Processors get creative with flavors and inclusions in today's sausage products.

Though once considered an outlet for meat scraps and a means to preserve meat, sausages, also known as encased meat, have evolved into culinary creations that entice consumers’ taste buds with adventurous ingredients. Since the first apple chicken sausages debuted in retail more than a decade ago, commercial processors have become quite adventurous with adding flavorful inclusions to all types of sausages, from breakfast links to hot dogs to kielbasa.

“Sausages don’t have to be only an outlet for inferior meats that get mixed with fillers and nitrates,” says Lance Appelbaum, founder and owner of Fossil Farms, Boonton, New Jersey. “I believe sausages are a great way to introduce consumers to new meats and new flavors. It’s not hard to make a great-tasting sausage. What makes the product good is the ingredients you use.”

Fossil Farms’ specialty is unique meats and flavorful inclusions. Some of the company’s specialties are elk sausage with apples and pears; rabbit and chicken sausage with white wine and bacon; and venison sausage with blueberries and merlot wine.

“We take sausage to a new level and cater to the new consumer,” Appelbaum says. “Most game meats are very lean, making them better-for-you meats; however, many consumers are hesitant to try the meat on its own. In a sausage, with other ingredients, they are ‘game.’”

Zachary Reed, senior associate, meat applications, Ingredion Inc., Englewood, Colorado, concurs that today’s consumers want to explore new flavors, and sausages are an ideal carrier. “As many consumers expand their palates, there’s an opportunity to recreate exotic dishes that people tried in restaurants by making them into flavorful sausages for at-home consumption,” he says.

Parkers British Institution, Buffalo, New York, an acclaimed authentic British food manufacturer, produces traditional sausages in a traditional manner, yet leaves room for creativity. For example, Damian Parker, owner, recently created a piri-piri chicken sausage that contains piri-piri chilies. It joins favorites such as English mustard pork sausages, which come loaded with mustard seed and imported spices.

“Traditional British sausages contain lots of herbs and spices,” he says. “To stay authentic, we import many of our seasonings, including those used in our pork and apple sausages. Here we use dried apple pieces, which absorb the fat in the sausage and become nice and juicy when it’s time to eat.”

Ingredient selection

There are many variables to consider when adding inclusions to sausages. Appearance, flavor and texture must all be addressed.

“First and foremost, the desired final appearance of the product should always be considered,” says Michelle Wetzel, director of research and development, meat seasonings, Kerry, Beloit, Wisconsin. “Consumers want products with recognizable labels, with pure and simple ingredients. If a specific inclusion is listed on the label, consumers want to be able to see and recognize it in the final product. Therefore, for greatest visual appeal, it is best to add inclusions at a point in the process where their identity and piece size is maintained.”

The pH of the ingredients must also be taken into account. Changes in acidity can impact color, flavor and texture.

“If the ingredients you include are on the acidic side and drop the pH of the meat, you can encounter processing issues such as lower cook yields due to diminished water-holding capacity,” Reed says. “This lower pH can also cause textural issues. That’s because when you are processing meat and cooking it, you ultimately want to denature the protein because that is what gives the meat its cooked texture and water-holding capacity. But if you start denaturing the proteins too soon due to low pH, it will decrease the functionality of the protein, causing the meat matrix to crumble and/or not retain its form.”

Reed cites the example of a chile verde-type sausage. Chile verde is a classic Mexican stew that includes beef or pork along with a variety of green chilies.

“Another key ingredient is tomatillos, which provide the needed acidic component to the stew,” Reed says. “However, when processing all ingredients into a pork sausage, the acidity of the tomatillos will cause a pH drop and not allow the sausage to bind together, resulting in an undesirable crumbly texture.”

Sometimes, acid assists with flavor, explains Julie Clarkson, senior research chef, savory flavors, Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Illinois. “The acid in fruit balances the fattiness of sausage. Fruits also can complement some of the gamey notes of meats such as boar, lamb and venison. Dried fruit pieces work best as they don’t bleed as much as fresh fruits.”

Jeff Manning, chief marketing officer, Cherry Marketing Institute, Lansing, Michigan, says, “Montmorency tart cherries add a sweet-tart flavor, offer visual appeal with their bright red color and, in the case of dried tart cherries, provide a chewy texture that ‘pops’ against a variety of other textures.”

Nuts complement fruits, even in sausage. The Almond Board of California, Modesto, California, developed a chicken and almond sausage Bahn Mi sandwich. There are roasted almonds in the sausage blend, along with spices and herbs.

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It's extremely common to find a variety of flavors and inclusions in today's sausage varieties including mango, garlic, onion and roasted tomatoes. 

Processing Considerations

Another key consideration is moisture. The movement of moisture can go in both directions, inclusion to meat matrix or meat matrix to inclusion. Too much movement in either direction results in product breakdown.

“From a processing and formulation perspective, it is crucial to consider the moisture that the inclusion will add to the meat matrix,” Wetzel says. “Fruits, vegetables and cheeses all have varying moisture levels that can impact the final bite and bind of a sausage.”

With some ingredients and manufacturing techniques, moisture is part of the flavoring process. For example, chefs for a long time have soaked sausages in alcohols, wines and liquors to add flavor, according to Scott Walnofer, director of culinary at Kerry.

“New-generation butchers are bringing this technique back in a new way,” he says. “Combinations like Riesling-soaked apricots or brandy-spiked apples are making their way into everyday retail sausages.”

The moisture of cheese, in particular, can severely impact product quality. But because cheese is a great way to add flavor, color and even texture to sausages, it is an increasingly common inclusion.

Current clean-label trends are to use natural cheese, as it is minimally processed and typically contributes very simple ingredients to the final product, just milk, salt, culture and enzyme. However, process cheese typically performs much better in cooked sausages.

With natural cheese, you get flavor and mouthfeel, but melt properties are not as good and you typically will not get cheese particulate identity in the final cooked sausage. Because piece identity is important to many consumers, processors should stuff the sausage very soon after adding the cheese to the meat matrix. This is because when cheese is added to meat, it starts to disintegrate.

The water activity of the sausage and the cheese, plus the melting point of the cheese are two very important items to consider when choosing a cheese inclusion for sausage. Preventing moisture migration between the sausage and cheese is important to the integrity of the cheese texture. You can minimize moisture migration by selecting a variety of cheese that has a water activity or moisture content close to that of the sausage product.

Cold melt is the result of moisture moving from the sausage into the cheese piece. This is more prevalent with natural cheese pieces, with the result being soft, mushy cheese, which when heated, oozes out of the sausage and is no longer identifiable.

Process cheese products can be designed to not absorb moisture as well as have restricted melt. Process cheese manufacturers can alter the melt of the cheese by the amount and type of phosphate emulsifiers they use to dial in the right amount of cheese melt and texture that works best for each application. There are a few natural cheeses with restricted melts, including paneer, queso blanco, feta, halloumi and juustoleipa.

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A common inclusion in breakfast sausage is maple.

Taste rules

Consistency, taste and appearance is paramount in all foods, sausages included. Some suppliers offer carefully crafted inclusions that can be manipulated to meet varied sensory targets.

“The key to deliver a good and tasty sausage with inclusion mix is to have an inclusion that has a consistent taste, piece after piece, and with a taste that is bold enough to stand out against the rest of the ingredients found in the sausage,” says Wayne Lutomski, vice president, international and global ingredients, Welch’s Foods Inc., Concord, Massachusetts. “Taste reigns. Additionally, the inclusion’s uniformity of size and an inclusion that will not clump during processing of the sausage will make sausage production much more efficient and less costly. This will ensure a quality product sausage after sausage.”

Welch’s and Taura Natural Ingredients, Winchester, Virginia, offer a 100 percent fruit inclusion line based on Welch’s concord grape juice and purée. The inclusions come in varied shapes and sizes, with or without other fruit or vegetable juices. Additional ingredients, such as chia seeds, can be included on the inclusions for extra nutrition and texture.

The inclusions are made using Taura’s ultra-rapid concentration process to preserve the taste and natural goodness of the concord grape, which has the highest polyphenol content of all grapes, according to Lutomski.

SensoryEffects, a division of Bridgeton, Missouri-based Balchem, produces lipid-based inclusions that are readily incorporated into all types of sausages, according to Megan Maenius, food applications scientist. “These inclusions work best when added to the meat matrix after the majority of grinding and chopping. They can be added along with standard spices and seasonings in order to obtain adequate distribution.”

Such inclusions come in a range of sizes. Size influences flavor distribution and visual effect in the finished product.

“A small nugget will have slight visual impact but provide uniform flavor distribution; whereas a large flake will have stronger visual impact and pockets of flavor in the finished product,” Maenius says.

Meat products with lipid-based inclusions have been found to withstand panfrying, baking and microwaving, according to Maenius. Higher-sugar content inclusions can undergo caramelization during dry-heat cooking, which may add an extra flavor dimension, as in a maple inclusion for a breakfast sausage. But at the same time, they can also burn and harden.

“We are particularly fond of a combination of ketchup and mustard inclusions added straight to the meat batter, or a chili-cheese combination,” Maenius says.

Inclusions can deliver smoke flavors, which add a touch of grill flavor without needing to grill. They can be designed to carry ethnic flavors, providing familiar sausages with an adventurous twist.

“Introducing alcohol flavors, such as beer, into sausages is another great avenue for flavor differentiation,” Maenius says.

When it comes to sausage innovation, the sky’s the limit. Doug Sohn, founder of the now-closed Hot Doug’s, Chicago, said it well. “If it can go through a blender, it can go into casing and be made into a sausage,” he said. “My approach to formulating sausages is to take all of the ingredients that go into a classic dish or entrée and turn it into a sausage.”