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NEVER TOO YOUNG: Jay Moxley (left) of Oakland offers some of his hot dog to 16-month-old daughter Devon at the farmers market outside San Francisco's Ferry Building.
THE GREAT American hot dog has gone natural. While it was once hard to feel good about taking a bite out of the summertime staple, today there are plenty of frankfurters that boast quality ingredients such as grass-fed beef, easing the worry about what's inside.

Exactly what's in a hot dog has been a bit of an eat-don't-ask subject. Everything from snout to tail is in a frankfurter. And the sodium nitrates and nitrites, which preserve processed meats and give them their appealing pink color, have been a concern for decades because of their suggested link to cancer.

For consumers such as Oakland resident Jay Moxley, a 42-year-old father of two, hot dogs never made it to the dinner table until organic toddler-friendly franks made their debut.And with Bay Area companies such as Let's Be Frank, Prather Ranch Meat Co. and Niman Ranch producing healthier franks, hot dogs are out of the guilty pleasure category.

"With traditional hot dogs, you know you are eating something that isn't good for you. With these you know there's nothing to worry about," Moxley says, noting his dog of choice is the Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dog made by Prather Ranch Meat Co. "Health food always had some sort of sacrifice to it. It was this badge of honor that you didn't eat bad food. But now regular foods like hot dogs are organic and they are amazing. You can say that they're good, but unless you taste them, there's no way to know just how good they are."

Finding the cure

Making healthier hot dogs more appealing means making them more like their nitrate and nitrite-laden counterparts. Nature's answer to chemical-free curing comes in the forms of celery juice, lactic acid and sea salt, which prolong shelf life, add juiciness, improve texture and help retain color.

"Up until two years ago, we didn't have that technology available," says Tedd Heilmann, general manager of Wisconsin-based Organic Prairie, the meat division of Organic Valley. "Our dogs were gray and unattractive."

The company, which has been making organic hot dogs since the late 1990s, has seen a tremendous lift in sales since reformulating the dogs over the last year. The new franks are juicy and have better flavor and texture.

"Now the kids aren't thinking, 'Hey, my mom is trying to feed me this strange thing,'" Heilmann says, noting that while the label says "uncured," people are starting to understand that there is a natural curing process that occurs.

But because it is natural, there is also variation from batch to batch. And using the new curing technique requires some tinkering.

When Larry Bain and Sue Moore, co-owners of Let's Be Frank in San Francisco, took their idea for a hot dog to Englehart Gourmet Foods in Fairfield, the producer had to get used to the "celery potion."

"Generally there would be variation within the batches," Bain says. "Sometimes the meat wouldn't have a consistent color. Little did I know it would take us six months to get every aspect right."

The grass is greener

All of the healthier dogs are made from cattle that have spent the majority of their days grazing in pastures. Some, such as those used in the Let's Be Frank dogs, spend their entire lives eating nothing but grass.

Those cattle are raised on the 80,000-acre Hearst Ranch in San Simeon, Calif., where they graze year-round. To Bain and Moore, who is the meat forager for Chez Panisse, that's important because grass-fed beef yields leaner meat loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Each frank has 601 milligrams of Omega 3s — that's more than most fish.

Also touting purely grass-fed beef is Applegate Farms, which released the Great Organic Hot Dog in July after a decade of development. Company founder and CEO Steve McDonnell headed to Uruguay for his cattle, where, he notes, there are 3 million people and 12 million cows. "It's just suited to raising cattle. The whole area is grass and the cows just roam free," he says. 

Perhaps the most notable difference with grass-fed beef is that it tastes, well, grassy. For the most part, American palates are used to corn-fed beef. Corn is cheaper than putting cattle out to pasture and it is also makes for fattier meat.

Bain and Moore's "dogs gone good," which sell for $5 at AT&T Park at Giants games and on weekends at San Francisco's Crissy Field, have a meatier flavor and texture than most. Made with lamb casing and served on a specially made Acme bun, the franks are more like a sausage than a traditional hot dog. However, unlike a sausage, they don't weigh you down.

For McDonnell, whose aim was to create a dog that tastes like those sold at most supermarkets, garlic was the answer to dealing with the beef's strong grass flavor. Biting into a Great Organic, it's tough to tell if it's bad for you or not. The hot dogs are juicy, have the traditional texture, and could easily be substituted on a toddler's plate without a whimper of protest.

A fine finish

Currently, the USDA is deliberating what constitutes grass-fed, but a common definition is that grass must account for 80 percent of an animal's energy source during its lifetime. After that, each company must decide how the cattle will be "finished" or fed for the remainder of their lives.

Niman Ranch, based in Oakland, was one of the first companies to offer pasture-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats. Their cattle graze for up to 18 months and are finished with barley, corn, wheat, soy, molasses and hay to help them achieve a rich taste. The beef's buttery flavor shines in their Fearless Uncured Beef Franks, which were unveiled in May. Weighing in at a quarter pound, these dogs are hefty.

At Prather Ranch Meat Co., the animals used in their Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs are raised on 32,000 acres of grazing lands in Northern California and are finished with a combination of barley, alfalfa and rice to heighten the fat and help achieve a consistently good-tasting product.

Prather Ranch Meat Co. began selling their organic uncured franks six months ago to rave reviews. The hot dogs, which were in development for a year, are plump, juicy and have big beef flavor. Available at their store in San Francisco's Ferry Plaza and at farmers markets around the Bay Area, the full-flavored dogs sometimes sell faster than the company can make them.

"We have run out," says Steve McCarthy, co-owner of Prather Ranch Meat Co. and general manager of the store. "People are saying, 'You guys are making a hot dog? Great, I trust it.' It's opened up hot dogs as a viable meal again. People want to feed their kids hot dogs, but they don't want all that stuff in them."

It may have taken the company a year to find just the right recipe for the dogs, but that was a small challenge compared to producing organic beef.

To be certified organic, cattle must eat organically their whole lives and they must never be given hormones or antibiotics.

As McCarthy points out, organic fruits and vegetables aren't going to get pneumonia, but with animals roaming pasture, sickness is a reality and even a therapeutic dose of an antibiotic will take them out of the organic class.

But the end result is worth every bite. And no place appreciates organic meat quite like the Bay Area, which McCarthy says accounts for the majority of the Mt. Shasta company's organic meat sales. Devotees such as Moxey can't say enough good things about organic meat and in particular, organic hot dogs.

"There is no downside to eating one of these hot dogs. To me, it's as legitimate a choice as fresh fish or pasta," he says.

Healthful hot dogs

Applegate Farms
Great Organic Uncured Hot Dog

What: Certified-organic, uncured

Where to get them: Andronico's, Wild Oats, Whole Foods and natural grocers, or order online

Cost: $4.99 for a package of eight

How to cook them: Boil, steam or grill

Visit http://www.applegatefarms.com

Let's Be Frank
"Dogs gone good"

What: 100 percent grass-fed, no antibiotics or hormones

Where to get them: Outside AT&T Park when the Giants play
Crissy Field in San Francisco on weekends
Bi-Rite Market, 3639 18th St., San Francisco; (415)) 241-9760

Cost: $5 each at the cart (includes all the fixins'), $6.99 for a package of four at Bi-Rite Market

How to cook them: Co-owner Larry Bain recommends steaming the franks and then grilling them to seal in the juices.

Visit http://www.letsbefrankdogs.com

Niman Ranch

Fearless Uncured Beef Franks
Uncured Kids' Fearless Franks

What: Uncured, no antibiotics or hormones

Cost: $8.95 for a package of four

Where to get them: Various Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and specialty markets around the Bay Area. Or visit http://www.nimanranch.com or call (866) 808-0340 to place an order.

How to cook them: Grill or steam

Visit http://www.nimanranch.com

Organic Prairie
Uncured Beef Hot Dogs

What: Certified organic, uncured

Where: Raley's, Safeway, Whole Foods, Wild Oats and other retailers around the Bay Area

Cost: $5.99 for a package of seven

How to cook them: Boil or steam

Visit http://www.organicprairie.com

Prather Ranch Meat Co.
Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dogs

What: Certified organic, uncured

Where to get them: San Francisco's Ferry Plaza on the Embarcadero, shop No. 32; (415) 391-0420. Hot dogs are sold for $5 at the store's grill tent 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays

Farmers markets:
Ferry Plaza: Saturdays 8 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sundays (spring-fall) and Tuesdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Marin Civic Center, San Rafael: Thursdays and Sundays 8 a.m.-1 p.m
Oakland Grand Lake: Saturdays 8 a.m.-2 p.m.

Cost: $7 for a package of five

How to cook them: Grill or steam

Visit http://www.prmeatco.com