The origins of the coney are many and several restaurants would argue that they were the first to make it. In short, it did not originate in Coney Island, New York however Coney Island is a significant landmark for the origin of the hot dog in the US, but that's a topic for another day.
Traditionally, a Coney Hot Dog (at least for the dogs of Michigan origin) begins with a grilled natural casing Koegel hot dog, placed in a steamed bun (some say it must be an Aunt Millie's brand hot dog bun), which is topped with Coney Sauce (not to be confused with chili), then covered with diced onions and yellow mustard. While it can be debated who needs to make the bun or even the hot dog itself, the thing that makes a Coney truly unique is the sauce. It seems that every Coney Island Restaurant identifies themselves with their unique flavor of sauce. There have even been several books published on the subject and it has been the topic of facebook discussions and who knows what else. My curiosity with the whole subject came about because my lovely wife was born and raised in the great state of Michigan and since we've been married we've lived in Minnesota and now in Indiana and our only chance to get good coney sauce has been when we've gone back to the Detroit area to visit her parents. One of the local restaurant chains (National Coney Island) does make, and ship, a "make your own" coney kit which includes their sauce, and while we've tried it, it's just not our favorite.
So anyhow, I took it as a task to research and figure out how to make Coney sauce. In my research I found that to just make Coney sauce is quite ambiguous. You have to know what kind you want to make: there's Flint style (which contains ground up hot dogs), Detroit Style (some say the "original Coney sauce), it can be made with beans, or without beans, and even within those there are variations from restaurant to restaurant. So what did I want to make? After looking into my wife's favorite coney restaurant Phoenix Coney Island the type of sauce closest to that is good old classic Detroit Coney Sauce.
So what makes Detroit Coney Sauce "Detroit Coney Sauce"? Well as it turns out simplicity and quality ingredients, which is great since I like simple. Detroit Coney Sauce consists of ground beef, onions and spices simmered over a stove for several hours. That's it, it contains no beans and especially no tomatoes. No tomatoes is key here. From what I found if you have a recipe for "Detroit Coney Sauce" that calls for tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato juice, or anything else with tomatoes in it then your just making chili sauce. "Real Detoit Coney Sauce has no tomatoes".
SIDE NOTE: in my research I also found that "original" Detroit Coney Sauce may also contain beef heart which while that might be the case, I refused to put that in my sauce. I suspect that it would alter the flavor a bit (although I'm not sure how much having never knowingly ate beef heart).
So simplicity, good I can handle that. What else...water. Water is another key component that makes the sauce a sauce. As I mentioned earlier, Detroit Coney Sauce is not what most Americans would call chili. It's much more runny than chili and in all honesty would be more like a soup if eaten by itself. So water is key to make that consistency.
Ok so research aside, on to my recipe for Detoit Coney Sauce...First, beef and water. I use about 1 pound of ground beef and as I said earlier the key is water. So start by taking the raw ground beef, putting it in a bowl and covering it with water (about 2-3 cups) and stir until it's broken up. It will look something like this:
I know raw beef and water looks bit gross, but it's a necessary evil. Let this sit in the fridge for about 30 min before you move on to cooking.
Before cooking, drain the water off the meat. There will still be some water probably that has soaked in, which is OK, so don't try to press any extra out.
Onions, 1 onion per pound of meat, cooked in a pot with a little bit of oil until soft.
Onions cooking away...
Spices: This seems to be where each person, restaurant, etc. bring their own take on the sauce. For the most part, everybody seems to call for chili powder, paprika, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and cumin. I decided to add a little extra spices to give it some more flavor (check out the full recipe below).
Once the onions are soft, add the meat and the spices and simmer for at least 2 hours. Check it every 15 min or so as you will probably have to add some water to prevent it from burning.
After simmering for 2 hours, you get something that looks like this:
Pretty runny and very meaty. The spices all kind of meld together and the resulting sauce is really that, a sauce, not a dish to be eaten by itself, but condiment to be added to other things.
When all is said and done here is my recipe for Detroit Coney Sauce:
1 lb Ground beef
3 cups Water, or enough to cover the beef
1 Onion, diced
1/3 cup Chili powder
2 tsp Paprika
1 tsp Black pepper, coarsely ground
1 tsp Garlic powder
1 tsp Cumin powder
1 tsp Allspice
1 tsp Basil, dried
1 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Oregano, dried
1) Cover the ground beef with water and stir until the beef has broken up into small pieces. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2) Cook onion in a pot with a little oil until soft
3) Drain the beef
4) Add beef and spices to the pot
5) Bring to a simmer and cook for at least 2 hours
Makes about 10 servings
So now what do you do with this great sauce once you have it made? The most obvious is to make a classic Detroit Coney Dog by grilling some natural casing hot dogs, steaming some buns, and topping with the sauce, diced onions, and yellow mustard.
For me and my wife, we really enjoy the coney omelette. How do you make that? Glad you asked:
2 Eggs, scrambled
1/2 Onion, diced
1/2 Green pepper, diced
Salt and Pepper to taste
1/4 cup Shredded cheese
1/2 cup Detroit Coney Sauce
1) Cook onion and pepper in a non-stick skillet until soft
2) Season with salt and pepper
3) Add eggs and cook until solid
4) Remove from heat and top with cheese
5) Fold omelette in half and top with coney sauce
Goes well as breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack.