What is Italian Sausage Made of?
Italian sausage comes in many different varieties and flavors and is a staple of Italian cuisine. How are sausages made? Is sausage pork or beef?
To begin with, the main ingredient is ground pork meat and offcuts. What sets Italian sausages aside from any other type of sausage is the unique seasoning containing fennel seeds and/or anise, which produces a distinctly sweet, licorice-like flavor.
How are Sausages Made?
Sausages are a big part of many different types of cuisine worldwide. The main reason they are so widespread around the world is that they represent a practical means of making meat last longer without access to freezers.
In the old days, wrapping meat in casings helped people not only have a ready-to-eat, relatively long-lasting product but also utilized parts of an animal’s carcass that are usually not prime candidates for direct cooking (i.e., offal, internal organs, cheeks, and similar.)
What is Sausage?
Sausages are meat preparations that share the common characteristic of having cuts of meat seasoned and stuffed inside casings. These three aspects (the source of meat, type of seasoning, and type of casing) are what are used to identify different types of sausages.
So, what is sausage made of? Exactly? Let’s go deeper into each of the three categories of ingredients that define any type of sausage.
The meat in sausages is mostly pork, although other types of livestock and poultry are also sources of certain types of sausages.
Meat sausages involve clean cuts of meat from the animal. Since fat is a very important factor in sausages in terms of consistency and flavor, the leanest cuts of meat are not usually a good choice for making sausages.
Instead, the pork picnic shoulder and butt are common choices for sausages. Both are parts of the animal’s front upper leg and upper back (near the shoulder blade).
The meat from these areas is perfectly fatty yet still lean enough to give sausages exactly the flavor profile you’re after. The picnic shoulder has more sinew and connective tissue, which requires more preparation before it is ready for stuffing into casings.
Mincing the meat is common in most cases, but there are instances of sausages that use diced meat instead of minced. The addition of pork fat makes the sausages more succulent in flavor and positively impacts the texture of minced meat sausages, so it is a common addition to almost any sausage.
If you really want to be picky, then you should also consider the breed of pork (since that is the example we’re using) for sausages. Certain breeds, like Berkshire and Duroc, are much better for sausages due to the intramuscular fat they have.
Liver, offcuts, and trimmings are also a big part of sausages, sometimes being the sole representatives of meat in them. In most cases, though, they are mixed and minced along with the aforementioned cuts.
The real secret to how sausages are made is in the seasoning. Meat can only take sausages so far in terms of flavor and is mostly there for its nutritional value and texture. The seasonings are the key factor that makes for different types and flavor profiles of sausages.
The seasonings include spices, herbs, and/or fruits and vegetables. The combinations and specific ratios of condiments give different sausages their unique characteristics.
Spies and herbs are pretty straightforward, and the latter can both go in a sausage fresh and dried up.
The fruits and vegetables, i.e., onions or apples, usually go through caramelization first, sometimes along with the meat. This provides flavor and acts as a bonding agent to keep the filling together and provide signature textures for different types of sausage.
The sausage casings are made out of the intestines and sometimes the stomach lining of the animal used for the sausages. This is yet another aspect, in addition to using offcuts and organs, of utilizing as much of a slaughtered animal for food as possible.
Scraping the intestines is the first step, with the aim of providing clean casings for the meat stuffing. The casings do not last long and have a shelf life of approximately two months. Adding salt to the casings after scraping helps preserve them until the stuffing is ready.
Apart from the natural casings made out of intestines and stomach lining, there are also artificial ones, although their use is significantly less than natural ones.
Cellulose casings are another category of casings available for sausages. The main ingredient is cellulose from plants, and they tend to be the first choice when it comes to vegan sausages.
Once the mixture of meat and seasonings goes into casings, the sausages are ready for processing. Unprocessed sausages, also called fresh or raw sausages, should be left in a fridge for a few days before consumption. That said, you should aim to consume them in a week or so after making them because they can go bad.
Processed sausages are pre-cooked. There are different methods for pre-cooking links, and they all take place after stuffing the casings.
Those methods include (but are not limited to) smoking the sausages, drying them in the air, hanging them up to ferment, partially boiling, or canning them. This helps make the sausages last longer and, in some cases (smoking or fermenting), increases their flavor.
How to Make Sausage?
Now that you know about the key ingredients and processing options, let’s talk about how to make sausages.
First of all, you need to prepare all your ingredients.
Starting with the meat, you need to make sure that you trim any sinew, skin, glands, or connective tissue from the meat and dice it roughly. If you intend to mince the meat, the dice can be larger, whereas if you’re going to stuff casings with chopped meat, you need to go for smaller pieces.
This is when you season the sausage with any herbs and spices you might want to use. If you do not have a specific idea of what flavor you’re after, you can buy pre-mixed spices for different sausage flavors, like chorizo, cajun, or bratwurst.
If you’re going for the mince meat sausage variety (the most common method), you need to make sure the pieces of meat fit into the meat grinder. After mincing the entire batch of seasoned meat, separate ⅓ of the mince and run it through the grinder again.
This will ensure that you have a sticky and consistent texture which removes the chance of any air pockets forming once you stuff the mixture into the casings.
This is also where you add any caramelized onions or apples or other auditions to further enrich the flavor profile.
Stuffing the casings with the mixture starts with rinsing the casings for a good 15 to 20 minutes to remove the salt used to preserve them. Then, a stuffing machine does most of the job. All you need is to place the casing over the tube, put the mixture through the other end and force it through.
Make sure that the casings are full and there are no air pockets, shape them with your hands as the mixture fills it, and twist them at the desired length –(5 inches/12.7 centimeters) is a good rule of thumb).
Watch out not to overstuff the casings, and remember to keep pressing the mixture slowly into the casings.
Once everything is over, leave your fresh sausages in the fridge to cool and firm up. When they are firm, you can either cook them (preferably wait at least a day after making them) or proceed to your desired method of processing.
Traditional Sausages Around the World
Sausages are so widespread around different cuisines of the world that almost every country has its own kind. Following are a few types of sausages which are among the most famous in the world.
Bratwurst is a German-style sausage containing coarsely ground meat and often pre-cooked by parboiling in beer to give it its distinct flavor.
Kielbasa is a horseshoe-shaped pork sausage that originates from Poland but is nowadays popular around the world, particularly popular in the USA. The seasoning base consists of garlic, marjoram, and black pepper.
Andouille sausages come from France, although the modern version has influence from New Orleans Cajun-style cuisine. Red pepper, cayenne, and chili flakes define this flavor profile.
Chorizo is perhaps one of the most well-known forms of sausage, originally Mexican but popularized by Spanish cuisine. How are these sausages made? There are plenty of varieties, but most revolve around a base flavor profile of black pepper, paprika, garlic, and oregano.
Longaniza is a South American (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay) pork meat sausage cured and dried. It has a very distinctive flavor due to the anise seeds used in the seasoning.
Sai Ua sausages are a northern Thailand delicacy. The star of the sausage is minced pork, accentuated by a deep flavor mixture containing red curry paste, lemongrass, green onions, cilantro stems, kaffir lime leaves, and garlic.
Blood sausage is a method of preparing sausages with representatives on every continent but is most common in South America. It involves adding some of the blood from the slaughtered animal to the meat and seasoning mixture, resulting in dense sausages with a black color, considered a specialty.
What Animal Does Sausage Come From?
When trying to answer the question of how are sausages made, we must consider the origins of the first and most important ingredient in any sausage – the meat. The meat can originate from basically any type of animal, although pork is usually the first choice.
Pork sausages are the most common type due to the ideal fat ratio to lean meat in specific parts of the animal’s body. In combination with the fat, including added fat, and different internal organs and offcuts, this makes for the perfect sausage texture and base for carrying any flavor.
Beef sausages are also pretty common. Beef tends to carry more lean meat, so oftentimes, pork fat is a common addition to these types of sausages to improve texture and taste. However, you could opt for a beef-only sausage.
Beef chuck is the meat of choice for sausages, given its fairly high-fat percentage (15 to 20%).
Poultry sausages usually feature ground chicken meat, although duck sausages are also very popular (and delicious). In the case of the former, additional pork fat is necessary due to the leanness of chicken meat.
Duck meat, on the other hand, is rich in fat and, as such, is the perfect candidate for sausage filling.
Pretty much any of the cuts from poultry (breast, drumsticks, thighs, wings, organ meats) are well suited for sausages.
Lamb is sporadically used in sausages, resulting in a uniquely flavored product due to the specific taste and smell of lamb meat. The shoulder is once again the cut of choice. These types of sausages are common in parts of Asia and the Middle East.
Wild game sausages are somewhat of a specialty, and usually most popular among hunters. Since sausages are a great way to use as much of an animal as possible, it is natural that hunters turn towards this type of meat preparation.
The meat used can be pretty much anything, from venison and elk to wild boar and pheasants. Since wild game meat is usually highly lean, adding any type of fat, preferably pork, is more or less mandatory.
Mixing different types of meat is actually the most common way sausages are made. Pork and beef mixes are the most common ones, with pork meat taking up at least 60% of the entire mixture.
The Different Types of Italian Sausages Explained
Italian sausages are so versatile in terms of flavor and texture that they get a section of their own. They are a real treat for your taste buds that can transport you anywhere from Northern Italy to the island of Sicilia and Sardinia in just a few bites.
It would be nearly impossible to cite every type of Italian sausage, given that nonnas (Italian grandma cooks) often have original family recipes. We focused on the most famous and flavorful types of Italian sausage you can get:
Mortadella is one of the most important varieties of Italian sausage. It consists of ground pork, cubes of fat (lardelli), and specific seasonings that include pistachios and olives. It is tied to the pig farming tradition of old in the Emilia Romagna region and is a typical representative of Bolognese cuisine.
‘Nduja is another type of Italian sausage that is pretty popular as of late. Once again, it is a pork sausage with seasoning that contains roasted red peppers as the flavor base. It originates from the region of Calabria and has a very distinct spreadable texture, similar to pate.
Patina is a ball-shaped sausage rolled in maize flour (for preservation) and smoked over juniper wood. It is from a specific mixture of lean meat cuts (sheep, goat, roe deer, fallow deer, red deer) and pork fat, seasoned with rock salts, garlic, black pepper, wine, and herbs.
This one is a representative of the province of Pordenone.
Salamella is a Northern Italian sausage from the Trento province, made from a mixture of pork and veal, with added lard, spices, and wine. Processing usually involves smoking it and leaving it to age before consumption.
Sopresatta is a traditional sausage made all over the territory of Italy. Its main characteristic is the large, round shape. There are pork and beef varieties, with the meat cut in large, rough chunks. The seasoning varies depending on the region as well, including anything from Pepperoncino to citrus zest.
Finnochiona is what most people today associate with the flavor of Italian sausage. It is traditional Tuscan food, set apart from the other types by using fennel seed. Finely ground pork (neck, shoulder, belly, and ham) in combination with the fennel produces a very original and unique type of sausage flavor-wise.
Ventricina is a sausage from the regions of Abruzzo and Molise.
The Abruzzo variety is a cured, hard sausage containing coarsely chopped pork seasoned with a mixture of garlic, spicy pepper, and wild fennel seeds.
The second version is a spreadable one. It contains fatty pork cuts, added lard, and a seasoning mixture of pepperoncini, fennel seeds, garlic, orange zest, and rosemary.
Pisto is a soft sausage originating in the province of Mantua. It is characteristic to use pancetta in addition to ground pork, wine, pepper, salt, and garlic. It is a commonly used ingredient in different risotto dishes.
Are Sausages Unhealthy?
Knowing how sausages are made makes it clear that a direct answer to this question is impossible. Whether or not a sausage is deemed healthy or unhealthy depends on a host of other factors, most of which have to do with the processing and cooking of said sausage.
On a positive note, sausages contain high doses of vitamin B12, lots of protein, iron, phosphorus (important for bone health), and selenium (important for immunity and thyroid function).
The downside of sausages is that processing them, which is often key for achieving the desired flavor profile, makes them a less healthy than lean meat.
Smoking infuses the meat with different chemicals that can be toxic if ingested in large quantities, as well as the possibility of bacterial spores (E.coli).
Curing is a process that uses salt and nitrates to help preserve and flavor the sausages. This makes sausages extremely packed with salt, which can end up negatively affecting heart health.
The fat content in sausages is also pretty high, mostly consisting of saturated fat, which in excess can damage the vascular system.
The way you choose to cook sausages is also very important in terms of their nutritious value and possible adverse health effects. Pan frying sausages in low-burning point oils (like sunflower oil) infuse them with more saturated and trans fat, which makes them unhealthy.
Baking, microwaving, or boiling sausages are much healthier ways of preparing them.
The bottom line is that the healthiest type of sausage is a freshly made, raw one. That, however, does not mean you should shy away from processed sausages. On the contrary, anything you consume in moderation will not endanger your health.
In the case of sausages, consuming them in moderation is actually going to improve your nutrition, considering their micro and macronutrient-rich profile.
How are sausages made? Any type of ground fatty meat (pork, beef, poultry, wild game), a carefully selected mixture of seasoning (spices, herbs, fruits, and vegetables), and casings made out of an animal’s intestines are all you need.
After putting your sausages together in your own way or following any of the popular sausage recipes of the world (and particularly in Italy), you can then use smoking, fermentation, curing, and parboiling to process your sausages, or you can decide to leave them unprocessed (raw).
And remember, as long as you don’t eat a sausage with every meal, you’ll actually get lots of nutritional benefits from your favorite kind of sausage.