The explosive truth behind what makes sausages burst. And the simple solution that will help you prevent it.
The bursting of skin on sausage is one of the biggest disappointments for the carnivore in the kitchen, there’s no doubt about it. The good news is that this is generally avoidable if you use the techniques that we’re about to share with you below.
But first, let’s talk about the technicalities behind this. After all, it is Einstein who is quoted for having said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
So why is it that sausage skins burst in the first place?
Sausage skins burst because when the sausage is cooked, the inside of the meat is brought to a boil. The moisture inside turns to steam, and this steam builds up pressure. At a certain point, this pressure becomes so great that the skin bursts and the moisture escapes.
Basically, a sausage is a poorly designed pressure cooker for ground meat.
This is especially true for fresh sausages, which contain a lot of fat and moisture. Cooked sausages, which can be eaten without heating, have already lost most of their moisture in the meat factory, so they seldom burst.
As every family cook very well knows, a burst sausage is one that’s left uneaten. Not only does a burst sausage look more unsightly than a whole one, but, when it bursts, the juice oozes out. So all of the juiciness flows out from the casing into the skillet.
The result of this mishap is a sausage that’s stiff, dried out, and blander than all the rest. Nine times out of ten, it’s left over; you will find it floating cheerfully in the next day’s gumbo or sauerkraut stew. (Frankly, a braise, gumbo, or stew is a fantastic way to save burst sausages whose existence your spouse and children chose not to acknowledge.)
How to Prevent Sausages From Bursting
Of course, it is not desirable for your sausages to burst in the midst of cooking or, in extreme cases, explode. You can minimize the risk of this by cooking the sausages over moderate heat and/or piercing them with a toothpick before you throw them on the hot grill or preheated skillet.
Cook the Sausages Over Moderate Heat
To prevent the sausages from bursting, whether on the stove or in the oven, they should be prepared at moderate heat.
The casings, usually made from pork or beef intestines, are porous enough to allow some of the moisture to escape during cooking. However, the higher the heat and the longer the sausage is exposed to it, the more moisture must escape—and the greater the pressure that builds up.
This poses a conundrum for you, the cook…
On the one hand, the browning of the proteins and the caramelization of the sugars, both of which take place at a relatively high heat, are responsible for the golden-brown color, appetizing aroma, and savory flavor of a well-cooked sausage.
On the other, if the sausage is exposed to relatively high heat for an extended period of time, the casing will unpredictably burst.
As with all good things, the secret lies in the principle of moderation: Brown the sausage briefly in a hot skillet over medium-high, then turn the heat down to medium-low to continue cooking the sausage on the stove, or slide it in a 325°F (160 °C) oven.
Should you want to learn more about cooking sausages to perfection, read the article “How to Brown Sausages in Your Skillet,” where we share our detailed instructions with you and outline the process step by step.
Prick the Sausages With a Toothpick
You can also prick the sausage with a toothpick before browning them in the pan. However, this technique has a disadvantage: during the browning, much of the juice will flow out of the sausage, and the sausage will come out somewhat stiff and dried out.
So use it as you see fit, but remember the trade-off that comes with it. Three punctures are required for small sausages (i.e., breakfast sausages), six for regular sausages (i.e., brats, Italian sausage, Hungarian kielbasa), and twelve for jumbo sausages.
Let’s Make Sausages Great Again
For those of you who read this far, we have additional tips to help you make sausages great again.
Don’t cook sausages from frozen.
Sausages should always be thawed before cooking. A frozen sausage will not cook evenly; by the time the interior gets up to heat and cooks through, the outside is already badly burnt and tastes acrid.
Thaw your sausages by transferring them from your freezer to your fridge overnight. For faster thawing, seal them in ziplock bag and submerge them in a bowl of ice water, changing the water and topping it up with ice every 20 to 30 minutes.
Despite lore to the contrary, thawing sausages by leaving them out on the countertop is not safe. Harmful bacteria, the kind that feed on the meat and fart out toxins that can make you sick, multiply at rapid rates at room temperature. The USDA recommends to never leave meat out for longer than 1-2 hours, whether raw or cooked.
Don’t score the sausage with your knife; it is simply not worth it.
While it’s okay to prick a sausage with a toothpick to prevent the casing from bursting, scoring it with a knife just before placing it on the grill, on the stove or in the oven isn’t. The extra browning and caramelization that takes place cannot justify the amount of juiciness that is lost in the process.
A better way to impart your sausages with texture, aroma, and flavor is to give them a crispy, golden brown, and deeply flavorsome crust through browning and caramelization over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes (then turning the heat down and finishing them off at a gentler cooking temperature).
Check the sausages for doneness using a meat thermometer.
Ground meat is a breeding ground for harmful bacteria that, when ingested, can give you food poisoning. And in the meat processing plant, a single animal can contaminate an entire batch. That’s why you should always cook sausages to a certain minimum internal temperature, depending on the type of meat.
That temperature is 160°F (71.1°C) for pork, beef, veal, lamb, and venison; and 165°F (73.9°C) for chicken, turkey, duck, and game birds. Insert the tip of the thermometer on the end of the sausage where the intestine is rolled up into a link. This way, you don’t have to pierce the outside.
Rest the sausages for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
When you let your sausages rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving, the meat will finish cooking in its own residual heat and retain more of its juices when cut.
Sausages served immediately after cooking are too hot to enjoy, and most of their juices flow onto the plate instead of into your mouth as they should.
As a general rule of thumb, the optimal resting time for sausage depends on the size of the sausage. A shorter resting time is appropriate for smaller sausages, and a longer resting time is required for their larger counterparts.