What’s the definition of overcooked sausage, and how can you avoid it? Appearance isn’t everything—the sausage might be perfectly cooked but still look underdone, or it could be blackened on the outside and not be ready yet. Our guide will explain how this can be.
Sausage is considered overcooked when its internal temperature climbs past the 165-degree mark. It’s best to take it off the heat when it’s cooked to 160 degrees, since the temperature will continue to rise as the sausage rests. Note that precooked sausage doesn’t need to achieve this temperature, since it’s technically safe to eat already.
Cooking Sausage: The Basics
Some of you might be asking yourselves, “Isn’t sausage already cooked?” If you bought it from the store, it might be—but it’s important to know for sure.
Some store-bought sausages, such as hot dogs and kielbasa, are indeed cooked to a safe temperature (more on that later) before they’re packaged for sale. These sausages don’t need to be cooked before you eat them, but reheating them brings out the flavor.
On the other hand, if the sausages are labeled as fresh, they’ll need to be thoroughly cooked in order to be safe to consume. Fresh sausage has a soft, squishy texture—you should be able to distinguish it from precooked sausage with ease.
You can also make your own sausage at home, in which case you’ll certainly have to cook it off. Sausage is just ground meat mixed with spices (and sometimes curing salt), and it’s easy to make at home if you have a meat grinder or food processor.
Smoking the sausage at a low temperature will give it a robust flavor and a pleasing texture. Even if you’ve purchased precooked sausages, you can smoke them to give them a boost in the flavor department—you just have to take care not to overcook them.
It’s not necessary to smoke fresh sausage—you can just cook it on the grill over indirect heat, then sear it to give it a crisp exterior. It all depends on whether or not you enjoy the taste of smoked meat.
Best Internal Temperature For Sausage
Since sausage is made of ground meat, it needs to cook to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit before it can be consumed. In fact, an internal temp of 165 is preferable for most types of sausage, but carryover cooking usually takes care of the last 5 degrees as the meat rests.
Most sausage products are made from ground pork or beef, but chicken and turkey sausages are popular as well, especially among consumers concerned about saturated fat intake. No matter what meat you use, though, an internal temp of 165 is recommended.
Why does ground meat have to cook to such a high temperature, when steaks and pork chops can be served at just 145 degrees? It’s because the bacteria that cause food poisoning are found on the surface of the meat.
Pork and beef are red meat, which is too dense to allow these bacteria to penetrate very far beneath the surface. But when you feed the meat through the grinder or food processor, all of it gets mixed up together, so in theory, it could all be contaminated.
Cooking the meat to 165 degrees ensures that these hazardous pathogens will be wiped out in a matter of seconds. If you attempt to serve sausage at a lower temperature, there’s a chance that it could lead to food poisoning.
Similar rules apply when it comes to chicken and turkey. Poultry flesh is not as dense as red meat, so the bacteria are able to burrow deeper below the surface. That’s why it’s never permissible to consume undercooked poultry.
Now that we’ve established that undercooked sausage is not safe to eat, let’s talk about the perils of overcooked sausage.
If you’ve ever eaten an overcooked steak or even a pork chop, you know that it’s not a pleasant experience. Cooking the meat past 165 degrees eliminates the moisture and makes the meat difficult to chew, not to mention devoid of flavor.
Large, fatty cuts such as beef brisket and pork butt can withstand higher temperatures. That’s because they contain enough fat and collagen to lend flavor and moisture to the meat, even when it’s so well-done that it’s falling apart.
Though sausage contains a great deal of fat (see below), overcooking it will result in a tough, chewy product. 165 degrees is a perfectly acceptable temperature, but beyond this point, the meat’s muscle fibers will toughen up.
To avoid overcooking your links, cook them at a low temperature. Cranking up the heat will cut down on the cooking time, but since sausages are so small, they don’t take that long to reach the optimum temperature anyway.
When you set the smoker to 200 degrees, it should take 2 to 3 hours for your sausages to cook through. That’s a reasonable time frame, and you’ll be much more pleased with the results than you would be if you were to rush things.
The only way to tell for sure whether the sausages are done is to test their internal temperature using a meat thermometer. When they hit the 160-degree mark, take them off the heat and set them aside to rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Reheating Precooked Sausages
Similarly, when reheating sausages that have been precooked, use indirect heat. Otherwise, the outsides will be charred and blackened while the insides remain cold.
You don’t have to check the internal temperature of the sausages if they’re precooked. That said, you might want to test it just to make sure the links will be hot when you bite into them. An internal temp of 150 should be sufficient in this case.
Ideal Meat-to-Fat Ratio For Sausage
When making sausage, you don’t want to skimp on the fat. Without the moisture that the fat provides, the cooked sausages will come out too dry, even if you cook them to the perfect temperature.
Aim for a fat percentage of at least 25. We prefer to use a meat-to-fat ratio of 70 to 30, just to ensure that the finished product will be rich-tasting and exceptionally juicy.
Some sausages contain as much as 40 percent fat, but we’ve found that the cooked links can have a “bouncy” texture in this case. This is likely the result of too much unrendered fat making its way into each bite.
If you want to attempt to make a leaner sausage, you can use 15 to 20 percent fat. Don’t be tempted to go any lower, though, or you’ll be disappointed in the results. There are other ways to cut back on saturated fats—no need to mess with what makes sausage great.
While we’re on the subject of ratios, know that sausage should contain 1.5 to 2 percent salt by volume. That will bring out the flavor of the other seasonings (and the meat itself) without making the sausage taste too salty.
The Bottom Line
You might not think that it’s possible to overcook sausage, but the truth is that it’s very easy to do, even when you’re starting with fresh sausage.
The trick is to cook the meat thoroughly without drying it out. With practice, you should get the hang of it eventually.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!