Quite some time ago one of the kids asked me how I managed to cook fresh sausages so they were not tough or dry. We are talking about bratwurst or various other link sausage bought in a raw, uncooked state, not talking about bulk sausage.
And, actually, it is kind of tricky to get them to come out juicy and tender, yet carmelized and cooked completely through.
The basic trick is: brown first, then cook slowly until done.
Browning is the process of carmelizing sugars which are present in most of the foods we eat. Done in moderation it improves flavours. Immoderately and things taste burnt, which they are.
Braising is the method I use to slow down the cooking process once the outside is singed just enough. Put simply, braising is cooking with moist heat, usually on a hob/stove top. The surface temperature of a frying pan can be very hot, and you can detect how hot by knowing the ‘smoke point’[W] of the oil you are using – about 160°C/320°F for good olive oil, closer to 200°C/400°F for canola oil, etc. In contrast, water brings the temperature down to 100°C/212°F, the point at which it boils.
In addition to slowing things down, the liquid you use for braising can profoundly modify the flavour, or coat the finished sausage with an extra zing of taste. Beer is traditional with many sausages – it cooks down to a sticky sweet-salt which picks up the flavours of the sausage. Vinegars, wines, fruit juices, stocks, tea… if you can think of cooking with it, try it sometime for braising food.
Although it slows the rate at which the heat penetrates the food item, a covered braising dish turns the pan into a form of oven, and the heat is entering from both top and bottom, so in some respects the food will cook faster, as well as more evenly. But, like all things cooking, practice helps you gain a better sense of what is happening, how fast, when to move on to the next step and when to delay.
With all the items handy – sausages, fry pan, and a glass/cup/something of liquid – begin by heating the frying pan over medium to medium-high heat. If the pan is non-stick you should not require any oil, but a quick spray of cooking oil probably won’t hurt (and obviously a wee bit of oil for a normal pan.)
- Brown the sausage. Try to avoid cooking until the skin splits – the skin keeps moisture in and the sausages juicy.
- Once browned, add liquid to the pan. How much depends more on the size of your pan than the amount of food you are cooking; I use about a 1/4 cup in my small skillet, and more like 3/4 cup in my big fry pan.
- Immediately slap the cover on, if possible, to maximize cooking from top. Adjust the heat down to a steady, strong simmer.
- For brat-sized sausages, it usually takes about 8-12 minutes to cook through. The middle should still be slightly pink, but the fat should be melted at the center – no visible chunks of white fat, at most it should be rather translucent. Like chicken, the juices should run clear when you poke a fork into it.
- Take the cover off and continue to cook at a strong simmer until the liquid is reduced according to need. For beer, that’s just until things are semi-thick and sticky; cooked too long it goes black/burnt in a hurry. You do not need to reduce it at all if it isn’t part of a flavour scheme, but be aware that cooking it down to dry will make for more trouble at cleanup. Serve immediately!