Meat in tubed form has long been the bastard stepchild of chops and steaks. Originally an afterthought in the butchery world, they began as a catch-all for scraps. A way to sell something from nothing. Cheap versions of sausages and hot dogs are still basically made from the same things and for the same reasons.
But, now, there are also exists a brave new world of sausage. One where the butcher has used high quality meat, calculated a specific fat percentage, used well-sourced spices, and crafted something noble. These sausages deserve to be handled and cooked with care.
That means they shouldn’t be poked and pierced. They shouldn’t be tossed on a grill, forgotten, and left to dry out. They should be given the same love and attention you give to your bone-in ribeye.
The first step in cooking link properly is understanding what category of sausage of hot dog it falls into.
Hot dogs are filled with a finely ground meat mixture that has been emulsified. That is, the meat, fat, and water are all bound together. While this help keeps them moist, they can still become dry if you cook the hell out of them. Hot dogs are almost always in 1/5 lb links and are cooked before they are packaged. That means you are only reheating them, not technically cooking them. Keep that in mind.
Your goal when cooking hot dogs is to heat the dog through the center while browning the casing. You can achieve this on the stove or on the grill, but the key is moderate heat and a little patience.
Set up your grill for indirect cooking. That is, for a charcoal grill, group your coals together on one side of your grill. For a gas grill, turn on only some of your burners – about half. Start your dogs on the cooler part of the grill. Cover the grill and let them cook for 3-5 minutes. You’re basically just warming them up to take the chill off of them. Next, move them to the hotter part of the grill and leave the cover off. Every 30 seconds to 1 minute, rotate them using tongs. You want to get a little browning on the skin. Rotating them frequently will help you get an even layer of color. When you have some nice deep coloring on the casings, take them off the grill. They’re ready to eat.
To cook hot dogs on the stove, get a cast iron or frying pan warmed up over medium heat. Add a splash of a neutral oil (i.e. canola) to the pan and let it heat up for a minute or two. Put your dogs in and let them cook for 1-2 minutes. Give them a flip and assess the level of browning you got on the first side. If it’s very brown, turn the heat down a bit. If it has no color at all, turn the heat up a bit. Cook for 1-2 more minutes and flip again. Continue cooking this way until they are browned nicely on both sides.
Smoked sausages, like grocery store kielbasa, are cooked before they’re packaged. You can treat them the same way you would hot dogs, but because they are larger in diameter, they will take a few more minutes to warm up on the grill before you crisp the skin. The same thing applies for cooking them on the stovetop.
Generally, fresh sausages (bratwurst, Italian, merguez, etc.) are raw and come in ¼ lb links. The texture of the meat can be anywhere from very coarse to extremely fine. The better sausages have been lightly emulsified, which will help them retain moisture as they cook. Our goal when cooking fresh sausages is to get good browning on the casings while cooking the interior just until it’s up to proper temp. Getting these two things to happen at the same time, without piercing them, will give you the juiciest sausage possible.
Set your grill up for indirect grilling. Start your sausages on the cool side of the grill, cover it, and let them cook for about 5 minutes. Flip them over and take a look at them. Do some of the links look like they’re cooking faster than others? Then rearrange your sausages so the slower cooking ones take the place of the faster cooking ones, and vice versa. Cover your grill and cook for another 3 minutes.
Next, uncover your grill and use a thermometer to take the temp of one link – don’t go stabbing all of them. For pork or any sausage that doesn’t contain chicken, you’re looking for a temp of about 130-135 degrees. For any sausage with chicken, you want a temperature of about 150-155 degrees. If necessary, cover again and continue cooking until you hit the desired temperature.
Then, move your sausages over to the hotter side of your grill, just above your heat source. Use tongs to turn your sausages every minute or so. You’re trying to achieve even browning without over cooking the exterior. This should take about 2-5 minutes. If juices start flowing and you get flare-ups, move the sausages just off to the side of the fire. When good browning has been achieved, take the temperature of a link. You want an internal temp of about 165 degrees for chicken sausages, and 145 degrees for all other types of sausage. Transfer all of your links to a platter. Let them rest for at least 1-2 minutes before serving. If you’re going to serve them on buns, let them rest in the buns themselves. Any juices that run out of the sausages will be absorbed by the bun, which means it’ll end up in your mouth instead of on the plate.
STOVETOP + OVEN COOKING
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Put an ovenproof pan over medium heat on your stove and let it heat up for a few minutes (longer for cast iron pans). Put a bit of canola or other neutral oil in the pan and let that heat up for 1-2 minutes. Next, add your sausages and leave them untouched for about 3 minutes. Take a peak at the underside of one and assess the browning. If it’s already getting dark, turn your heat down and flip your links. If it’s light brown, keep cooking on that side for another 2 minutes or so. Then, gently flip all of your sausages over. You should have a nice golden or dark brown on the first side. Slide the pan into your preheated oven.
After about 8 minutes, remove the pan and take the temp of a link. For chicken sausages, you want an internal temperature of 160-165 degrees. For pork and all other sausage types, you want a temp of 140-145 degrees. If necessary, slide the pan back into the oven and continue cooking until those target temperature are hit. Rest for 1-2 minutes, in their buns if you’re serving them that way.