A Match Made in Heaven
Some culinary mashups are legendary. Chocolate and peanut butter. Korean BBQ in a taco shell. The lime in the coconut.
And then there's sausage with cheese. The origins of its amalgamation are lost. But today's artisan sausage makers are using cheese to flavor everything from gastropub charcuterie plates to high-end cheddar dogs inhaled during the Super Bowl. And their timing is perfect. Artisan sausage hit the San Francisco-based Center for Culinary Development's 2011 trend map by turning up on fine-dining menus. The American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) spotlighted "inclusions"—especially cheese—in a 2012 preconvention "focus on flavor" session. "Normal sausage is not doing it anymore," says AAMP executive director Jay Wenther. "People want something more."
Forward-thinking Will Branch satisfies demand by looking back; his Detroit-based Corridor Sausage produces a Bacon and Beer Brat with one-hundred-day-aged imported Swiss cheese, beef, pork, mustard, mace, and Bell's Amber Ale. "There are recipes and lots of stories of regional partnerships from Alsace and northern France that were in the tradition of the local cheesemonger being next to the charcutier and using what was left over," Branch says. "As mass production took over, you started to see fewer regional and ethnic sausages, but people are finding the old recipes again." Chris Mattera, sausage maker and co-owner at Sausage Craft in Richmond, Virginia, for example, "begged" the Austrian family he was traveling with for their family recipes. Their sausage—of beef, pork, bacon, and Gruyère—became Sausage Craft's top-selling Hot Amerikrainer, made of beef, pork, sharp cheddar (usually two year- old Black Diamond or Cabot cheddar), and pickled cherry peppers.
Hitting the Links
"The reason we add cheese to sausage is that it adds flavor, creaminess, and juiciness," says Doug Sohn, chef/owner of Hot Doug's in Chicago.
Achieving that result, says chef Brian Polcyn, co-author (with Michael Ruhlman) of the newly released Salumi: The Art of Italian Dry Curing and Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing requires both culinary art and science. "There are two considerations when adding cheese to sausage: flavor profile and composition," Polcyn explains. "In dry sausage, cheese adds moisture, so you have to be careful about the formula. When you finish the product, does it all melt away? As cooks we think about how something tastes, and then we have to make sure it works."
That entails hitting the mark between melting point and doneness. "Cooking sausage is as delicate a process as for a fine piece of meat," Polcyn says. "If the temperature is too high, you break the casing and all the juices run out. The melting temperature of cheese is around 137°F, and we cook proteins to 145°F or 150°F, so if the cheese is too soft, it will run out, too."
Polcyn turns that factor to an advantage with his delectable chicken sausage with roasted poblano peppers, garlic, and queso fresco. The salty queso fresco, which bastes the meat, doesn't completely dissolve, adding textural interest.
"A higher-temperature cheese like aged cheddar," Wenther adds, "holds up to about 160°F and doesn't break down, so it looks perfect in a summer sausage. When you hit the cheese, you get the full flavor. You usually see lower-temperature cheese like mozzarella or pepper Jack in smoked sausage or rolled fresh product."
Finesse is required to achieve ideal layers of flavor and satisfying mouth-feel. "For the Amerikrainer," says Sausage Craft co-owner Brad Hemp, "we grind the cheese in with the meat. A portion of it will be put in a processor for fine grind and another portion for coarse grind to achieve variable texture. So you get some bites with no cheese and some with discreet little pockets of cheese. You can vary a lot of effects of any flavor—cheese in particular—by putting it in different parts of the grind."
However it's done, expect to see more of this savory double play. "I think it's a novelty thing," says Spencer Adams, head butcher at Laurelhurst Market in Portland, Oregon. "People say, 'Yum! There's a cheese in the sausage!'"Written by Robin Watson Photography by Andrea Duarte