Our Summer Sausage 101

You know those seasonal holiday gift baskets that you get or hand out for people you need to get a gift for but don't really know? The ones with cheese, crackers, maybe a nice bottle of wine and, of course, some kind of charcuterie? Chances are, you didn't give that charcuterie a second thought, but you should. It's summer sausage and it's definitely worth your time, attention and a purchase sans gift basket.

Summer sausage is, simply put, a type of preserved meat. Like other types of sausage, it's made from animals slaughtered in the cold meats and cured to prevent spoilage. But why is it called summer sausage?

What is summer sausage?

The practice of sausage making has been around a long, long time. The word sausage comes from the Latin salsus, which means "preserved in salt" or, in modern terminology, cured. In Europe during the Middle Ages, salt was used to keep meat from spoiling. Over the years, different ways of curing meat were developed, including smoking and drying meat.

Flash forward centuries, where settlers moving to the new United States brought their techniques for food preservation with them, including the triple technique of using salt, smoke and lactic acid fermentation to make a sausage that, when made in the cold late fall months, lasted well into summer.

Summer sausage is a semi-dry sausage, made typically of a combination of beef and pork. Semi-dry means that the shelf life of summer sausage isn't quite as long as dry sausage like pepperoni and salami, though if it's made correctly, it will stay shelf-stable for several months (which is why it always ends up in those holiday gift baskets). You always want to check the package instructions on your summer sausage; while it can handle no chill for a certain length of time, it will last longer in the refrigerator.

Original summer sausage was seasoned mostly with salt and black pepper. Today's flavoring tends toward mustard seed, black pepper and garlic, and because it is relatively easy to make on your own, you can get a little adventurous with your spices if you like.

If you want to try your hand at being a sausage maker, Taste of Artisan has a great step by step how-to. It walks you through what kind of curing salt and fermentation cultures you need, along with the stuffing and smoking procedures.

If you have an unopened gift basket with summer sausage in it, count yourself lucky. Here are five ways to use this delightful treat.

What to make

1. Cheese and charcuterie tray

We admit this appetizer is the easy way out. Summer sausage is a perfect addition to any cheese and charcuterie tray. Pair it with sharp or smoked cheddar cheese, a nutty Swiss or a buttery Muenster crisp. You can drink any kind of wine or beer with summer sausage, but the best beverage is a good German-style lager or pilsner.

2. Summer Sausage Farfalle

Normally, I wouldn't describe a dish using sausage as pretty. But this Summer Sausage Farfalle is simply put, pretty. It's also creamy and light, a warm-weather comfort food.

Get the recipe here

3. Summer Sausage Pizza

This recipe is so easy it's hard to call it a recipe. Simply slice the sausage, fry and add on top of your favorite pizza instead of pepperoni. You might think twice about going back to regular old pepperoni.

Get the recipe here.

4. Dilly New Potato Salad with Summer Sausage

Whole grain mustard, dill and summer sausage make this potato salad amazing. You'll be the hit of your backyard BBQ.

Get the recipe here.

5. Grilled Summer Sausage Sliders with Fennel Slaw

Everybody loves sliders. They're perfect for snacking or parties and they're super easy to make. This recipe adds a fennel slaw, which sounds far more complicated to make than it actually is, that will impress everyone around your table.

Get the recipe here.

Where to buy

If you weren't lucky enough to have been given a summer sausage gift basket, but are now so ready to try it, we've got you covered. Several national brands sell summer sausage, which you can find in many grocery stores, but you can also order interesting varieties online. Here are five of our favorite summer sausage makers and where you can find their products.

1. Hempler's

Hempler's is a family-owned company based in Ferndale, Washington. They've been making sausage in the Pacific Northwest since 1934, but family roots go back to Borken, Germany, where they started making sausage in the early 1800s. Find Hempler's here.

2. Hickory Farms

Hickory Farms sells beef sausage and turkey sausage, but they also have mini beef sausage snacks. They're delightfully cute and perfect for making pigs-in-a-blanket or for dipping in cheese. Find Hickory Farms here.

3. Wisconsin River Meats

Venison. Garlic. Cheddar. Jalapeno cheddar. Cranberry. Get a sampler to try them all. Just remember, it's nice to share your kitchen's bounty with your family and friends. Find Wisconsin River Meats here.

4. Johnsonville

One of the best-known national brands, Johnsonville makes an excellent summer sausage. Johnsonville is a tiny, unincorporated village in Wisconsin, on the edge of Sheboygan Falls and these sausage makers love what they do. According to a video from the company, the only day when it's not good to make summer sausage is "when the Packers are playing." You can find their different varieties of summer sausage in grocery stores across the country, just in time for the big football game coming up. Find Johnsonville here.

5. Klement's 

Another Wisconsin sausage maker, Klement's makes authentic, handcrafted European sausage. They have a good selection, including pre-sliced and 2-pound logs. They also have "fit lifestyle" variety, which has less than half the fat of the regular summer sausage, is gluten free and contains no MSG. Find Klement's here.

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