A Guide to Grocery Store Sausage

Hot Italian sausage and cavatelli
Hot Italian sausage and orecchiette

Sausage is a magical food. It exists in dozens of forms, across cultures, and is filled with a variety of spices. There are so many types and flavors that it becomes hard to define what exactly qualifies as sausage. It can be a link or a patty, smoked or dried, pork, beef, or even seafood. 

With all of these available options, it’s easy to descend into panic in the meat aisle when faced with a recipe that just calls for sausage. Consider this guide your helpful grocery store companion. It will teach you the difference between kielbasa and salami, and help you figure out what to toss on top of a pizza. 

Fresh

Plump in appearance and pale in color, these sausages are made of uncooked seasoned ground meat and spices. They’re packaged in casings, sometimes all linked together like cartoon sausages. There are usually several varieties of fresh sausage available at a supermarket, including hot Italian sausage, sweet Italian sausage, and breakfast sausage. These three types are all pork sausage, and are distinguished primarily by their spices. Generally, hot and sweet Italian sausage can be substituted for one another, but breakfast sausage is an entirely different flavor profile. It’s important to remember that these sausages are raw, so they require a longer cooking time than their pre-cooked counterparts (more on that below). Grill them whole and slice them up, or remove them from the casing while still raw, sauté the meat, and toss into soups or on a pizza.

browning loose sausage
Browning meat

Pre-cooked 

These often have a smooth, more uniform texture than fresh whole sausages. This texture comes from the meat itself, which has been finely processed or pureed before cooking. Examples include the beloved hot dog, bologna, and mortadella. Precooked sausages will be more opaque and firmer to the touch; if you can’t tell if a sausage has been precooked, read the label closely or ask a store employee, preferably someone working at the meat counter. Pre-cooked sausages are technically safe to eat right out of the package, but heating them will bring out their best flavors. They can be grilled, pan-fried, or boiled. The larger versions, like bologna, are a staple in deli and lunch meat counters, while the smaller options are popular with home cooks. Their short preparation time makes them an easy way to bulk up a weeknight dinner.  

Cured 

Cured sausages are salted and dried in cool conditions. Over time, the salt draws out the moisture and effectively “cooks” the meat, although heat is never applied. Salami, saucisson, sopressata, and pepperoni are all cured sausages. They’re perfect to slice up and serve on a charcuterie board, tuck into sandwiches, or even slice and toss into a hearty salad. Even though they don’t need to be cooked, applying heat to a cured sausage will render the fat, and give them a wonderfully crunchy texture. This transformation is what makes the crispy pepperoni on top of a pizza so delicious. 

Smoked 

For smoked sausages the meat is ground, packed, and hung to dry in a smoker or smokehouse where there is a low, cool fire. The meat is preserved by time, salt, and smoke, but not cooked by the heat of the fire. The smoke not only preserves the meat, but also flavors it; think of rich sweet kielbasa or smoky lap cheong. Smoked sausage also doesn’t need to be cooked, but warming it to room temperature or above will bring out its best flavors. Grilling it can add another dimension of charred flavor. Smoked sausages can be served on their own or sliced and added to other foods like soups or stews. These sausages are commonly found at deli counters.

smoked sausage
Mmm, smoky

Loose 

Just because it’s not in a casing, doesn’t mean it’s not a sausage. Basically, any flavored and ground meat qualifies. Loose sausage can be formed into patties and fried, or broken up and sautéed. This top-rated Blue Apron recipe uses loose hot Italian sausage to spice up a pasta dish for a satisfying weeknight dinner. 

Ground pork 

Ok, ground pork is technically not a sausage…yet. That being said, if you’re in a grocery store on the hunt for fresh sausage, ground pork would be a better substitution than something smoked or pre-cooked. Once you have the ground meat at home, you can spice it up yourself. Empty the meat into a large bowl, and assemble some spices. For a classic sweet Italian sausage try cracked black pepper, minced garlic, whole fennel seed, salt, and chopped parsley. Before you cook up the whole batch, place a quarter-sized amount in a frying pan. Flip once, make sure it’s cooked through, and then give it a taste. Not only is that the best way to check the seasoning of homemade sausage, it’s also a fun little treat for the chef.