When it comes to grilling sausages, it’s hard for me not to think of Tony Soprano in his backyard, Sweet Italian links draped around his neck, an end twirling in each hand. There was a hot dog Hatfield and McCoy argument in Central New York, where I grew up. If you were from Syracuse, a Hofmann’s hot from Heid’s was as good as it could get; but, if you were from Rochester, it was Zweigle’s brand until you die. My Long Island, N.Y., in-laws introduced me to the glorious sausage wheel, held together by toothpicks and flipped heads-or-tails over a hot grate—when it comes to presentation you can’t beat a pinwheel of sausage, maybe served with a nice, garlicky broccoli rabe. But a sausage is only as good as it’s grilled and grilling a good sausage can be deceptively difficult.
No one likes wrinkly pool finger sausages—the deflated result of cooking for too long at too low temperature. I’m sure you’ve seen a burnt-on-the-outside, raw-in-the-middle sausage—too high, too short a cook—and you know enough to steer clear of those bangers that have blown like a detonated artillery shell—cooked way too high, for too long. However, I think a little topography resulting from a slight burst in casing at the right time—when the juices are absorbed—can add texture and flavor.
It’s tough to time that perfectly slight seismic rupture caused by heat, vapor, and expansion—resulting in those crispy fissures. And while cooking to temp is important, pricking and prodding your sausage with a meat thermometer at the wrong time will dry it out.
The quickest way to avoid a poorly cooked sausage is to set your grill up with a hot and a not-so-hot zone and monitor those links carefully. Get a little browning going and then move to the cooler side of the grill to ensure the insides are cooked to temperature, which is approximately 150°F. Set a Guinea Pig sausage for temperature checks. Consider that one the chef’s cut, or the chef’s enemy’s cut.
If you are feeling ambitious, the best, most consistent way to top-dog results is a parboil. A great way to do this is in a cast iron skillet, or disposable aluminum tray, set right on the grill. A ten-minute bath will help keep the casing intact and the juices inside. As an added benefit, this method also takes some of the question out of cooking to temperature. Afterwards, throw them over medium high heat to brown up and then serve, or move back to your skillet or tray to keep warm without overcooking.
Use water or fill the skillet with anything from beer and sauerkraut to peppers and onions in a vinegary broth to enhance the flavor profile of the meat. You can do this on the stovetop if you want, but I prefer the grill: You don’t have to scuttle back and forth between the kitchen and the backyard and you get the added benefit of smoke and fire flavor—especially if you use a charcoal grill.
My favorite sausage these days is our Walden’s Blend, and I’m not just saying that because I work here! They are a perfect marriage of a sage and white pepper breakfast sausage and a sweet Italian, with a bit more herbs. Have you tried one yet? Send us a note and tell us what you think!