You know you’re digging into a great sausage when you get the first whiff of its enticing aroma, when you hear and feel the snap of its casing as you bite, when you taste the gush of flavor that fills your mouth and causes your eyes to go wide with amazement and total surrender.
Born of necessity and frugality in ancient times, sausages are among the oldest known prepared foods. Sausages can be found in a spectrum of shapes, sizes, and flavors in virtually every culture on earth. Germany, for example, lays claim to no less than 1,200 varieties.
In days gone by, sausages were made from the very last remaining bits and scraps of meat and fat—leaving nothing to waste—ground together into textures from fine to coarse and stuffed into an animal intestine.
Although some sausages were made to be eaten soon after their manufacture, sausage-making was largely a means of preserving even the most humble morsels for future consumption. Curing, smoking, drying, and fermentation methods made it possible to keep these foodstuffs safely through long winter months and during times of scarcity.
Fast forward to contemporary times: The once lowly sausage has been elevated to the realm of haute cuisine through the minds and hands of artisanal producers who forego scraps in favor of whole muscle cuts, premium ingredients, spices, and seasonings. Beginning with fundamentals of sausage-making, the fine sausages of today go outside the grid by blending tradition and craftsmanship with inspiration and innovation.
While there are many variations on how a particular sausage is made, the three most common types are fresh, fully cooked, and dried. Add in curing and/or smoking, the possibilities are endless.
Today’s modern means of refrigeration and freezing set aside concerns of survival and the need for preservation. The various types of sausages have different preparation methods.
Fully Cooked and Dried Sausages
Fully cooked sausages are generally heat-and-serve and require no more preparation than browning in a pan, under a broiler, or on the grill. Cured and/or smoked, these sausages will keep fresh for up to two weeks in an unopened package in the refrigerator or up to 2 months in the freezer. Once the package is opened, fully cooked sausages should be consumed within a week.
With fully cooked smoked sausages, boiling to reheat will leach out some of the smoky flavor. Dry-heat reheating in a pan or on the grill is recommended.
Dried sausages can be eaten out of hand at room temperature. Although they do not require refrigeration, they can be refrigerated indefinitely.
Fresh sausages, on the other hand, require some special care. They should be consumed within 2 days of purchase or frozen for up to 2 months. Once cooked, sausages may be kept in refrigeration for 3 to 4 days.
You can tell fresh sausage by its appearance: They are generally straight in shape, slightly longer than a comparable cooked version, and are soft and yielding to the touch.
Fresh sausages should be gently pre-cooked either by simmering or boiling and then browned to crisp and caramelize the exterior in a frying pan, broiler, or grill. Varieties containing beef, pork, veal, or lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160oF. Any containing ground poultry should be cooked to 165oF.
On the stove, use a frying pan with just enough water in it to cover the bottom. Add the fresh sausages and simmer until all the water evaporates and the sausages feel firm to the touch. Now add a tablespoon or so of oil, raise the heat to medium and cook until the sausages are browned , turning occasionally to brown both sides.
One common method for preparing fresh bratwurst sausages is to boil them in beer with a couple of quartered onions. Simply combine the onions and brats in a large sauce pan or small stock pot. Cover with beer, bring to a boil, and then simmer until the brats are firm and cooked through. The brats can then be browned in a pan or on the grill before serving.
One important rule of thumb for the juiciest sausages possible: Don’t brown sausages with high heat, the casing will pop, the juices will drain and you’ll wind up with a dry outcome. Instead brown gently, let the color develop. If grilling, use the indirect-heat method to ensure the sausages are cooked through and then give them a moment or two over direct heat to crisp the casing.
When in doubt, consult the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service website for the latest information on handling and storing sausages.