As far as meat toppings go, I used to be firmly in the pepperoni camp. Lately though, I’ve realized the beauty in a simple sausage slice. With the right sausage, it has all the elements of an unadorned cheese slice with bursts of extra flavor. While the vast majority of pizzeria operators buy their pepperoni, sausage is a topping that can really be a signature item. It is fairly simple to make, whether you want an extremely versatile sausage or one with a unique flavor for a specific pie. If you don’t want to make it in house, there are plenty of companies out there willing to do the work for you.
As I was creating my menu before my pizzeria opened, I knew that sausage was something I wanted to make myself. It sounds more daunting than it actually is. And once you get your recipe down, it takes very little time to make. The first thing you must decide is if you want to grind your own meat or buy it already ground. We’ve done both and I can honestly say that as long as you have good quality meat, in our case pork, both taste fantastic. If you are going to grind your own meat, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Know your cuts of meat. Shoulder cuts, also known as the butt, is ideal if you’re using pork, beef or lamb (it has a good blend of muscle and fat that is great for grinding).
- Cube up your meat and then keep it cold. Don’t let it sit out or it will be harder to grind.
- Decide which grinder plate you want to use, coarse or fine. You can also use a combination of the two.
- Don’t throw out all of the fat when cutting and trimming your pork butt. As you know, fat is flavor and is especially important in something like sausage. I aim for a lean-to-fat ratio of 70/30. That’s 70 percent meat to 30 percent fat. You can go higher or lower depending on your preference. If you’re using something other than pork that tends to be leaner, such as lamb, you might need to add in extra fat.
- Always, and I mean always, keep the grinder attachment in the freezer. This means, wash it, dry it and put it back in the freezer so it is ready to go and you don’t slow down production.
Next to the quality of the meat, your flavor profile is most important. Well maybe it’s top of the list because you don’t want to ruin a great piece of meat with terrible flavors.
At my shop, we do a pretty basic recipe for our house sausage consisting of Calabrian Chiles, honey and fennel. We use this sausage on all of our pizzas, from our Spicy Pig (sausage, pepperoni, roasted jalapeños and garlic) to our Italian Mamma (sausage, kale, sweet onions and Parmesan).
You can really do any flavor combination you want — just remember to keep it balanced. When choosing the spices and produce you’re going to use, it is important to think about how they will work with the type of meat you decide on.
Pork is the most common meat used for sausage. It has a very neutral flavor with a good fat content and stays juicy when it’s cooked. There are other good options, too, and since so many meat pizza toppings are pork based, it’s fun to change it up. Especially if you have a lot of customers who can’t or don’t eat pork, it’s nice to be able to offer them an alternative. With so many people asking for a meatless pizza these days, you can also make a vegan sausage option. Here are a few sausage combinations to get you started:
- Sausage: Lamb, rosemary, red wine and garlic on a pizza with thinly sliced potatoes, red onion, mozzarella and feta.
- Sausage: Beef, leeks and oregano on a pizza with spinach, paper-thin lemon slices (fresh or flash fried), mozzarella and ricotta.
- Sausage: pork, maple and sage on a pizza with delicata squash, rainbow chard and Piave cheese.Sausage: Chicken, jalapeños (or other chilies) and roasted red peppers on a pizza with bell peppers, sauce, mozzarella and roasted chilies.
- Sausage: Vegan ground meat, mushrooms, roasted garlic, thyme on a pizza with wild mushrooms and arugula.
Pre-cook or cook on pizza?
If you are using bulk sausage, I always choose raw. The only time I would pre-cook sausage is if it won’t cook fast enough on the pizza in the oven. This is for styles like Neapolitan, where the pie cooks in 90 seconds. Even if you pinch it paper thin, chances are it’s still going to be raw if it’s not at least partially cooked. Most other styles of pizza have a long enough bake time to allow for raw sausage. The main reason that I prefer raw sausage is that pinching it directly onto the pie makes it so that it stays juicy, fresh and the flavors meld with the rest of the pizza. It doesn’t get dried out, overly crumbly and rubbery.
How do you decide between link sausage and bulk sausage?
They look aesthetically different and taste different so it’s a personal choice. You should consider what texture, flavor and use you are looking for when deciding what to purchase or make. If you go with sausage links, you will need to pre-cook them and I would suggest pre-slicing them so you don’t hold up the makeline during service. One of the great things about link sausages is that they can be cross utilized as an entree or sandwich.
If you are buying your sausage, there are plenty of options for every style and form of sausage you want. You can purchase it in bulk or links, pre-cooked or raw. Most of the big companies have the basic types like sweet, mild or hot Italian and garlic. If you’re looking for something a little more special, I encourage you to check out local companies. A lot of them also offer unique flavors that reflect the region you’re in. For example, in Colorado, Boulder Sausage makes a fantastic Hatch Green Chile sausage. Another Colorado company, Frontiere Natural Meats, makes a Bison sausage.
Being a top five pizza topping, sausage is an important part of any pizzeria menu. Whether you decide to make it yourself or buy it from one of your purveyors, there are plenty of options to choose from. Here is a sausage recipe to get you started.
Spicy Sausage Pie
Get the Spicy Sausage Pie Recipe.
Audrey Kelly owns Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, Colorado.