Every time you navigate the grocery aisles, you probably ask yourself several questions: What am I making for dinner? Did I pick up everything that I came for? Should I get a second gallon of ice cream in case there’s an emergency?
I don’t have all the answers, except yes, definitely pick up more ice cream.
I can also help shed light on another perennial grocery store question: Why do hot dogs come in packs of ten, while hot dog buns come in packs of eight?
How many hot dogs are in a standard package?
While you can find packs of hot dogs that deviate from the norm, most hot dogs in the United States are sold in packs of ten. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, this quantity dates back to the 1940s when grocers began to sell hot dogs in their stores.
Oscar Mayer, a branding pioneer, led the charge to bring hot dogs to the consumer this way. As was typical then and still remains now, meat was priced by the pound. So to Oscar Mayer, ten hot dogs that each weighed 1.6 ounces seemed like an ideal distribution, adding up to one pound of top-quality meat. Other butchers and manufacturers, who had previously been selling hot dogs in varying quantities and sizes, followed suit. Over time, ten hot dogs at 1.6 ounces each became standard.
Today, larger “jumbo” or “bun-length” hot dogs are sold in packs of eight, but the overall package still weighs about one pound. Hebrew National’s hot dogs used to come seven to a pack and now come six to a pack. The only thing that didn’t change? The total package weighs about one pound.
Why do hot dogs come in packs of 10 and buns in 8?
The simple answer is lack of coordination. Butchers and bakers work two separate trades. While there is undoubtedly symbiosis between makers of hot dogs and makers of buns, each trade created its own traditions independently of the other.
Unlike the hot dog makers, American bakers had no agreed-upon standard bread weight. Interestingly, this was different in the U.K., where the Bread Act of 1822 specified that all loaves had to weigh one pound, or a multiple thereof. This British law stayed in place for over a century, until flour rationing during World War II ended it.
But if there wasn’t a weight standard, then why did breadmakers begin to sell buns in packs of eight? One answer: the math is easier.
Why do hot dog buns come in packs of eight?
Though it’s purely speculative, one hypothesis is that bakers like to work in multiples of four, rather than in multiples of five. When kneading dough by hand, continually halving that dough into uniform portions is easier than trying to dole out equal portions of an odd number like five. One notable exception, of course, is the “baker’s dozen” of thirteen. So this theory may not hold up.
Today, however, the reason why buns come in packs of eight is much more practical: the standard industrial bread pan.
You’ll notice that every 8-pack of buns comes in a 4×2 arrangement. Or perhaps you’ve seen a 12-pack sold in a 4×3 arrangement. Each set of four buns is partially stuck together. That’s because the tray on which those buns were baked fits four buns across. To change that pan to fit five buns across would require all new equipment, packaging, and shipping containers. It would hardly be worth the cost to manufacturers.
After all, as Oscar Mayer company reps noted several decades ago, only about 1 in 5,000 customer messages they receive (0.03%) is a complaint about hot dog buns not commonly coming in packs of ten.
And forget about American exceptionalism: the inconsistency is not unique to the U.S. Across the pond, U.K. hot dogs are generally sold in cans of eight (yes, I said cans), while hot dog buns are generally sold in packs of six.
Conspiracy theory #1: Corporate greed
Some believe that bun manufacturers are loath to switch their loaves (even if they wanted to), for a profit incentive.
The theory goes something like this: a package of ten buns will always cost more than a package of eight buns. And many shoppers will only compare the price tag and not bother to count the number of buns in each pack.
In a 2001 academic study titled “Why Do Hot Dogs Come in Packs of 10 and Buns in 8s or 12s? A Demand-Side Investigation,” researchers found that nearly 40% of people surveyed do not compare package sizes versus unit prices, so there is some credence to this idea.
As a manufacturer, if your cheaper 8-pack of buns is selling just fine, why add a more expensive and less in-demand 10-pack? Not to mention, if shoppers are savvy enough to count the buns and want to ensure they have enough for their 10-pack of hot dogs, it’s better to sell them two 8-packs than one 10-pack.
Conspiracy theory #2: The barbecue king’s theory
Another theory posits that hot dogs are sold in 10-packs and buns in 8-packs because, at every backyard barbecue, two of the hot dogs will inevitably fall through the grill. Once those hot dogs are lost to the flames, eight buns are all that is needed.
How many packages do I need to buy to break even?
If you purchase four 10-packs of hot dogs and five 8-packs of buns, you will have exactly 40 hot dogs and 40 buns.
If you purchase six 10-packs of hot dogs and five 12-packs of buns, you will have exactly 60 hot dogs and 60 buns.
If you keep reading, it gets trickier.
What are the alternatives to buying 10-packs of hot dogs?
As mentioned previously, 8-packs and 6-packs of hot dogs are widely available, though they will weigh about one pound, just like the 10-pack of hot dogs you are used to. You can also find quarter-pound hot dogs sold in — you guessed it — a 4-pack.
Many manufacturers also sell “family size” packs or “party packs,” with 12, 16, or 20 hot dogs in each.
Sausages, which are often found next to hot dogs in the grocery store, generally come in 4-, 5-, or 6-packs.
All these options make matching the number of hot dogs to the number of buns easier, or, if you’re terrible at math, perhaps more complicated. In this case, if you find yourself feeling like Steve Martin in Father of the Bride, consider skipping hot dog buns altogether.
What are the alternatives to buying buns?
Swap the bun for a pretzel roll or crusty baguette. Try a hot dog wrapped in lettuce. Wrap it in a soft tortilla.
Or check out these 12 ingenious ways to serve hot dogs without buns (you’ll love #1).
Hot dogs are also delicious on their own. And since they’re fully cooked, you can even eat them right out of the package… no matter how many hot dogs are in that package.
What’s the verdict?
Life is complicated, and asking the hard questions like why hot dogs come in packs of ten and buns in eight doesn’t always end in a straightforward, satisfactory answer.
On the one hand, the reason hot dogs began as 10-packs is fairly simple to understand. But why buns began as 8-packs is a nebulous mix of pure conjecture and “that’s just how it’s always been.”
While we shop, matching the number of hot dogs to the number of buns we purchase requires math, and the new alternative packs of 6 and 12 don’t make that math much easier.
In our exasperation, we might eat hot dogs without buns or sample bun alternatives. But in the end, despite our attempts to explain away or avoid the hot dog/bun conundrum, we know we will never totally walk away from buying hot dogs and buying buns in their infuriatingly different quantities.
Because, after decades of injury to our collective reasoning, our desire for flavorsome hot dogs nestled in pillowy hot dog buns is greater than our demand that these beloved treats ever change.