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Dining Out

Chicago 2011 Part 8 - Vienna Beef Factory

by Michael Chu
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Chicago-style hot dogs are made only with Vienna Beef brand hot dogs. At least that's what hot dog vendors who sell Vienna Beef sausages in Chicago will tell you. When I found out that Vienna Beef gives weekly tours of their factory to the public, I signed up immediately. Unfortunately, they were booked (they get booked up several weeks in advance). Fortunately, they allowed us to join up with a private tour they were doing the next day (where they even allowed photography - something the public tour is discouraged from doing)!

Vienna Beef Factory
In addition to me and Tina, a couple other people (including a delicatessen owner from Colorado and a hot dog stand operator) joined us on the tour at Vienna Beef (2501 North Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL). Our tour guide was Senior Vice President Bob Schwartz who was very knowledgeable and forthcoming about all aspects of their operation.

Vienna Beef Factory - Trimming Brisket and Navel
The first section of the factory that we visited was the area where they trimmed whole beef brisket and navel.

Vienna Beef Factory - Grinding Beef
Their hot dogs are actually a blend of 25% brisket and navel trimmings (on the right) along with 75% ground bull meat (on the left). The exact percentages are determined through laboratory testing (they have a lab where they sample the beef as it comes in to determine composition including fat and protein percentage; this allows them to increase or decrease the amount of trimmings to grind in to produce uniform texture and flavor from batch to batch). The majority of the sausage is composed of ground beef from bulls (instead of steers and heifer beef which we normally find in grocery stores and eat in restaurants as steaks) because bull meat contains more connective tissue resulting in a firmer, chewier, and more cohesive texture. Too much bull meat and the hot dog would be too chewy and too little would produce a hot dog that was too fatty or too soft. Using just the right blend of bull meat lets them produce a 100% beef hot dog with the perfect texture without the use of fillers, binders, or additives.

It takes a lot of experience to get the blend right day after day. Their sausage-meister was from a long family of proud sausage makers but recently retired. Their current sausage-meister worked at the factory for twenty years and apprenticed with the previous sausage-meister for five years before taking over the position about five years ago.

Vienna Beef Factory - Rotating "Spatula"
After the beef mixture is combined, it is further ground to an extremely fine texture (forming almost a paste) and blended with seasonings. In this photo, the finished blend is being moved from the giant mixing bowl to a hopper by a large rotating "spatula". I was surprised at the efficiency of the spinning spatula - it completely moved the huge amount of beef from the bowl into the bin in only a few seconds and the bowl was practically spotless afterward.

Vienna Beef Factory - Final Finely Ground Blend
The sausage mixture ends up being a yellow beige color. After cooking, the pink color returns.

Vienna Beef Factory - Sausage Blend Forced Into Casings
Here, the sausage meat is being forced into natural casings. As they switch from one casing (they are only so long) to another, a little bit of meat is lost as waste. Workers at this station manage the process by hanging the filled casings and removing the waste product between segments.

Vienna Beef Factory - Plastic Casings Are Used For Hot Dogs
Hot dogs are made with plastic casings instead of natural casings. Once the dogs are smoked, a machine uses a razor to slice through the plastic casing and remove it. That's why hot dogs have a groove cut down the side.

Vienna Beef Factory - One of Many Smoker Rooms
Here's one of their many smokers. I think they can fit eight of these racks in each of the smokers, and it looked like there were eight of these smokers in their smoker room. Depending on the type of sausage, they smoke for about three to four hours at 160-165°F.

Vienna Beef Factory - Curing Pastrami and Corned Beef
In addition to sausages, Vienna Beef also prepares pastrami and corned beef. Both of these products are available for sale cured and uncooked as well as fully cooked. Corned beef made from navel is served warm so the extra marbling melts into the meat. Brisket corned beef can be eaten warm or cold. Corned beef make from beef round is best eaten cold. The meats are jaccarded and injected with brine. In the case of corned beef, they are cooked in a vacuum bag in a water bath.

Vienna Beef Factory - Curing Pastrami
Pastrami is seasoned with pepper, coriander and other spices, then smoked.

Vienna Beef Factory - Product Packaging
Once the products are done cooking, they are taken out of the cookers and smokers from the other side of the cooking rooms. (The factory is divided into two parts by the cooking rooms. The far side of the ovens and smokers is kept clean and sterile. To maintain food safety, we weren't allowed into the area where they package the cooked foods.) The various products are inspected, vacuum sealed, and sent down the line to labeling and packaging. All the finished products are passed through sensitive metal detectors as a final safety check.

Vienna Beef Factory - Soup Making
Vienna Beef also manufactures many varieties of soups from chilis to chicken noodle. For people looking for a small batch producer, Vienna Beef can actually work with you to produce a soup product and ship frozen bags of the product to you through your distributor. We tasted a chili that they make for Culver's Hamburgers which was delicious (at least it was when fresh from the factory). At Vienna Beef, they only use quality ingredients (high quality pastes, fresh vegetables, real beef or chicken - no byproducts and currently no pork) for both their products and foods they produce for other companies.

Vienna Beef Factory - Chicago-style Hot Dog
After our tour, we stopped at the factory's cafeteria where we ordered a Chicago-style Hot Dog and an Italian Beef Sandwich made with Vienna Beef.

Vienna Beef Factory - Italian Beef Sandwich

Vienna Beef Factory

For ease of navigation and to keep the page sizes down, I've split the trip report and reviews into multiple pages:
Chicago 2011 Part 1a - Overview
Chicago 2011 Part 1b - Overview
Chicago 2011 Part 2 - Shui Wah, Santa Anna Bakery
Chicago 2011 Part 3 - Pizzeria Uno, Giordano's
Chicago 2011 Part 4 - Gibson's Bar & Steakhouse
Chicago 2011 Part 5 - Frontera Grill, Xoco
Chicago 2011 Part 6 - Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi, Frontera Fresco, Marc Burger
Chicago 2011 Part 7 - Alinea
Chicago 2011 Part 8 - Vienna Beef Factory (this page)
Chicago 2011 Part 9 - Girl and the Goat

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on August 14, 2011 at 10:00 PM
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