Americans love hot dogs.

Approximately 7 billion are eaten between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year with 150 million eaten on July 4 alone, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (NHDSC). Hot dogs rank as a mealtime favorite at other times of the year, too. NHDSC figures show U.S. grocery store shoppers spent more than $6.2 billion on hot dogs and sausages in 2019. Millions more were spent on hot dogs and sausages at ballparks, airports and other venues that year.

But there would be no hot dogs or sausages without casings. Many other popular proteins also depend on casings including bologna, pepperoni, snack sticks and many deli meats. Casings come in several forms: natural (sheep, hog, beef), collagen, fibrous, plastic, cellulose and alginate.

At Sailer’s Food Market and Meat Processing in Elmwood, Wis., a fifth-generation family-owned business, casings are an essential component of many products including several award winners in the American Cured Meat Championships, sponsored by American Association of Meat Processors. The company uses natural casings for its small-diameter smoked and cooked sausage and fresh bratwurst; collagen casings for fresh pork sausage, snack sticks and ring bologna; fibrous casings for summer sausage and large-diameter slicing deli meats; plastic casings for cooked, not-smoked ham deli meats and braunschweiger; and cellulose casings for skinless hot dogs.

According to the NHDSC, most of the hot dogs sold each year are skinless. The cellulose casing serves as the cooking vessel and is removed prior to packaging. Some traditional hot dog recipes specify natural casings, which provide a skin that snaps when the consumer bites into the meat.

Tradition definitely plays a role in casing selection. Jake Sailer, owner of Sailer’s Food Market and Meat Processing, recalls, “We tried putting our liver sausage in a plastic casing like our braunschweiger, and the people that buy that product did not like it. They insisted that it be in a beef round, a natural casing.”

As a result, he says, his casing usage hasn’t varied much over the years. The story for netting is similar. He reports, “We use four different kinds of netting for ham, smoked beef, smoked pork loin and ham-style products. Not a lot has changed (in our usage), but I have used different netting to achieve a different look on the outside of a given product.”

Whether casings or netting, Sailer says quality is the biggest determining factor when selecting a supplier, and he is highly satisfied with existing material choices as well as related equipment.

Processors may choose from many different diameter, length, capacity, color, flavor and packaging options as well as special casing features such as easy release. Important characteristics include uniformity and machinability for higher yield and enhanced portion control.

In recent years, natural, collagen, fibrous, plastic and cellulose casings have been joined by algae-derived alginate casings, which offer production advantages because the meat and the casing are coextruded. Material costs may lower, too. Candidates for alginate casings include bratwurst, raw sausage, scalded sausage, pet food and snack products. Supplied as a paste or powder, the powder form is said to offer longer shelf life and lower transportation and storage costs. Alginate options include a standard version with animal protein as well as vegetarian/vegan, halal and kosher recipes. 

Today’s netting selection includes cotton, poly and cotton/poly blends with standard patterns such as honeycomb, diamond, stockinette and pineapple. Netting can be pre-smoked and designed for clean release to prevent damaging the product when removed. Custom patterns, as well as various color and finishing options, can provide a proprietary, upscale appearance that differentiates products and boosts brand recognition. NP