When you buy smoked sausage, do you have to cook it before it’s safe to eat? Or is smoked sausage already cooked before it’s packaged? It’s important to know the difference, which is why we’ve put together this guide.
Is Smoked Sausage Already Cooked?
Sausage that’s hot smoked has been exposed to heat as well as smoke, reaching an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. That means you can safely eat it without cooking it again. On the other hand, cold smoked sausage hasn’t been heated, so you should make sure that it cooks to a safe temperature before you serve it.
Why It Matters
All products made from ground meat, including sausage, need to cook to 165 degrees before they’re safe to consume. This is the standard that’s recommended by the USDA, so it’s in your best interests to adhere to it.
Consuming undercooked meat poses a health risk because it could harbor bacteria—the sort that causes food poisoning. These bacteria aren’t necessarily present, but since you can’t tell just by looking, thorough cooking is the only safe bet.
Of course, you don’t want to undercook the sausage if it’s raw, but overcooking it could lead to disappointment as well. Overcooked sausage is dry and tough, and not at all pleasant to eat. So if the meat is precooked, it’s better if you know that in advance.
Hot Smoked vs. Cold Smoked
It’s just as important to know whether the meat was hot smoked or cold smoked. The answer will tell you how the sausage needs to be prepared.
Hot smoked sausage has been cooked at a relatively high temperature until it has achieved a safe internal temp. There’s no need to cook or even reheat this type of sausage—you can eat it right out of the fridge if you’d like.
By contrast, cold smoked foods have been exposed to smoke at extremely low temperatures. In fact, it’s even possible to cold smoke cheese without melting it. This means cold smoked sausages haven’t been cooked at all, so they could still be harboring dangerous pathogens.
Therefore, the rule of thumb is that hot smoked sausages are already cooked, but cold smoked sausages aren’t. So most of the time, you’ll need to cook the sausages if they were cold smoked.
This isn’t always the case, however. If the sausage was cured first, you don’t necessarily have to cook it. Prosciutto, dry-cured chorizo, and parma ham are all dry-cured meats that don’t require cooking in order to be safe.
How To Tell if Sausage is Cooked
If the guidelines we mentioned above are confusing, don’t worry. It’s fairly easy to determine whether sausages are cooked or raw.
For one thing, it may say so on the label. When buying sausages from the store, check the package for the words “fresh” or “raw.” The label might also say something like “Cook Thoroughly Before Enjoying,” or something along those lines.
You should also be able to tell whether the sausages are cooked based on their texture. Raw ground meat is soft and flexible—almost like modeling clay. Once the meat is cooked, it has a firmer texture. It will also be drier to the touch.
Don’t rely on color alone as a guideline. Many types of smoked sausage are still pink even when they’re fully cooked.
If you’re still unsure whether the sausages are raw or not, your best bet is to reheat them to 165 degrees anyway. It won’t do any harm as long as you don’t allow the internal temperature to climb much higher than that.
Is Smoked Sausage Already Cooked?
Most of the time, a package that says “smoked sausage” on the label will already be cooked. If not, it should specify by stating that the meat is cold smoked and still needs to be cooked thoroughly before serving.
This assumes that you’ll be purchasing the smoked sausage from the store, rather than making your own. But the same rules apply if you’re starting with homemade sausage.
When you’ve smoked the meat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, it’s already cooked. When you use low heat to infuse the meat with smoke, it isn’t considered safe to eat until it’s cooked to 165.
About Cured Sausages
As we pointed out, some types of sausage are fermented and/or cured. In addition to flavoring the meat, these processes draw out moisture, which means the meat can be safely consumed even if it isn’t cooked first.
Spanish chorizo is one example. After it’s fermented, this spicy sausage is cured using special salts. These procedures create an environment that’s inhospitable to the bacteria that cause food poisoning, so the chorizo doesn’t have to be cooked afterward.
Salami can also be cured and not cooked, although some versions are exposed to heat. Most of the time, though, it’s packaged after being cured, dried, and fermented. At this point, it’s perfectly acceptable to eat the salami without heating it up.
That said, cured meat can still go bad, depending on the storage conditions. If you store the sausage in an airtight container and store it in the fridge, it should keep for several days.
For more information on proper storage and handling, see How Long Does Smoked Sausage Last in the Fridge?, below.
Are Hot Dogs Already Cooked?
The hot dogs you buy at the supermarket are precooked. There’s no need to reheat them, but they’ll taste better if you do. It’s a good idea to heat them up in any case, since bacteria could have taken up residence on the hot dogs since they were packaged.
How Long Does Smoked Sausage Last in the Fridge?
Homemade smoked sausage should keep for 3 to 4 days in the fridge. In this way, it’s no different from any cooked pork product that you’ve prepared yourself.
Prepackaged and precooked sausages play by a different set of rules. They’ve usually been treated with preservatives that help them stay fresh longer, as long as the packages remain unopened.
For example, an unopened package of hot dogs can keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. Once you’ve opened the package, the meat will be exposed to the air, which hastens bacterial growth. Try to use up hot dogs or other precooked sausages within a week of opening them.
Go ahead and freeze the sausage if you aren’t going to be able to consume it in time. Frozen meat will keep indefinitely, at least in theory. In practice, you should thaw and cook the sausage within a few months. If you wait too long, it might turn out too dry.
Precooked and cured meats have a different texture and appearance than meats that require cooking. If the sausage is firm and dry to the touch, you probably don’t need to cook it or even heat it up before you enjoy it.
Of course, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Anytime you doubt whether the sausage is precooked, cured, or simply cold smoked, be sure to heat it to 165 degrees.