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You know the saying “you don’t want to know how the sausage is made?” Well, if you’re interested in making your own sausages, then the exact opposite is true. Making your own sausages can be enjoyable and gratifying, and choosing which ingredients to use is an important first step. It may surprise you to find that one of the most crucial ingredients to consider when making sausages is the casing. But what is sausage casing, and why is it so important?
What Is Sausage Casing?
Whereas the filler is the blend of meat and spices inside, the sausage casing, or sausage skin, is the casing that holds the inner filling of a sausage.
Many people believe that the key to a good sausage is the casing, and there are a wide variety of options on the market today. These can be broken down into three primary categories: natural sausage casings, artificial sausage casings, and vegetarian sausage casings.
Natural casings are made from animal skins or intestines and come in a myriad of options. Although artificial casings can also be made from animal products, they are processed differently and come in both edible and inedible varieties. Finally, vegetarian options have hit the market at a time when interest in plant-based diets is increasing every day.
Let’s explore the different types of casings available, their traditional uses, and their pros and cons.
A Brief History of the Sausage
For centuries, the most common sausage casings have come from the intestines of animals. The earliest known example of humans eating animal intestines stuffed with meat – in other words, a sausage – likely dates back nearly 4,000 years, when the stomach of a goat was used by the Sumerians to hold cooked meat.
There are countless types of sausages from almost every culture and culinary tradition. In addition to being delicious, sausages use pieces of the animal that would otherwise go to waste. They are often smoked or preserved with salt, which means that they can last a long time without spoiling. For these reasons and more, sausages are one of the most enduring culinary staples around the world.
Natural Sausage Casings
Today, most sausage makers use a layer of the small intestine called the submucosa as their preferred sausage casing. The submucosa consists of collagen and, when used for making sausage casings, it’s referred to as a natural sausage casing.
Natural casings are the most traditional type of sausage casings and are still among the most popular. They vary widely in length and size, and they’re more porous than artificial casings, which allows for a richer, more intense flavor when smoked.
Natural casings enhance the flavors of the filling without adding too much flavor of their own, and many people prefer their texture to other kinds of casings. Their flexibility makes them easy to stuff, but they’re also very durable, meaning they won’t fall apart during smoking or other stages of processing.
Most natural casings come from pigs, but sheep, cow, and even horse intestines can be used.
Let’s explore the pros and cons of a few popular natural casings.
Sheep intestines are naturally smaller than pigs or horses and thus are generally preferred for smaller sausages, such as breakfast sausages or hot dogs. They’re very tender, and an all-around delicious option for a sausage casing. Their small size also makes them a good option for beginner sausage makers.
Pig casings are the most common and, arguably, most popular option for natural casings.
They are traditionally used for making classic link sausages, such as Italian sausages and bratwursts, bologna, and smoked Polish sausages.
Beef casings come in three sizes, each one corresponding to different parts of the cow intestine: beef rounds, beef bung caps, and beef middles. Each can be used for different types of sausages:
- Beef rounds are low in fat and often used for blood sausages, a type of sausage made from animal blood and filler.
- Beef middles are slightly thicker and thus are generally preferred for salami and other dry sausages.
- Beef bung caps are made from the widest part of the cow’s intestine and are preferred for larger sausages such as bologna and capicola.
To prepare a natural casing, the submucosa has to be removed during slaughter, scraped, and flushed with water. While in the past this cleaning process needed to be carefully done by hand, today there are fortunately machines that do this. The cleaned, processed intestines are generally sold at butcher shops and in grocery stores, and a wide variety of gourmet options can also be bought online. Although instructions will vary, most natural casings will need to be soaked in cold water or brine before being filled.
Artificial Sausage Casings
These days, most commercially-produced sausages are made with artificial sausage casings. Artificial casings can be made from a wide variety of materials. They are generally stronger, less expensive, and more uniform than natural casings. They are also significantly longer than natural casings: collagen casings. For all of these reasons, artificial casings can be easier to work with, particularly for beginners.
Newer artificial casings can be made from cellulose, animal bones, fish, and even plastic, although these are not edible. Let’s take a look at a few of the different types of artificial sausage casings available on the market today.
Collagen is a natural substance found in the connective tissue of animals and is the same material found in the intestines used for natural sausage casings. However, artificial collagen casings are usually made from processed cow or pig hides. They’re a relatively new option – they’ve only been in use for the past sixty years – and are generally less expensive than natural casings.
They can be more ‘user-friendly’, because they are uniform in size and can be bought in packages and used without any extra processing or cleaning. All of these factors may make them preferable over natural casings for many people making homemade sausages.
They are also becoming the preferred option for commercial manufacturing because they can be standardized and produced for a much lower cost.
However, their texture is less ‘snappy’ than natural casings, which can come as a disappointment to anyone looking for a more traditional sausage. Further, different types of artificial casings will have different flavors, which may not work with every type of filling. It’s worth taking the time to do the research and see which type of casing will work best for your purposes.
Cellulose casings are made from viscose, a material made by soaking wood pulp or cottonseed fibers. They’re not edible and should be peeled off after the sausage has been cooked.
Cellulose casings are good for making hot dogs, chorizo, and smoked sausages. This is because they’re permeable, which allows the smoky flavors to fully sink in during the smoking process.
Created in the 1930s, fibrous sausage casings are inedible. They’re made from a mixture of viscose and filament paper and are excellent for larger sausages that need to be held together by firm casings. They are one of the strongest casing options and can allow for a uniform look that isn’t possible with natural casings. Just don’t eat them!
Plastic casings are, for obvious reasons, also inedible. They’re generally made from layered nylon and, like fibrous casings, offer durability and give your sausages a uniform look. They are particularly popular for commercial sausage production but can be used for making sausages at home, too.
Although there are some smokeable options on the market, most plastic casings are impermeable and thus generally not a good option for making smoked sausages.
Vegetarian Sausage Casings
Studies have shown that cutting meat and dairy products out of your life is the most impactful way to reduce your environmental impact. With many people concerned about their carbon footprint, it’s not surprising that the popularity of plant-based and vegan meat substitutes is skyrocketing.
Sausage is a classic meat-lovers favorite, and fortunately for vegetarians, there are now a variety of meatless and even vegan sausage casings on the market. In addition to being made from plant-based ingredients, they are a much healthier alternative to natural or artificial sausage casings.
All vegetarian casings are edible and – unlike many varieties of natural or artificial casings – they can be made halal and kosher-friendly. The primary ingredients are vegetable glycerin, sugar, and natural starches, and non-GMO options are available.
Vegetarian sausage casings can be homemade or purchased in specialty stores, although you’re unlikely to find them at your local butcher. Unlike natural casings, which are determined by the animal’s unique anatomy, vegetarian sausage casings can be made to any desired length or width. Instructions will vary based on the brand, but all vegetarian sausage casings can be stuffed with whatever filling you desire.
The Big Picture
If all of these options feel overwhelming, don’t worry! Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, making your own sausages should be a fun learning experience.
Natural sausage casings are made from the intestines of animals, usually sheep, pigs, and cows. These range in size, texture, and width according to the anatomy of the animal they came from. They’re the most traditional option for sausage making, with the technique dating back thousands of years. Some of the pros of natural casings include a superior ‘snap’ texture when bitten, and a porousness that allows for delicious flavor when making smoked sausages.
On the other hand, natural casings can be more difficult to work with, especially for beginners. They are not uniform in size or shape, and thus are often not preferred for commercial manufacturing, either.
There are a wide variety of artificial sausage casings. These include edible options, such as collagen and cellulose casings, and inedible, firmer options, such as plastic and fibrous casings. While the specificities of artificial casings vary based on their type, in general, they are more standardized in size and shape and are easier to work with for beginners.
On the negative side, they are less traditional than natural casings, and many say that they lack the signature, delicious texture of a natural sausage casing.
And speaking of nontraditional, the newest and perhaps most surprising option available on the market is vegetarian sausage casings. These are made from plant-based glycerin and sugars and can accommodate dietary restrictions including kosher and halal lifestyles.
Now that you know how the sausage gets made, it’s time to go out and find the best casing for your sausage-making needs.