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Frozen Sausage Breakfast Links
What makes great breakfast sausage? We link it all together.
Published Dec. 1, 2014. Appears in Cook's Illustrated January/February 2006, America's Test Kitchen TV Season 7: Hearty Eggs for Breakfast
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What You Need To Know
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,...
Everything We Tested
This sausage was “fatty but not too greasy,” with a “meaty chew” and a “crisp,” “golden” crust. “Nice and plump,” with hints of “maple,” this “very juicy” sausage balanced “sweet” and “spicy” for a “rich pork taste.”
With just a “hint of heat” and a “strong herby flavor,” these “porky” links were favored for their “loose” texture and “rich,” “mild” sweetness. “Nice balance of seasoning and pork,” summarized one taster.
Though it’s lower in fat than other products, tasters enjoyed the “snappy,” “chewy” texture of this sausage—the only product with a casing, which helps keep in moisture. “Meaty” and “mild,” this sausage’s “traditional” flavors were “completely familiar and quite satisfying.”
Recommended with reservations
While some tasters felt that these “mushy” links were “more greasy than porky,” most enjoyed the “balanced” sweetness and “maple-y” notes in this preservative-free sausage.
The reformulated version of our previous winning sausage links, this product adds turkey and a whole lot of extra water. The result is a “soggy,” “mushy interior” and “bland,” “unremarkable” flavor. “Tastes and feels like it’s been microwaved straight from the freezer,” said one taster.
The mix of turkey and soy protein in this sausage perplexed tasters, who compared its “rubbery,” “spongy” texture to “hot dogs” and vegetarian “tofurkey.” Equally off-putting was its “aggressive” spiciness and “really processed,” “sour” flavor.
This raw frozen sausage was “rubbery,” like “Styrofoam,” and “weird” and “pale” in color. “I know pork is the other white meat, but this is creepily white,” said one taster. Summarized another: “I would skip breakfast rather than eat this.”
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