To eat or not to eat? That is the question! The answer is a little more nuanced than a clear-cut “yes” or “no.”
Have you ever cranked up the stove or fired up the grill, only to take a good hard look at that package of sausages you pulled out of the fridge and wonder, “So, am I supposed to strip them of their casings or not?”
I know I have!
I also know that trying to figure out the answer to this question for the first time can be a real head-scratcher.
Unless you studied at the Culinary Institute of America, a.k.a. the food CIA, this isn’t something you were taught at school. Nor is it something you talk about with your buddies over beers. (“Ugh… Hey, John, do you cook your sausages with or without the casings?”)
Sure, it would have been nice if the butcher had said something about it when they handed you the links over the counter. Or if the manufacturer had given some guidance—any guidance—on the matter on the label.
But you’re here and you’re reading this post, so I take it that’s not necessarily the case.
So let’s take a minute or two to talk about sausage casings. Because (a) that’s what you came here to do and (b) no one I know likes to take a big bite out of a juicy, steaming sausage and taste melted plastic.
Are All Sausage Casings Edible?
To cut a long story short: No, not all sausage casings are edible. There are natural and synthetic sausage casings; some are meant to be left on, while others ought to be removed.
Casings made from animal intestines and collagen are generally edible and can be left on the sausage. Cellulose casings and plastic casings are not edible and should be removed before cooking or reheating the sausage.
As it turns out, the variety of the sausages can also reveal a lot about their casings:
Natural casings are typically made from sheep’s or pig’s intestines. Casings made from sheep’s intestines have a special snap when bitten into, which is why they’re used in breakfast links, franks, and wieners. Those made from pig’s intestines are usually used on bratwursts, Polish kielbasa, and Italian sausages.
Collagen casings, as the name suggests, are synthetic casings made of collagen—the most abundant protein in the animal body, which gives it structure and strength. Like natural casings, collagen casings are edible. The casings of fresh sausages are thinner, and those of smoked sausages are thicker; remove them only if you wish.
Fibrous casings are made of cellulose and they aren’t edible. They’re normally used for cured meats—think cold cuts, deli meats, and lunch meats—and they must be peeled before eating the sausage that’s inside them.
Plastic casings are made out of… well, plastic! They are mostly used for cooked sausages, like hot dogs. They are also inedible and must be stripped off before use. Many are marked with a black or red stripe to make it visible if, after stripping, some casing material is accidentally left on the sausage.
When in doubt, there are a few ways to determine whether a sausage casing is edible or not.
Which Sausage Casings Can You Eat?
You can cook and eat natural and collagen sausage casings without hesitation. But you should strip off and throw away cellulose and plastic sausage casings; neither belongs on the stove or in your stomach.
Inedible sausage casings can be recognized, among other things, by the fact that they are thick and colored and have stripes, lettering, and brand names printed on them. Edible casings are thin, clear, and free of inscriptions.
It boils down to your preferences. Most smoked sausages, for example, have a thick casing made of collagen. This casing is perfectly edible, and yet many sausage eaters find it hard to chew because of its thickness—so they remove it.
As a general rule of thumb, if the sausage’s casing looks like plastic or is too thick for your taste, don’t eat it.
How to Remove a Sausage From Its Casing
More often than not, sausages should be removed from their casings before they are cooked. All you need is a sharp knife—say, a chef’s knife, a utility knife, or a paring knife—a steady hand, and a little bit of practice.
To remove the casing from sausage, score it down the whole length with the tip of a sharp knife, and then peel it back in one piece. The cut should be shallow enough to rip the casing open but not so deep as to pierce the sausage.
To make it easier to remove the casing, seal the sausage in plastic wrap and throw it in the freezer for 20-30 minutes. The frost will prevent the fatty meat from sticking to the casing, and you will find the whole process much less tedious.
How to Cook Sausages in Their Casings
Say that you need the sausages to keep their shape, and their casing is edible. The best thing to do in such a case is to leave the casing intact and cook them in it.
The only problem is that sausages cooked in their casings, as I’m sure you’ve experienced first hand, is that they tend to burst… unless, that is, you apply the method that you’re about to learn.
Sausages burst because the moisture they contain turns to steam, and that steam builds up inside the casing. To cook sausages in their casings without them bursting, simply reduce the heat to medium.
This reduces the rate of evaporation and allows the vapor to escape through the links and the permeable casing. The disadvantage of this method is that the sausages take longer to cook. But, hey, at least they don’t lose all of their juices in the pan and turn out completely dry!
If the sausage casing looks like plastic and has inscriptions on it, don’t eat it. It’s probably made of plastic or cellulose, and the latter isn’t edible either.
Remember that this type of casing is usually found on cold cuts and cooked sausages. Uncooked sausages and smoked sausages tend to have natural casings or at least collagen casings, which are edible.