Smokin’ Sausage Showdown
Six sausage-makers get graded
The bywords of barbeque are slow and low—go any faster, and you’re grilling. My preferred barbeque method is smoking, the most leisurely form of the art. I use a “hot smoking” process, which can take up to 12 hours. (“Cold smoking,” a method that involves very little or no heat, can take a couple of days, and the meat must be brined or salt-cured beforehand.)
I barbeque in the backyard year-round (in winter, just use more coals). I smoke ribs, Boston butts, briskets, chicken, and fish, but some grill space is almost always reserved for sausage—without it, my guests are disappointed.
Sausages from six Portland-area purveyors vied for top honors in the Smokin’ Sausage Showdown, judged by Bollard staff and myself. The field was evenly split between competitors from small shops and big supermarkets, and all were smoked for the same amount of time (about five hours).
In the former category were sausages from Pat’s Meat Market, on Stevens Avenue; Fresh Approach, on Brackett Street, in the West End; and Colucci’s Hilltop Superette, on Congress Street, atop Munjoy Hill. The chains were represented by the Big Two—Shaw’s (Mill Creek) and Hannaford (Forest Avenue) —and the spunky upstart, Whole Foods Market, in Bayside.
Before we get to the action, a few tips and details about the competition.
I prefer to smoke with dry apple wood, but you may find that a different type or a combination of woods best suits your taste. Most any variety of hardwood, fruit-wood or nut-wood will work—no pine.
Good apple wood can be procured by a variety of methods. I’ve found abandoned orchards right here in Portland, and have occasionally wandered the last undeveloped pockets of the Forest City looking for dead limbs.
Place chunks of wood on 15-to-20 ashed-over coals pushed to one side of a standard Weber kettle grill. The bottom vents should be open, and the lid kept on, the entire time. The top vents control the amount of heat and smoke—open for more, closed for less.
Make sure your wood doesn’t catch fire. You’ll see a lot less smoke when this happens. To control this, close the vent and wait until you see smoke pouring out around the lid’s edge. Re-open the top vents slowly to prevent another flare-up.
Sausages take between three and six hours by this method. When finished, they have a deep amber hue. The skin should snap and there should be juice.
Sausages competed in three classes: Sweet Italian, Hot Italian, and Wild Card. The Wild Card was for specialty sausages, where available. (Colucci’s just had sweets and hots, which are sold packaged and frozen. The only other variety in Shaw’s meat section the day we visited was the store’s high-end “Signature” brand of sweets, which were reduced for quick sale. We quickly discovered why.)
Pat’s: This sausage had character—a unique, home-style flavor. Good juice, nice bite, slightly grainy consistency. Grade: A
Colucci’s: A chunky, meaty, Old World-style sausage, with large pockets of fat that produce little bursts of flavor. Not as juicy as Pat’s, but the red-pepper-fueled heat, not obvious at first bite, outlasted the rest. Grade: A
Fresh Approach: A traditional hot Italian approach here. Grainy texture and decent heat. Grade: B
Hannaford: A good, juicy, supermarket-quality grilling sausage from the butcher’s case. Grade: B-
Shaw’s: Straight-ahead supermarket flavor (prepackaged), but with lots of juice and enough fat to smoke nicely. Grade: C-
Whole Foods: Wurst in Show. (And at $4.99/lb., the priciest sausage in the field.) The judges found it nearly impossible to choke down the first salty burst. Beer helped. Grade: F
Fresh Approach: This sausage was mild, sweet, filled with herbs, like an entire home-cooked Italian meal stuffed into a sausage casing. Medium juiciness. Grade: A+
Colucci’s: Peppery, good juiciness, with the same great, coarse texture of the hot Italian – Colucci’s sausages distinguished themselves from the pack by virtue of this texture. By comparison, Fresh Approach and Pat’s had a grainier, more even consistency, and the supermarket varieties were chunky. Grade: A
Whole Foods: This one was hammy in taste and texture, and juicy. It’d make a good breakfast sausage, but it’s not true Italian. Grade: B-
Pat’s: Very mild; almost too mild—not much character or juice. Grade: C+
Shaw’s: Standard, run-of-the-pork-mill fare, but juicy. Grade: C+
Hannaford: It’s true, they never stop surprising you: no sweet Italians in the butcher’s case on a sunny Friday afternoon. This sausage came prepackaged, and was overly salty. Grade: D
Fresh Approach: We selected a Cajun from among several tempting varieties in the butcher’s case. It was a nice, mild, andouille-style sausage. I could have smoked it another six hours to achieve a traditional andouille texture. Grade: A
Whole Foods: We found a blueberry sausage that was mild, with a nice sweetness, but no juice. Berries in every bite provided a unique flavor. Somehow, this sausage worked. Grade: A-
Hannaford: We were surprised again by this broccoli rabe sausage with hints of parmesan cheese that brought out the flavor without being overpowering. Grade: B
Pat’s: A cheese brat with good flavor, but a little too Velveeta-like for our taste. Don’t let this one cool too much before eating – greasiness ensues. Grade: B-
Shaw’s: The Shaw’s Signature sweet Italian tasted old. Enough said. Grade: F