How to make your sausages sizzle

Curvy sausages are made from natural casings or intestines.
Curvy sausages are made from natural casings or intestines. Photo: Richard Cornish

What's the secret to cooking the perfect sausage? P. Humphreys

A great mate of mine was brought up on a sheep station in western Victoria. It was one of those big old houses built at the end of the 19th century with wide verandahs and a well in the courtyard. They ate what they grew. "I never knew you could cook a sausage in a frying pan until I left home and moved to the city," she told me recently. "We cooked everything in the Aga," referring to the classic wood-fired stove made with about as much steel as a Panzer tank. The radiant heat cooks the sausages and crisps the skin and the steady, even heat means the sausages almost never split. If you have a well-made sausage you can also make gravy with the pan juices. For golden oven-roasted snags, preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced), place the sausages on a rack in a roasting tray and cook for 15 to 20 minutes until done. And for heaven's sake, do not prick the snags before cooking. Sausages, like all meat, love a little rest before being served.

Remember a simpler time when we didn't have chorizo?
Remember a simpler time when we didn't have chorizo?  Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Sausages. To prick or not to prick? That is the question. L. Gamble

We once had an airline called Ansett. They used to serve sausages for breakfast. They were so full of fat that a big air bubble trapped inside would travel from one end of the sausage to the other as the plane banked, like a meaty spirit level. So full of fat but so bloody delicious. It made flying with a hangover bearable. We get this "to prick or not to prick" question every summer as people's thoughts turn to barbecues. I always think of sausages as winter food. They are so full of energy from the fat, up to 50 per cent fat by law. A good sausage is about 30 per cent fat. Italians make the best sausages, in my opinion, with decent chunks of meat and fat, well mixed, well seasoned and well spiced. If you prick a sausage you lose not only the fat but the moisture and end up with a dry sausage. The fat ends up catching fire and you have a flare-up. Cook sausages over low heat slowly. Never prick. If you don't want to eat the fat, have some salad instead.

OK Richard, so you don't prick sausages. Fair enough. But the big question is, how do you stop the buggers from bending? Michael

Cook sausages slowly over low heat and don't prick them first.
Cook sausages slowly over low heat and don't prick them first. Photo: Tim Grey

Australians may be apathetic when it comes to most issues but come out in public with a strong opinion on sausages and you risk being tarred and feathered. Natural sausage casings are made with animal gut that meanders around a sheep or pig's tummy. They are naturally curvaceous and a sausage in a natural casing will have a curve like a crescent moon. This is a good thing. Natural casings are slightly permeable and initially exude juices while cooking. As they are curved, it's not possible to cook every surface. The best way to cook them is to nestle them like spooning lovers and cook slowly over low heat. Sausages made with synthetic skins remain straight.

Why are some sausages curvy? L. Thompson

Guts. It's all about guts. Those curvy sausages are made from natural casings or intestines. Animal intestines are cleaned, partially dried and salted. They are washed and soaked before being filled. Intestines are not straight. They meander around the belly, hence the slight curve in some snorkers. Straight sausages are made from collagen casings. These are often made from cowhide that has been chemically broken down and reformed into fine tubes. Sausage aficionados (there are such people and I am waiting for them to produce their own magazine) prefer the texture of the natural casing. Some collagen casings have the tendency to slough off if cooked too hard too quickly. Some butchers prefer collagen casings as they give better shelf-life to the sausage. As an interesting aside, sausages became known as "bangers" during World War I. A shortage of meat in Britain saw the sausage mix extended with vegetables, more bread and water. The amount of water in the sausage would cause the sausage to explode when cooked – hence "banger". I was slightly disappointed with the etymology of this one; I was expecting it to be slightly more ribald.

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I was told to rest meat before cooking as well as after cooking. L. Kirk

All meat, even sausages, needs a little resting after cooking to allow the muscle fibres to absorb the juices they released during cooking. Leaving meat to come to room temperature before cooking allows the meat to cook evenly. If you grill a really cold steak compared to one that has been left on the bench for 20 minutes (covered hygienically, of course) the cold steak will be well done on the outside while possibly very rare or even raw in the middle.

I was cooking onions for a sausage sizzle for my kids' school (I have never cooked onions on a barbecue before) and they ended up dry and burned. D. Kavanagh

German weisswurst sausages need German mustard.
German weisswurst sausages need German mustard. Photo: Tim Grey

I think I have eaten your onions. Many times. If you are asked to do this important fundraising chore again make sure the barbecue is turned down low. Slice the onions finely. Season them with salt and massage the salt through the onions. This will soften them and draw out liquid. Take a great big double handful of the onions and place it on the hotplate with as much liquid as you can manage. Resist the temptation to stir the onions for five minutes or so. Then turn them and leave them in a great pile. If you spread them out they will become dry. By keeping them in a pile they will become soft and golden, the sugar-laden juice drawn out by the salt caramelising around the edges. When cooking the sausages, cook them low and slow as well. Make sure you scrape away excess hot fat as this can get to well above 200C, making the collagen casing fall away.

My sister-in-law told me off for cooking sausages and chicken side by side on the barbie, saying we would all get food poisoning. J. Handly

I am sure your sister-in-law was well-meaning, as the Food Safety Information Council regularly warns about the dangers of food poisoning and barbecues. In this hyper-vigilant world it is best to be alert but not alarmed when it comes to warm weather and keeping raw meat. The big problem with mixing red and white meat is in the raw state, as chicken may contain salmonella that can breed in raw meat at warm temperatures. Cooking chook and sausages until done will kill the bugs your sister-in-law was worried about. The council has issued a few tips on handling raw meat. It suggests keeping all meat under 5C either in the fridge or in a cooler packed with ice until you're ready to cook it. Wash your hands before and after handling raw meat or chicken. Don't guess the doneness of chook, snags or burgers. The interior should be 75C, so use a meat thermometer. Don't contaminate cooked meat by putting it back on the plate the raw meat was on.

I bought some bull-boar sausages, grilled them and found them way too spicy. What should I do with them? P. Shadwick

Bull-boar sausages first came to prominence in Australia in central Victoria in the mid-1800s, when they were made by gold rush immigrants from Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Made with beef, pork, red wine, sweet spices, such as clove and cinnamon, and garlic, they are little bags of meat that taste like hot-cross buns. They're not exactly what some people expect at a barbecue. Central Victorian food expert Gary Thomas, from Spade to Blade Catering, descended from the original Ticinese immigrants. He suggests cooking bull-boar sausages in cold water brought to the boil then simmered for four minutes. The sausages should then be cooled a little, sliced and fried and enjoyed with red wine. Alternatively, he suggests cooking them in the same way then adding them to a lentil or sweet-potato salad. He also sees merit in removing the meat from the skins and cooking it as one would mince meat to make a ragu for gnocchi. "There are more than 30 different family recipes for bull-boars and if you don't like one, try another butcher," he says.

We are making home-made sausages at the weekend. My mate wants a low-salt sausage. Is this possible? H. Pearce

Repeat after me: Sausages. Are. Not. Health. Food. They are delicious meaty morsels that require both fat and salt for their very existence. The Italian, Spanish and French words salsiccia, salchicha and saucisse respectively all come from the Latin salus meaning "salted". A fresh sausage should be 2 per cent salt of the total weight of the meat. Salt draws the meat protein myosin into the brine formed between pieces of ground meat and fat, creating a gel. Mixing and resting assists this. When cooked, the gel helps set the sausage like glue, sticking the pieces together. Without salt, a sausage would be a grainy bag of boiled mince.

I am making sausages at home. How do I stop fat from smearing on the sausage skins? F. Lawrence

This is quite an embarrassing problem. It's the home butchery equivalent of a flat sponge cake or runny marmalade. It happens when the fat you are using gets too warm. Some types of fat begin to become liquid at quite low temperatures. When you mix together lean meat and fat, as one does in sausage making, friction occurs. This warms the meat. If the meat and fat are not cold enough, the fat can begin to melt and this ends up coating the inside of the sausage skin, resulting in an unpleasant-looking smear on the inside of the translucent skin. Avoid this by keeping your meat chilled, even placing it in the freezer to chill for about 45 minutes before mincing and blending. Chill but don't freeze the meat and fat. Remember to follow the three Cs when making sausages: Clean, cold and quick (yes, Q is technically not a C but "three Cs" is a better alliterative mnemonic). Keep surfaces and hands scrupulously clean. Keep meat and fat cold – this might mean putting trays or bowls back in the fridge to keep the temperature down. Be quick. Don't dawdle. Don't let the sausage ingredients lie around getting warm.

My sausage meat always clogs the sausage mincer. J. Gerard

The rise of home-made sausages and house-made snags in restaurants in the past few years has greatly increased the quality of snorkers, as the Brits call their bangers. This also means a move away from the classic "mystery bag", the derisive term for the fact that if you put enough seasoning on low-grade meat, mince it, and stuff it into sausage casing you can get away with anything. On that, if you're buying flavoured sausages from butchers, avoid the stuff made with pre-mixed flavourings – the number of E numbers in that stuff is remarkable. As to your problem, the protein myosin in sausage meat coagulates at 50C. You need to rinse the meat off the equipment in cold water before you wash it in hot water, otherwise the meat will "cook" and hold fast.

Why do vegans replicate meat if they are so opposed to it? M. Cyman

Some of my best friends are vegan. They have taught me a lot about cooking. The other night we had a dinner party for eight where I cooked food suitable for a vegan, a person with FODMAP problems and the husband of the vegan who hates vegan food. It was a great meal. The fact that another mate was making ridiculously strong and delicious cocktails did help. I really don't think it is the vegans who replicate meat but the businesses who see an opening. You can't get a whole lot of tofu, textured vegetable protein (TVP), amino acids, hydrolised vegetable oil, colours and seasoning and put it on a plate. You have to shape it into something recognisable. And I am not talking about a hammer or a vase. It has to look like food. And shaping tofu and TVP into a carrot doesn't make sense when a carrot already exists. So you create fake bacon, turkey, myriad burgers and sausages that look like meat but taste like thongs. When I researched and wrote My Year Without Meat, one of the first things I learned is that going meat-free means you have to take nutrition really seriously and learn how to prepare food properly. Because a lot of processed meat substitutes are truly awful.

What is salume? G. Holmes

It looks like a spelling mistake. We are familiar with the Italian word "salami", which is the plural of "salame" or a singular fermented sausage. Salume, however, is an overarching Italian term describing cured meat products such as salami, prosciutto, pancetta and salsicce. What unites them is the use of salt. It's the "sal" in salume. Salt is rubbed into whole pieces of meat like pork belly that is used to make pancetta or mixed through the minced pork stuffed into skins to make salami. The salt draws out water from the meat. Less moisture makes a less hospitable place for bad bacteria. Salt penetrates the meat creating a hostile environment for bad bacteria. It also adds flavour. Meanwhile beneficial lactobacillus bacteria make lactic acid that helps preserve the flesh while the salume air dry to complete the curing process. That's why good salume has a salty flavour and slightly sharp tangy finish.

My kids love meatballs but I hate mixing them. Any advice? B. Reinberger

My Italian butcher mate Tony the Knife showed me an old trick of his nonna's. You take a kilo of really good fresh Italian sausages – pork and fennel are good – and you squeeze little balls of meat and roll them between your palms. You fry them in the pan in several batches and set aside. Use the rendered fat to start your sauce and then finish the meatballs in the sauce.

l have been cooking for more than 60 years but am still unable to make rissoles out of minced beef — they have always broken up. M. Goard

As a young man – and contrary to what the boarding school house masters lectured us – I followed the words of a kindly German butcher who said: "Richard, you must use your hands on your meat." While he struggled with the nuances of the English language, he did impart the basic philosophy that chopped meat, when used to make sausages, rissoles, meat loaf and the like, must be worked to get the protein to bind together. So get your hands scrupulously clean and get them into the rissole mix and work it for a few minutes until the texture changes from gooey to sticky. This means the meat protein has been released and is binding the ingredients together. It will set like a glue when cooked.

Is it safe to freeze leftover lap cheong sausages? If so, for how long? S. Douglas

China's lap cheong is made with minced, spiced pork that has been stuffed into skins and allowed to ferment at quite warm temperatures. During this process lactobacillus bacteria ferment, causing sugar and naturally occurring lactose to form in the meat's lactic acid. This drops the pH of the sausage to a level where bad bugs struggle to exist, thus preserving the sausage. In the days before fridges and chemical preservatives, sausages were stored in dry and airy sheds and cellars. Today's lap cheong are also treated with preservative and sold packed in plastic on Asian grocers' shelves. Once open, you can keep yours wrapped for several weeks in the refrigerator. Delicious served sliced and warmed as a snack, they add a sweet and fragrant note to fried rice and are lovely sliced into stir-fries. If you did want to freeze them, they will still be OK for about six months.

I have some weisswurst that need German mustard. Where do I find it? J. Barrett

To be respectful to the sausages and their German heritage, only German mustard would be correct. Look for the brand Lowensenf, pronounced loer-ven-senff. The Thomy brand of mustard is owned by Nestle and, although enjoyed by many Germans, is in fact made in Switzerland. Also try The German Shop Down Under (tgsdu.com.au).

Why are there so many different types of chorizo? Some are soft, some are raw, others are really hard. N. Moon

Remember a simpler time when we didn't have chorizo? When Jamie Oliver didn't take Britain to the brink of war by polluting paella with chorizo? Now chorizo is ubiquitous. Supermarket shelves are filled with chorizo-flavoured crisps, chorizo-flavoured baked beans, and even SPAM has made a chorizo-flavoured pork product. I have tried it so you don't have to and I think it's vile. I love real chorizo, however. Pork, fat, salt, garlic and Spanish paprika are stuffed into a skin and allowed to ferment. (There are various regional variations that include different herbs but that would require much more space and an Australia Council research grant.) There are two main types of chorizo. The softish ones are semi-cured – fermented but not dried. These are the ones you use in Spanish stews such as callos a la madrilena. They must always be cooked. Then there are the hard ones. These are cured and have been fermented then air-dried and are a perfect tapas. Remove only as much skin as you need and slice into discs around 3mm or so. Enjoy with cold beer, Spanish vermouth or even a fino sherry. Anything that is raw and has the words "chorizo" are not, repeat, not chorizo. They can be pork sausages flavoured with Spanish paprika but they should not be called chorizo. Apart from a very limited supply of tinned chorizo produced in Spain, it is impossible to buy genuine Spanish chorizo. The types you buy here are all locally produced.

I can't seem to find a fine-grained chorizo. I have eaten it in Spain, but most locally available products have large chunks of fat making it difficult to slice thinly. E. Terrill

In 1515, Albrecht Durer made a woodcut of a rhinoceros from a written description of an Indian rhino that had arrived in Portugal that year. Having never seen a rhino himself he exaggerated the animal's armour and, as a result, it looks like a cross between a giant armadillo and a conquistador in full metal jacket. Chorizos in Australia are a bit the same. Many butchers have heard about them, but few have actually seen or eaten them. There are only a handful of chorizos made in Australia that use good pork, use the right type of paprika and have undergone lactic fermentation. Brands I recommend include La Boqueria (laboqueria.com.au), Casa Iberica (casaibericadeli.com.au) and San Jose (sanjosesmallgoods.com.au). That said, the way chorizo is made changes around Spain from region to region, so to say there is one authentic chorizo would be wrong.

Where can I find black pudding? M. Rogers

Why a sausage made with pigs fat and pigs blood is called a pudding is one of those lovely little etymological digressions we love here at Brain Food. It could have Germanic roots from pud or to swell. I prefer the other derivation on offer, from the French boudin or sausage. Ask black pudding maker David MacDonald at David's Larder in St Marys, NSW (davidslarder.com.au)​ or Rob Boyle from Rob's British and Irish Butchery in Dandenong, Victoria (robsbritishbutchers.com.au).