What’s the difference between “mild” and “sweet” Italian sausage?
There are so many sausages available at the grocery store, from andouille to bratwurst to chorizo. But the sausage we call for most commonly, the real workhouse in the meat case, is Italian sausage.
The “Italian” sausage you’ll find in your grocer’s case is usually pork sausage flavored with fennel seed and garlic. It may be “hot,” which means it has red pepper flakes too, and it may be “mild” or “sweet.” It is always raw (i.e. “fresh”), which means it must be cooked.
Labels can be, to put it gently, sloppy. In a perfect grocery store, “sweet” would indicate the presence of sweet basil in the mix, and “mild” would indicate simply a lack of red pepper flakes. But in real life, they’re often used interchangeably. In a dish like this simple tortellini supper, though we call for sweet, mild would work just as well with very little substantive change to the flavor.
(And if you, like me, welcome a hit of heat wherever you can get it, you could also use hot.)
What makes it Italian? Good question. You’d have a hard time finding what we Americans call “Italian sausage” in Italy. There, you’ll instead find a thousand varieties of sausages from the top of the boot to the heel – fresh, smoked, cured, and so forth. A better name for the variety at your local grocery store would be “Italian-American.”