. As Sabrett grew in popularity, its range of items eventually expanded to toppings, and by 1989, the company's onion sauce became a New York City icon.

The topping is made by caramelizing sliced onions and cooking them down in a tomato-based mix (usually a blend of sugar with ketchup or tomato paste). The spices vary based on preference, but most copycat recipes include a blend of cinnamon, paprika, and garlic powder, with some also calling for red pepper flakes. The end result is a little tangy, sweet, and very savory.

The origin story of New York City's hot dog obsession

Before onion sauce inked icon status, New York City had a huge hot dog boom more than 150 years ago. It can be traced back to German immigrant Charles Feltman. In 1867, he began selling hot dogs in a bun so beachgoers at Coney Island could easily enjoy them without needing any serving utensils. This humble cart quickly caught the attention of locals, and expanded to sell roughly 40,000 hot dogs daily in the 1920s. But, any great innovator has copycats, and by the mid-1890s "dog wagons" were common throughout the city, particularly outside of student dorms. 

The melting pot of New York City's immigrant population, especially from the regions of Eastern Europe and Germany, contributed to the hot dog's popularity. These cultural identities are why one of the city's most beloved topping combinations, in addition to onion sauce, is still sauerkraut and brown mustard

While there were homemade varieties of the topper being served at some carts during this time, the famous jarred onion sauce didn't make its debut until 1965. It was invented by Alan Geisler, food chemist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, at the request of a customer, Gregory Papalexis. The two went into business together and Geisler's creation soon took off. After several mergers and bouts of rebranding, in 1989 the onion sauce recipe ended up being distributed by Sabrett, with its name still synonymous with the condiment today.