Friday, August 17, 2012

Unraveling the Mystery of Coney Sauce for a Detroit/Chicago Dog Throwdown

When my brother and his friends, evenly split between Detroit and Chicago residents, decided to come to cottage for the weekend, the stage was set for a hot dog throwdown pitting the Chicago Dog against the Detroit Coney. There was only one problem: while the components of the Chicago Dog are fairly straightforward, getting our hands on some real Detroit Coney sauce turned problematic – picking up some generic grocery store chili would not be acceptable and you aren’t going to find coney sauce in grocery stores outside of the metro Detroit area.

Although Detroit coneys are described as a form of chili dog, it is somewhat of a misnomer - it is a thicker, more viscous sauce than chili. Chili typically involves a base of ground meat, tomatoes, and a stock of some sort. The consistency of coney sauce is totally different, it is much thicker, closer to an Italian Bolognese sauce and has a different flavor profile than your typical chili. I had attempted to replicate coney sauce a few years ago in my Chicago days to satisfy a coney craving; it was a miserable failure and I swore off making coney sauce ever again. I was all set to break down and mail order some National Coney Island coney sauce online, until I stumbled across a thread on the RoadFood forums where a recipe claiming to be legit Detroit coney sauce was getting rave reviews.

cheatsheet for the uninitiated
Once I read the recipe, the lightbulb went off and the mystery of Detroit coney sauce had been unlocked – it is not a chili at all, it is a gravy. It turns out that Detroit coney sauce starts with making a roux by cooking flour in melted butter – the same way you make gravy at Thanksgiving. This made total sense and it’s so obvious that I’m ashamed I couldn’t come up with it.

The process starts with browning some ground beef* in a large Dutch oven. I then removed the browned beef, leaving some nice browned bits on the bottom of the pan to scrape up when making the roux. Then I tossed in the butter and let it melt (being careful to not burn the butter) and then dropped in the flour and stirred frequently until the mixture gives off a nice nutty aroma and the color turns light brown.

* The conventional wisdom seems to be that beef heart is used along with ground beef in most coney islands around town. I couldn’t find any on short notice so I went with ground chuck. I’m guessing chicken livers would be a decent substitute to up the offal factor that beef heart would provide.

Next, slowly stir in some stock, followed by all of the spices. Once the spices are incorporated, add back the browned beef and reduce until it is to a texture of your liking – it should be just thick enough to where it won’t run all over the plate when you spoon it onto your dog.

As far as the dogs, I went with the Koegel’s natural casing dogs. You are free to get whatever brand you want, but they must be natural casing – what’s the point of having a hot dog if you don’t get that nice snap when you bite into it? I had planned on smoking the hot dogs, but the traditionalist in me decided to keep it simple this time around, so I grilled them slowly over moderate heat, trying to prevent them from bursting open. 

The Chicago dog preparation is much more straightforward: pickle spear, onions, yellow mustard, atomic green relish, sport peppers, tomato slices, celery salt. Not nearly as fun as hacking the coney sauce, but a fine way to dress up a hot dog nonetheless.

Detroit Coney Sauce Recipe:
2.5 LBs ground beef
½ LBs ground beef heart
6 tbsp butter
6 tbsp flour
2 tomatoes (~8 oz. of canned crushed or diced tomatoes)
24 oz of beef or chicken stock
3 tbsp chili powder
2 tbsp paprika
3 tbsp yellow mustard
1 tbsp turmeric
1 tbsp cumin powder
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp kosher salt

1. Brown the beef in a large Dutch oven, use beef suet or lard to brown the meat if you can find it.
2. Remove the beef from the pot, melt butter, whisk in flour to create a roux. Whisk constantly and maintain a medium heat so that the flour and butter do not burn. 
3. Once the roux turns light brown and gives off a nutty aroma, slowly pour in the stock and whisk constantly. Pour in all of the spices and tomatoes and stir to incorporate. Add the beef back to the bowl.
4. Simmer the pot uncovered until it is reduced to a thicker consistency. 
5. Grill or steam up some natural casing dogs. Top with mustard, diced onions and coney sauce.


  1. This is the sort information that makes the world a better place. Thanks!

  2. Tony, do you drain off the fat from browning the meat, or does it become part of the roux? Thank you.

  3. Nick,

    That is a matter of preferenced I'd say. I subscribe to the school of thought that says "fat is flavor" so I'd leave it in. If you have a ton of fat rendered out and are worried about leaving too much in, just cut back on the amount of butter you add to make the roux. The roux is flour and fat and there is no reason you can't use a lot of rendered fat to make the roux (just like you would use rendered drippings/fat from the turkey to make gravy at thanksgiving).

  4. I am from Detroit and currently living in Chicago. I just made this coney sauce......and it is delicious. I thought the roux would be difficult but its really not. Thank you for posting this. I love coney chili and now I can make it whenever I want. Thank you thank you thank you.

  5. i have been searching for coney sauce recipe after moving out of MI into the sad lonely world of thinking chili dogs are an acceptable alternative, yuck! this recipe is a winner, i definitely used the beef heart and not just ground beef but also added a small amount of cracker meal for thickening as i have always understood that was a guarenteed ingredient in detroit coney sauce. This is the ONLY recipe i have found that starts with a rue therefore making it possible to get the thick saucy texture we love in the D and not that loose meat nonsense they eat in flint, you and this recipe are a lifesaver!!! now if i could just find some vernors and natural casing hot dogs that aren't all beef... ooh and blue moon and superman ice cream... i'd be a happy camper. Man i miss the mitten!

    1. I was raised in the south but my mother is a Michigander so we grew up loving "Boston Coolers" & constantly searching for Vernor's, Faygo, & REAL cream soda. Much to our delighted surprise, the local Kroger's here (Alabama) suddenly began stocking Vernor's. Maybe check Kroger's if you have one nearby? We've also found that most store managers are willing to stock a requested item or order it expressly for one customer. Even our tiny locally-owned Piggly Wiggly stocks it now! Best wishes on your quest for va-va-voom!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. You are correct on the cracker meal, it is an ingredient in American Coneys sauce. (I ordered a coney kit from them, and it is listed) Also Dearborn brand hot dogs are what American Coney uses.

  6. In regards to you request I am going to give the recipe for authentic Detroit Coney Sauce. I will also give the proper way to serve it.
    First the proper Dog.
    Never use a budget dog.
    Whenever possible use in this order Koegle, Dearborn, Sabrett,Kowalski,or Boars Head. All with Natural casing!!!!
    Dogs must be grilled on a griddle or a cast iron skillet on medium low with a small ammount of butter and vegetable oil. Constant turning of dogs is a must and they must never split open. You will be looking for a consistant light brown color with a darker line of brown on 2 sides.If dogs are straight they can be rolled back and forth regularily to insure even cooking with a large hamburger flipper. If curved use kitchen tongs and adjust next to the other dogs. NEVER BOIL A HOTDOG! And hot Dogs can be removed from grill using a fork with the center tines removed usnig a dremel tool with cutting blade leaving only the two outside tines remaining.The only onion to use is a large very white one. It must be chopped very fine to the point that if it was any smaller it would be a liquid. This is imperative as an onion has a different taste when chopped larger. Onion particles will be about 1/8 inch square.

    In a very large preheated pot with 1 cup of lard simmer 5 lbs of ground round and 1/2 lb cow heart ground fine on medium heat until it separates and turns just brown. This mixture must be stirred regularly and mashed during process to create a kind of rough paste.
    In a cast iron skillet put 6 tablespoons of butter and melt it then add 6 tablespoons of flour and make a light brown roux and set aside. Cut 3 tomatoes in half and roast in a 450 degree oven with a little vegetable oil on top until completely cooked and starting to turn into mush with a slight browning taking place. Set these aside.Add 32 ounces of chicken stock to meat simmer for 20 minutes at a slight boil then add roux, cooked tomatoes, 3 tablespoons chili powder,4 table spoons paprika,1/3 cup plochmans yellow mustard,2 tablespoons turmeric, 2 tablespoons cumin powder, 1 tablespoon garlic powder not salt,and 1 tablespoon onion powder. Simmer this down to the proper consistency.
    Steaming buns is the best way in a home environment a Chinese steamer basket works well or you can wrap them in paper towels and microwave 3 at a time on high for about 20 seconds. Open bun place dog spread slightly thinned yellow mustard over dog. Cover with Coney sauce then top with onions.

    Glad you all liked my recipe.I have since made a couple adjustments. I cut the lard in half and take half of the mixture when it comes to a simmer for 20 minutes and puree it for 10 seconds and add it back into the pot. I will then simmer it for about an hour. I add water along the simmer if needed. Its also better the next day but you will have to add waterto gwet the proper consistancy. Enjoy Russ Jackson

    1. Hello, LARD is not correct ! Beef Suet is what the original early 1900's Greek immigrants.Chili sauce recipe used and called for. Never butter or lard. Beef suet was cheap and taste a lot more desirable than lard. And it was always available from frank producing butcher shop and suppliers threw out Michigan. Great Lakes Coney Dogs INC. was a old Michigan commercial frank producer that supplied Beef and Pork products. Before closing its company in the 1980s.

    2. I would definitely disagree with with placing Koegle's ahead of Dearborn sausage. There is a reason why American and lafayette coney Islands use Dearborn sausage hotdogs, and that reason is flavor. The flavor of Detroit, anything other than Dearborn sausage in a Detroit coney is blasphemy! How dare you suggest using a flint made dog on a coney island. As a Detroiter we are proud of our famous dogs and their remarkable flavor, and we ask you to respect that flavor.

  7. Thanks for this recipe! I belong to a dinner club and I was planning on doing a Detroit theme, what is more Detroit than coneys! Where do you get ground beef heart? Eastern Market?

  8. Sorry this thread is wrong there is not any tomato products in the original recipe.

    1. Correct NO Tomato product at all ! And NO BUTTER ether. Real authentic Michigan coney dog sauce is made with ground BEEF SUET as the fat never butter.

    2. You are absolutely positively correct. No tomato products. No butter. Beef suet as the fat. Never a turkey or chicken dog blend or 100% beef. I am a former Coney Island owner that prefers to remain anonymous.

  9. This looks like a decent recipe, but buying our sauce will save you time and money! Don't go buy onions, garlic, chili powder, tomato paste, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper. Add our seasoning to meat and you can have an authentic Coney dog! Seriously, look at the preperation instructions -

    1. Sorry Nick, but Philly coney sauce has nothing to do with Detroit style coney sauce. Detroit style is more like a thick gravy

    2. Yeah, Michael, Nick doesn't get it. The question I want to ask a connoisseur such as yourself, loose meat or dog?

  10. Or you can just order a kit,

  11. My fiancee is nuts about a certain type of West Virginia hot dog sauce, being a New Englander I grew up with something closer to what your recipe espouses. I have tried his and made it to accolades from everyone in the house, I'm going to make yours without telling them the origin until AFTER they taste it. Thanks so much for posting.

  12. Man, this is a really cool post, and the comments are great too! This is a topic upon which every Southeast Michigan resident has a valid opinion. As far as origins go, I have favorite stories, but no hard facts. Lafayette is my place when I'm Downtown, but I honestly go for the loose meat there, and not a dog. For a dog, it is always National Coney Island, if only for the sheer number of late night adolescent mating rituals that took place over a plate of shared chili cheese fries.
    You can buy this chili online, but it has been available for commercial kitchens for years and years. It is a singular product. One only has to add an equal volume of water to the product and heat to safe temperature.
    All of that aside, the main ingredients of this chili, in my memory, were beef hearts and textured vegetable protein. The was no tomato, but I think beef broth was indicated. The TVP is what gives the sauce its body. Grind a bit up and use as a slurry,

    1. Edit: That layer of reddish-orange fat means you are doing it right!

  13. I do not think that chicken liver would be a good substitute for beef hearts. The sauce does not have an offal taste. Most people do not realize that it contains the heart. The heart is lean muscle meat, very different from liver.

    I also agree, based on many conversations with experienced coney cooks and managers that cracker meal is an ingredient, but not tomatoes. Some coney islan may add tomatoes to the sauce to make chili to sell by the bowl.

    I will add Winter's brand dogs as one that is often used by the best Detroit coney restaurants. I think thatthe for a long time both Lafayette and American, the famous downtown cones were using Winter's but specially made with different custom spice recipes. Nothing wrong with Koegel or Dearborn either which are widely used by Detroit area coney islands.

    Also agree that the steamed bun is traditional for Detroit Coney although many modern coney restaurants do not understand this step. T

  14. I have a feeling that there is at least one spice missing from all the above recipes, Could it be cinnamon? Has anyone ever heard of cinnamon in the recipes for National coney island chili burgers?

  15. HOLY KRAPP!... I can’t believe you dissed the Flint style topping like that!... I travel all over and one of the most memorable taste I’ve ever experienced on a hotdog bun was a pair I ate out of a place in the Dort Mall in Flint many years ago... Hometown proud is ok.. so I get your enthusiasm over the Detroit style.. HOWEVER.. it was a good thing I was sitting when I took my first bite of one of those as if I’d been standing my knees would’ah buckled and Id’ah hit the ground POSSIBLY LOOSING THE REMAINDER of that little bite of heaven I remember so well...