Grilling Sausages: To Prick or Not to Prick?

It’s the question that makes some giggle, and keeps others awake at night. The answer, as it turns out, has a twist to it.

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Frederique Wacquier /Depositphotos

If there’s a grilling question out there that can make you giggle like a kid that doesn’t involve igniting gas, it’s got to be whether your sausages should be pricked before grilling… right?

Okay, did you get the giggles out of the way?

Because although you may laugh now, this is actually a good question. In fact, it’s not only a good question but an important one to ask.

Whether you should prick your sausage before grilling isn’t the only question that needs asking, though. Along with that question should be:

  • How should you grill your sausages?
  • Should your sausages be heated directly or indirectly?
  • Why does gentle heat make your sausages more delicious and flavorful, pricked or not?

Again, all good—and important—questions. And the answers may vary from one grill enthusiast to another. After all, one sausage is not exactly like another.

But before delving into the importance of heat and the flavor of sausages, we must first start with the original question: to prick or not to prick? So let’s grab a hold of this topic and get some answers.

Food Safety First

Before getting to whether you should prick or not prick your sausages for grilling, or the difference between direct and indirect heat, we first need to get the necessary disclaimer out of the way.

A disclaimer that reminds you that, although you don’t want to ruin your sausages by over-cooking and mummifying them, you want to avoid under-cooking them, too.

What does that mean?

Well, per the USDA, if you’re cooking sausages that contain beef, pork, or lamb, you want to aim for an internal temperature of 160°F. If they have chicken or game birds in them, it’s 165°F.

The main thing to remember is that you’re looking for a completely done sausage. Don’t worry about medium anything. It’s not worth the risk of parasites or food poisoning.

(Besides, they’ve got enough fat in them to keep ’em moist.)

And if you want to know how true sausages are classified, they should have a fat content between 30% and 50% fat, depending on the meat. That’s a good amount of fat, which leads us to…

Fear of Fat Loss (FoFL)

It’s a good acronym, isn’t it?

We just made it up. But the fact that we made it up doesn’t negate the seriousness of what it stands for.

When it comes to why you shouldn’t prick your sausages before grilling, the most common answer is because you don’t want to suffer a catastrophic fat loss due to said pricking and end up with a dry sausage as an end product.

Yes, that’s right, this is a case where fat loss is, indeed, feared by many.

Why do so many fear fat loss in the case of sausages?

Well, it’s pretty much the same reason grill enthusiasts fear the loss of too much fat when it comes to any meat they’re cooking.  Fat loss means the rest of the meat will cook quicker and result in a dryer, tougher final product.

If you think about it for a few seconds, it makes sense. It also makes sense why a lot of cooks avoid pricking. If you avoid pricking, the fat should remain locked in during the length of the cook without any need to sear, ensuring the sausages remain juicy, flavorful, and far from dry.

And before you ask about searing, remember, sausages have casings, which leads to the next concern.

Bursting Links

Of course, the flip side to not pricking and losing the internal fat content of your sausages is to have a sausage’s skin burst halfway through a grilling session and lose fat at a far more rapid pace as a result.

To avoid this, pricking advocates believe piercing the skin of the sausage ahead of time ensures an orderly loss of fat and juices but not at a rate where that loss will lead to the catastrophic mummification of the meat.

There is also some belief out there that avoiding a bursting sausage will also help avoid accidents, like a sizzling slingshot of sausage fat to the eye.

Yes, this may be prevented, but the chances of this happening are pretty slim, and—even pricked—a sausage being cooked too fast over high heat can still spray some juices in various directions.

But hot sausage splatter isn’t the only physical safety concern. 

There’s also the fear of…

Lava Mouth

If your main concern is biting into a sausage and having the inside juices melt the inside of your mouth like hot lava, you’re grilling all wrong.

How so?

Well, for the inside of the sausage you bite into to burn your mouth to that degree, you’d pretty much have to chomp as soon as you took it off your grill or let it rest for about 30 seconds.

And, even if you did prick your sausages, if you don’t let them rest, the potential for burning your mouth is always at a high probability level.

The Happy Answer, In the Form of Indirect Heat

So what’s the right answer to whether you should prick your sausages before grilling?

Well, the answer is, no, you shouldn’t. Along with that, though, is also the recommendation to use lower heat, say 350°F (180°C), and cook the sausages indirectly.

Educational Note: As a quick reminder, indirect heat is when you cook your meat away from the heat source versus right over it, which is the direct heat method.

Grilling your sausages with indirect heat accomplishes several things all at once:

  • You avoid pricking the sausage, thus minimizing fat loss, along with all the savory flavor it promises.
  • You avoid cooking the sausage too fast, which allows that same fat inside more time to render and melt internally and not leak out all over the place.
  • You don’t incinerate the sausages like you can with high heat. 
  • You don’t under or overcook the meat.
  • And nobody, hopefully, loses any eyes or tongues.

Basically, you get the sausages the way you want them; fat, flavors, and all.

In Summary

So, what’s the big takeaway from all of this?

Well, to really boil it down to its simplest form, pricking your sausages before grilling is far from the best business practice. It encourages the loss of fat and juice faster and in greater amounts than you would lose through the normal process of cooking on its own.

Rather than pricking your sausages, the best strategy is to utilize lower, indirect heat that won’t cause your sausages’ skin to burst or lead to burning or charring.

At the same time, the flavorful fat and juices will be locked in and enjoyed well after grilling is complete, rather than see the same savory fat and juices spilled out onto your coals or flavorizer bars.

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