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December/January 2012

Breakfast Sausage Patties

Shaping and frying breakfast sausage meat is more work than simply browning a frozen, fully cooked patty. Is it worth the effort?

How We Tested

The mantra of modern cooking is that fresh is always better than frozen. But frozen is usually faster. And most mornings, time is of the essence. Fact: Dumping a box of fully cooked, frozen breakfast sausage patties into a skillet is easier than shaping and cooking patties from raw tube-style rolls of sausage meat. Plus frozen cooked patties take half as long to cook. Then again, the extra work might be worthwhile if the end result tastes better. Several years ago, we pitted fresh breakfast sausage links against precooked and were surprised when the precooked products won. We set out to see if the same would hold true for patties.

Our ideal breakfast sausage patty is meaty, savory, and a little peppery, with a nice hint of salt, herbs, and sweetness. Some fat is to be expected—it’s sausage, after all—but not too much, and it shouldn’t be tough or gristly. And it goes without saying that good sausage shouldn’t be rubbery. Armed with 11 national pork breakfast sausage products, we held pretastings to eliminate the worst and winnow our lineup to seven. Our final lineup included two products that were fully cooked patties, one that consisted of raw patties, and four tubes of raw “roll-style” breakfast sausage meat that we sliced into patties. Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen editors and test cooks sat down for a blind tasting.

Texture, it turned out, was the most important factor. Four of the seven products scored poorly for being “rubbery” and “spongy.” Tasters described their texture as “processed” and “artificial” and wondered whether “weird” binders or fillers were used. According to Iowa State University meat-processing and -preservation expert Joe Sebranek, fillers are actually uncommon in breakfast sausage: Sausage is made from pork trimmings. Manufacturers analyze the fat content of the meat and combine trimmings of various fat levels to achieve the ratio that they desire—a process called blending. The way that each sausage is blended directly affects its texture. Too much lean protein and not enough fat makes for chewy sausage, Sebranek explained.

Conversely, our least favorite product seemed so fatty that one taster dubbed it a “grease bomb.” A peek at the nutrition label verified that this sausage had the most fat (23 grams) per 2-ounce serving. Our winner isn’t lean by any means, with 19 grams of fat in 2 ounces; obviously, we like sausages that have some sizzle. But its fat ratio made for a tender bite without the grease puddle.

Traditional breakfast sausage seasonings are salt, black pepper, and sage; manufacturers then add their own blend of spices, which labeling laws do not require them to reveal. Tasters panned one “all natural” sample for being under-salted (the label confirmed that it had the least sodium per serving), while another product by the same manufacturer was “overwhelmingly” salty (it had the most sodium). Our winning sausage ranked second for saltiness. Our top four sausages all added a sweetener. Two products added no sweetener (one was faulted for its lack of seasoning). Sausages with evident black pepper flavor were also praised. Overall, tasters preferred a harmonious blend of salty, sweet, and spicy.

Tasters also liked the winner’s “meaty” flavor. This could be from the pork itself, but it certainly got a helping hand from monosodium glutamate (MSG), the seventh ingredient on its nutrition label. (Glutamates increase people’s perception of savory flavor.) One other product we tasted added MSG, but that sausage was tough and stringy so tasters barely noticed its enhanced flavor.

In the end, the two precooked patties ranked highest, followed by the raw, preformed patties. All four tubes of breakfast sausage sat at the bottom of our ranking. Precooked patties have an advantage: Cooked in ovens to a carefully calibrated level of browning and flavor development, they are immediately frozen to minimize flavor changes. Exposure to oxygen makes fatty foods like sausage taste stale and pick up off-flavors, so manufacturers add antioxidants and vacuum-seal the packages, forcing out all air, to prevent flavor loss. It’s more difficult for makers of “all natural” sausages to maintain freshness because they can’t add the same antioxidants—which often leads to flavor loss.

We crunched numbers, and finally picked a favorite: (note that no sausages in our tasting achieved “highly recommended” status). This particular sausage was meaty with “tender yet substantial texture,” tasters said. It was fatty but didn’t go overboard, and it had an appealing blend of salt, sugar, and spices.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.