Published January 1, 2006. From Cook's Illustrated.
Precooked "brown-and-serve" links couldn't taste better than fresh breakfast sausage, right? Several hundred sausages later, we made a few surprising discoveries.
Americans know breakfast sausage to be a mixture of ground meat (both lean and fat, and usually pork), salt, pepper, and spices that you fry up crisp and brown to accompany eggs or pancakes. But there are a lot of options in the market. For our tasting we explored the choice between fully cooked sausage, which requires only a bit of heating (often referred to as "brown and serve"), and fresh sausage, which requires full cooking. Our sausages were pork only (nothing identified as beef, poultry, or meatless), in link form, and in the simplest possible flavor profile. Fresh and fully cooked sausages were prepared by pan-frying according to package instructions. First, we evaluated the fresh sausages alone, and then we sampled the fully cooked sausages along with the winning fresh sausage for reference.
Brown-and-serve sausage has two things going for it: It's less perishable than fresh, capable of withstanding months in the freezer, and it takes precious little time to prepare. The fresh varieties are fabricated in much the same way, at least up to a point. Pork trimmings from several primal cuts are ground, blended with ice (to help maintain temperature) and water (for workability), and seasoned. Several experts stressed that the trimmings are not scraps but pieces of lean and fat removed from large primal cuts during the fabrication of retail cuts. (Unfortunately, inquiries to manufacturers about specific types and grades of trimmings, lean-to-fat ratios, particle sizes, quantities of water, seasonings, and casings were unerringly met with the word "proprietary.")
If sausages are to be sold as a brown-and-serve product, they are sent through gigantic cookers that often use steam and convection to cook them to 170 degrees. The sausages then may or may not be sent to a browning chamber, where gas-fired flame jets enhance both color and flavor. A less expensive way to color the steam-cooked sausages is to dip them in caramel coloring. The sausages are then quickly cooled and blast-frozen for packaging.
Frankly, it came as a huge surprise that the fully cooked, brown-and-serve sausages did extremely well in the tasting; this group included our winner. We concluded that the explanation for our findings is control. Fully cooked sausage introduces many variables, among them the evaporation of moisture, rendering of fat, and denaturing (reconfiguration) of proteins. But these variables are also opportunities for manufacturers to engineer the product. With specific appearance, flavor, and texture attributes in mind, manufacturers can manipulate the recipe, cooking temperature(s) and time, and humidity with great exactitude.
And there is another possible advantage of manufacturing brown-and-serve sausage. Oxidation of fat degrades flavor. Many companies combat this effect by adding preservatives such as propyl gallate, citric acid, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), but the quick deep freeze that brown-and-serve sausages undergo during processing adds an extra level of protection against oxidation. Sure enough, our tasting bore out this theory, as tasters were more likely to use terms such as "off," "musty," "stale," and "not fresh" to describe the fresh sausage than the brown and serve.
We found a host of reasons for our winner products’ superiority. One reason that stood out and tracked with our research was that these brown-and-serve sausages are browned with a flame rather than tinted with caramel coloring. Fat, which provides both flavor and juiciness in sausage, also made a difference. With its relatively high fat content (44 percent), the winning sausage was described by tasters as being juicy and tasting strongly of pork.
Another point was seasoning. Tasters scrutinized every sample for saltiness, sweetness, and spiciness and marked down samples they perceived as too salty, sweet, or spicy. The lab could not analyze for specific spices, and none of the manufacturers we contacted would reveal their seasoning blend, but balance between salt, sweet, and spice was important to our tasters.
What, then, to buy? If what you desire most in your pork breakfast sausage is convenience, you may now approach fully cooked, frozen products without fear of sacrificing flavor and reliable texture. This is one of those rare cases in which a "processed" food may in fact be superior to the "real thing."