Frozen Sausage Breakfast Links
How we tested
Plump and juicy with hints of sweetness and spice, sausage links are a staple of a hearty breakfast. We’ve tasted both fresh and frozen sausage over the years and have always sung the same tune: frozen trumps fresh. In previous taste tests we learned that freezing adds an extra level of protection against oxidation, so frozen sausage retains its meaty flavor and stays tender better than fresh sausage. With that in mind, when we found out our winning breakfast links were reformulated, we focused on frozen in our search for a new favorite.
We gathered six top-selling sausage products and included the new version of our previous winner, even though it’s now available in only 11 states. Most frozen sausage is precooked, but we included the one raw frozen sausage we found to see how it compared. Cooking each according to its package instructions, we served up sausage links to 21 America’s Test Kitchen staffers.
One product immediately stood out—and not in a good way. Bright white and oddly chunky, the sole raw frozen offering cooked up rubbery and pasty. Our science editor explained that freezing raw sausage often gives it a dry, rubbery texture because water is pushed out of the raw meat as it freezes and is usually not reabsorbed during heating. By contrast, precooking at the factory locks protein molecules in place and traps liquids, so links retain their juicy texture after freezing.
But even fully cooked products were rife with texture differences: some were “tender” and “juicy,” while others were “tough” or “mushy.” To learn how good sausage gets its juiciness, we talked to Edward Mills, an associate professor of meat science at Penn State University, who told us that an ideal texture is a delicate balance of protein, fat, and water. Manufacturers make sausage by combining meat trimmings of varying fat levels to achieve their desired fat-to-protein ratio. The meat mixture is then blended with water, spices, and any other additives or preservatives. To get a better idea of each product’s composition, we sent the sausages to an independent lab for an analysis.
The lab results agreed with the nutrition labels: Tasters preferred fattier sausage. While most products had comparable percentages of protein, fat varied widely—our favorite “moist” sausages were more than 39 percent fat, while bottom-ranked “gristly” and “rubbery” links contained anywhere from 17 percent to 34 percent fat. Fat not only adds flavor but is also the key to tender, juicy texture, as it helps keep meat fragments from sticking together and becoming tough during cooking.
But too much fat makes for oily sausage, so water is equally important in creating moist, juicy links that aren’t bogged down by grease. The more moisture the sausage loses during cooking, the tougher and chewier it becomes. It would stand to reason that the more water the better, but our lab results showed no link between the percentage of water in uncooked links and our tasters’ preferences.
Mills told us that moisture loss isn’t necessarily determined by the amount of water the links start out with, but by how well the complicated network of protein retains that water during cooking. Fat and water typically don’t mix, which is why sausage is considered an emulsion, like mayonnaise, where fat and water are suspended in a web-like matrix of protein. During cooking, that matrix starts to break down, releasing water and fat. We saw top-rated brands use only pork in their sausages, while bottom-ranked products use both pork and turkey. According to Mills, turkey can make for tough sausage because its protein structure is weaker, causing it to break down and release more water during cooking. Tasters enjoyed the “meatier,” “juicer” all-pork sausages.
Our top manufacturers also combat moisture loss by adding two special salts to their sausage. One kind, phosphates, raises the pH of the meat, causing the sausage to hold on to more water, thus keeping the sausages moist and tender. The second salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG), heightens the perception of savory flavors in foods: Tasters said sausages that included it were “meatier” and more “porky” than those that rely on salt, sugar, and spices alone.
Our top product nailed the ideal ratio of fat, protein, and additives. Made from all pork, our favorite sausage links were “fatty,” “rich,” “plump,” and “juicy.” This brand also makes our favorite frozen sausage patties, so for tender, flavorful breakfast sausage, we’ll be sticking with our winning manufacturer.