A lot of people get frustrated when grilling sausage because they never seem to be able to make those picture-perfect links they see on cooking shows and websites.
For some reason, their sausage always seems to split and turn out burnt when they grill them.
If you’re one of those folks, believe us, you’re not alone. And we have good news for you! We’ve got the information you’re looking for to stop your sausages from splitting on the grill.
Read on, and we will tell you why it happens, give you tips to prevent it from happening ever again, and introduce you to a few tsausage cooking techniques grilling pros swear by.
Understanding Sausage Casings
Let’s take a quick look at the five types of sausage casings to understand our sausages a little better.
The Five Types of Sausage Casings
As we touched on earlier, there are five types of sausage casings. However, only three out of these five are edible. The five casings are natural, artificial made with collagen, artificial made with cellulose, vegetarian, and, you guessed it, plastic.
On Non-Edible Sausage Casings
You don’t really have to worry about these casings, but it’s good to know they exist and what they are used for.
Artificial (made with cellulose):
These non-edible casings are wholly synthetic. They’re sourced from plant fibers, like wood pulp and cotton. Think of the production process as turning wood into plastic.
Nine times out of ten, they’re used to make hot dogs, skinless sausage, wieners, as well as their cousins, frankfurters.
Their appearance is usually clear, but they can also be pre-smoked. The casing is removed after the sausage is cooked, well before the meat’s shipped to grocery stores. The sausage will maintain a uniform shape.
Obviously, these sausage casings are non-edible. They’re sourced from polymers, the most commonly used of which is nylon (polyamide).
You read that right. The same materials that goes on women’s thigh-high tights is also what’s used to make cooked sausages! The sausages that result from this process have a round, curved, or straight appearance.
On Edible Sausage Casings
These are going to be the three edible casings that you’ll have on your grill.
Edible, vegetarian sausage casings are sourced from plant-based materials, sugars, vegetable glycerin, and carbohydrates. They’re typically used to make vegetarian sausages.
They have an appearance much like meat sausages. They are usually sold in hot dog or link style and appear rough on the outside and a bit clumpy.
Artificial (made with collagen):
Edible, collagen sausage casings are sourced from processed animal skin, collagen, bones, hide, tendons, fish, and poultry.
They are used to make snack sticks, breakfast sausage, dry sausages, bratwurst, smoked sausage, and summer sausage.
Their appearance can be a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Heads-up: One variety is non-edible, the fibrous thicker casting used for summer sausages.
Natural sausage casings, as their name suggests, are edible. They are sourced by taking a layer from the small intestine of animals such as cows, pigs, lambs, sheep, horses, and goats.
They are used to making Italian sausage, bratwurst, pepperoni, breakfast sausage, wieners, meat sticks, and frankfurters.
Natural casings give the sausage a curved appearance.
Understanding Why Sausages Split on the Grill
Sausages are ground meat seasoned with spices and stuffed in casings. Most sausages are incredibly compact and are held together by one of the five types of casings we discussed above.
Normally, this casing holds up during grilling. However, there is a catch, and that catch is key to understanding why it is that sausages split on the grill:
As moisture turns to vapor and pressure builds, the sausage casing can burst or split as it can no longer contain what’s happening on the inside.
Since sausage contains a lot of water, the fluid will boil and expand the meat. The vapor produces too much pressure and causes the casing to split and rupture.
Plus, there’s a lot of mechanical movement going on. The fat and meat on the inside of the casing also change form and shape as the sausage heats up. The casing shrinks from heat. All this is happening while pressure builds up inside of the casing.
Sausages can also be overfilled inside their casings—a shortcoming many modern manufacturers are guilty of—not leaving a lot of room for expansion.
While these reasons are to be expected, the one element you can control is cooking temperature, which is the key to preventing sausages from splitting.
The mistake most people make is cooking sausages at extremely high temperatures. The sudden change in pressure will almost always split the casing.
As with anything you grill, it’s all about timing and temperature. Ideally, you want your sausages to be cooked slowly and evenly.
Preventing Sausages From Splitting on the Grill
The best way to prevent your sausages from splitting on the grill is by cooking them low and slow. Put them on a side with indirect heat and let them cook a bit longer. Make sure you also turn them a few minutes to even out the heat distribution.
You want to grill sausages until they reach an internal temperature of 160°F. It is also a good idea to start only once your sausages have reached room temperature as they will have a bit more water when taken directly from the fridge.
(Plus, you’ll speed up your cooking time.)
Cook your sausages for 15 to 20 minutes at a medium temperature between 160°F and 200°F. Then flip them and check their internal temperature. If they are already at 160°F or more, they are ready to come off the grill.
If you want to brown them a bit more, you can put them on direct heat for no more than 10 minutes, but frequently flip them over and keep the lid open.
Should You Ever Poke Holes in Sausage?
Some people have the idea that poking holes in their sausage will solve their splitting issues. The idea is that the holes will allow expanding vapors and fluids to escape the casing, thereby preventing splitting.
While this technique can work, the problem is that you break the casing yourself, which means if you grill at a high temperature there’s no guarantee the hole or holes will be sufficient to prevent splitting.
In fact, it might promote splitting.
There’s a good reason why you won’t find a sausage maker who puts holes in their sausage. They are supposed to hold all of their fat, meat, and fluid inside. That’s what gives sausage its flavor.
Poking holes also lead to uneven cooking, and as juices leak out, the meat begins to dry out.
However, some folks may argue that cooking drier sausage is healthier because you’re letting the fat drip out. But this logic is just a bunch of nonsense. Listen, sausage is not nor will likely ever be healthy food, and letting the fat drip out only ruins the flavor while providing negligible “benefits.”
Poaching is a technique in which you boil your sausages first in water or beer, then grill them. Here are a few steps on how to do it.
- Boil your sausages by letting them simmer in water or beer for 6-8 minutes.
- Take them out and dry them out really, really well.
- Toss them on your grill and cook using medium indirect heat.
- Remember to cook slow and low and flip them here and there.
Telling When the Sausages Are Done Without a Thermometer
If you don’t have a meat thermometer handy, then you’ll have no choice but to cut into your sausage on one side until you get to the center.
If your sausage is fully cooked, it should have a firm and clear center. If you see pinkness and the juices seem a bit too runny, that means your sausage still needs more time.
The key to grilling sausages without splitting them is to go low and slow using indirect heat. You can also speed the process up by poaching or pre-boiling.
While cooking this way may not be as fast as throwing them over red-hot coals for a couple of minutes, it reduces the chances of splitting and ensures you have plump, juicy, flavorful sausage.