Rastelli's round dogs increase surface area for condiments and caramelization. But are they still hot dogs?

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Round Dogs
Credit: Rastelli's

The other day, I was eating a demoralizing lunch of baby carrots and Fritos when a colleague shared a photo in Slack. I couldn't quite make out what I was looking at: There appeared to be four baby pink hamburgers on a wooden cutting board, alongside small bowls of condiments. What my colleague said next shook me to my core: They were hot dogs. But round. They were called round dogs. They were hamburger-shaped hot dogs. My brain short-circuited.

The round dogs were from Rastelli's, a sustainable meat and seafood purveyor, and they cost $10 for four three-ounce ″burgers." As a lifelong scholar of hot dogs and hot dog-related issues, I was at once scandalized by this departure from tradition and frustrated with myself for not knowing about it sooner. Above all, I was excited to bear witness to this moment in hot dog history, knowing that I could one day tell my grandkids where I was when the round dogs first went viral -- eating baby carrots and Fritos off my lap. To process my emotions I logged onto the internet, a famously healthy place to work through stuff, and posted the dogs to Twitter.

The tweet blew up. The internet was also scandalized by the sight of the hot dog disks. One man responded, "We will never see the kingdom of God." Another, "As a Chicagoan, I denounce this atrocity and call for reform." While many people were as eager as I was to chomp in that pale round dog flesh, many more people were eager to tell me that those slabs were actually just thick-cut bologna, which people have been putting in sandwiches for generations, and that I was a fraud.

Listen. There are key differences between round dogs and thick-cut slabs of bologna. While hot dogs and bologna are often made of the same stuff, squished into different forms (and different types of casing), there can be more qualities that differentiate them besides their shape. I spoke to a Rastelli's spokesperson who refuted claims that their round dogs are just "thicc bologna," as one tweeter put it to me.

In a patented process, Rastelli's chops black angus beef and premium pork, rather than fully emulsifying or liquifying the mixture like what's done for many traditional bolognas. "We then wrap our meat mixture in a collagen casing, followed by a netting to help hold shape," a spokesperson told me. "The product is then smoked, similar to an Old World-style hot dog, with a proprietary blend of woods, such as chicory, and later finished in the oven. Before slicing into rounds, we remove the casing." They remove the casing so the meat becomes more permeable, allowing the flavor of the condiments to "really sink into the round dog," and to help reduce the chances of choking.

"It's still bologna!!!" you may insist, and to that I say: What is anything?

If the only meaningful difference between a hot dog and bologna is shape, then it's mostly a matter of perspective, and I could call bologna slices "flat hot dogs" and still be pretty correct. If you want to call the round dogs "bologna," I can't come to your house and stop you. But I think you should give them a try regardless.

After several days of spiraling, I finally received my round dogs in the mail. Once they arrived, frozen and tightly wrapped in packs of two, I picked up soft hamburger buns and sauerkraut from the supermarket. I realized how convenient it would be to shop for only one type of bun for a cookout, rather than buying separate buns for hot dogs and hamburgers. Not that I have a backyard or the emotional bandwidth to entertain, but still.

I seared two patties on my skillet, noticing how evenly the round dogs were caramelizing. When I grill standard tube dogs, I'm only able to caramelize one thin strip -- the strip that hits the heat source. But with a big round slab hitting the heat source, the pan sizzled and charred more surface area, filling my apartment with the thick fragrance of salty meat.

I asked Rastelli's how they came up with the idea for round dogs. "One of the most unique and interesting requests was if we could sell hot dogs pre-sliced," said a spokesperson. "Like many people, our customers were accustomed to slicing their hot dog down the middle before grilling to increase surface area for caramelization and flavor."

Each round dog is three ounces, about the size of two standard hot dogs. But seeing as the unofficial serving size of hot dog is two hot dogs, I ate two round dogs. And, to put it plainly: The dogs are really good.

The meat is clearly high quality, and the increased surface area invites more a) sweet char flavor and b) space for toppings. If you go into the experience with a closed mind and hate in your heart, you may be perturbed by the softness of the round dogs, as they lack the casing of their tube cousins, robbing you of that crisp, snappy bite. But if you open your heart, you'll find that the softness of the round dog offers a different kind of satisfaction.

One of my favorite aspects of hamburgers is the mushing effect that happens when you hold them between your hands and bring them to your mouth. The squishy bun melts into the patty, becoming a single, soft entity. Because the round dogs aren't sealed with casing, a similar kind of mushing happens here, and the softness of each bite feels deeply comforting.

I plan to keep my freezer stocked with them all summer long.