There’s a lot of debate about how to cook the perfect sausage. There are those who favour a fast fry, those who like to do it long and slow in a cast iron pan, some who like to blister it on a barbecue* and others, in the far corner of the foodie room, who choose to do it under the grill or in an oven. Each method has its pros and cons in the great battle of the banger – how to get a beautifully crisp outside with a succulent and juicy inside.
The term ‘bangers’, incidentally, is commonly thought to have its origins in Britain during WW2, a time at which rationing meant supplies of meat were so scarce and expensive that sausages had an extraordinarily high proportion of ‘filler’ in the form of rusk or – some have claimed – sawdust. As renowned chef Heston Blumenthal discovered in his ‘In Search of Perfection’ series, a little rusk or breadcrumb in a sausage is really quite essential to both the texture and flavour of a good sausage, however at the proportions applied during the war, the filler would absorb moisture and expand as the sausage cooked, causing the sausages to explode with an audible ‘bang’. There are those who question this origin story for the word (although I’ve yet to hear a counter-explanation), but there is no doubting that a sausage that is made with inferior products, or which is cooked too fiercely, will indeed explode with a distinctive ‘bang’ – and a painful explosion of boiling fat. (Incidentally, I recently stumbled across an American website which claims that ‘bangers’ are a specific style of sausage in the UK, sold at Renaissance fairs and English and Irish pubs. Close guys, but no cigar – sorry!)
So for the perfect sausage – step one: find a decent sausage. I’m no food snob, you don’t have to go to a rare breed pork farmer and get something made exclusively from pigs raised on black truffles and champagne (although that would probably be amazing), but do make sure you get something with a decent meat content and not too much faff in the way of seasoning. A lot of rubbish goes into sausages these days (blue cheese and curry spices are two I’ve seen lately), and they really are unnecessary. Look for at least 85% pork if you’re getting something with some flavouring, 95% for a plain one (the remaining 5-15% percent is filler and seasoning, and possibly some preservative if you’re buying a supermarket sausage).
Step 2: method. I’m a hard and fast cooker when it comes to sausages. I know a lot of people swear by their ancient cast iron pans, or heat diffusers, or both, to deliver a perfect sausage but I just don’t buy it. I don’t want to be standing in the kitchen turning a slowly cooking sausage periodically for 40 minutes, and although supporters of this method include the great food writer Matthew Fort, who spoke about the subject at length on one of Nigel Slater’s programmes, I certainly don’t believe the cast iron-diffuser combo allows me to walk away and leave the sausage whilst I potter about elsewhere. How on earth is it going to get brown all over?
Cook your sausages in plenty of oil, in a pan with a decently heavy bottom, and give them 20 minutes at a medium-high heat. If your pink digits are thicker than mine they may need a smidge longer, in which case you can cover them and cook on a low heat for a little longer after they’ve browned all over. If you’re cooking for guests, always allow one sausage extra to be the sacrificial virgin – cut into it to check your sausage is done through, as nothing upsets a friend more than a wee bout of gastroenteritis the day after a dinner party.
And the real trick? The right utensils. Just as a sausage should never be pricked (you’d be leaching moisture from the start – the thing we most want to keep in), you should never use a fork, or other sharp utensil to turn your sausages. Sausage casings are extremely delicate, and they can’t take rough treatment. Even your regular tongs are too harsh (they do have thin metal edges after all) – invest in a pair of silicone-topped tongs like these. You need never burst a banger again.
*Oh, and for those wishing to take advantage of possibly the last barbeque weekend of the year – poach your sausages first. A gentle simmer in hot water for around 30 minutes will cook your sausages through, then you can slather them in your marinade of choice and finish over hot coals without fear of suffering from an unhappy BBQ tummy the next day.↑