Seasonings and spices help sausage processors meet continuously evolving consumer taste demands.
America's sausage industry is encased in controversy. Consumers dine on dinner sausage for breakfast, and they grill breakfast patties for dinner. And processors link fruits and veggies to sausage. And precooked sausages are smoking!
Regardless of the product type, seasonings and spices play key roles in producing a wide range of sausages in today's marketplace. But the job of sausage processors as well as seasoning and spice suppliers is challenging since consumer flavor demands and preferences remain a moving target.
Bob Evans Farms, Columbus OH, is working on new flavor profiles to reflect changes in ethnic groups.
“The Hispanic population is growing rapidly,” says Earl Beery, senior vice president of operations.
Owens Country Sausage in Texas, a Bob Evans Farms company, distributes products throughout the Southwest where people prefer a hotter, spicier profile.
“We give consumers a variety of offerings; links, roll sausage and patties,” he says. “We’ve introduced bacon-flavored sausage in tacos and burritos, spicier than what you expect from Bob Evans. We learn from our restaurants; if something’s popular, we may move it to the retail arena,” Beery explains. Bob Evans Farms recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Exciting flavors are 'in'
Long Island City, NY-based First Spice Mixing Co. Inc., a 60-year-old-plus seasoning and ingredient manufacturer, observes changes in preferences for sausages. “We see a growing interest in our andouille, chorizo, and chicken sausage seasonings,” says Marcy Epstein, M.P.H., C.N.S., C.D.-N, the company's director of research and product development. “What once were considered breakfast mainstays now are grilled for innovative dinner flavors like lemony bratwurst, hot and spicy chorizo, smoky kielbasa, and mild Russian sausages."
She adds that old-world ethnic sausages, including hot and mild Italian, Polish kielbasa, German bratwurst, and Russian and Ukrainian styles, remain popular. First Spice Mixing Co. has additional manufacturing plants in San Francisco and Toronto.
Looking to the future, Epstein suggests tailoring calories by reducing serving sizes, using leaner cuts of meat, introducing healthier types of fat (like conjugated linoleic acid), minimizing sodium levels, and using eye-appealing flavors. In addition, lower sodium levels may affect the shelf-life of the sausage. To compensate for this, she recommends adding a pathogen inhibitor like their new product Meatol and Meatol-P for meat emulsions, which inhibit pathogen and Listeria growth.
“Sausage by definition is ground meat mixed with fat, salt, seasonings, and spices,” says Marcel Winia, associate food technologist for WILD Flavors Inc., Erlanger, KY, which produces flavoring for the food and beverage industry. “Without the addition of flavorings, you could not make sausage. The latest trend with dinner or gourmet sausages is to eat them at breakfast as an alternative to regular pork sausage patties and links.”
Chicken and apple, along with jalapeño and cheese, are two innovative sausages. Smoked andouille, chorizo-style, and brats containing chilies and cheeses are also widely available.
“Sausage is marketed from a particular area, i.e,. Cajun andouille, Chicago-style hot dog, or Spanish chorizo,” Winia says. WILD Flavors offers all of these profiles.
Convenience drives the trend toward precooked sausage, he adds. However, flavor challenges can occur with reheating precooked meats, which relates to oxidative rancidity often referred to as “warmed-over” flavor.
“The cooking process accelerates the oxidation of the fats resulting in a lower-quality, finished product,” says Winia. “WILD’s proprietary Resolver‚ technology suppresses these off-flavors and helps deliver a better-tasting finished product.”
Although seasonings are a small cost in sausage making, they make the greatest impact on the end product, relays Sandra K. Purvis, executive vice president of 83-year-old A.C. Legg Inc., Calera, AL. Legg is the manufacturer of blended seasonings for the meat and food industry. She sees natural and ethnic seasonings as the most innovative flavor profiles in breakfast and dinner sausages, as well as intensified flavors and greater use of herbs and vegetables. Preference for breakfast sausage varies by region while dinner flavors are both regional and national phenomena, Purvis says.
“The industry is both marketing- and consumer-driven,” she adds. “The consumer is most interested in convenience, with no sacrifice in quality or healthfulness.”
Traditional breakfast sausage is the most popular sausage product, insiders say. But dinner sausage offers opportunity for a wider variety of flavor profiles.
“Dinner sausages are most identified with smoked sausage,” says Bruce Armstrong, research and development manager of meat and poultry for Kerry Ingredients, Waukesha, WI., which custom blends seasonings and dry mixes. “The flavors follow regional preferences. Low-fat poultry specialty sausages with sun-dried tomatoes, citrus fruits, and specialty mushrooms are unusually innovative,” he states.
Most breakfast sausages are based on a black pepper and sage flavor, Armstrong relays.
“The Northeast has little or no sage in breakfast sausage," he adds. "The Southeast enjoys a higher sage flavor and the addition of red pepper. It is quite a shock for someone from Boston to eat spicy breakfast sausage in Alabama. Texas red-hot sausage is just that: the uninitiated are warned to take small bites and to have a cool drink handy."
Processors depend on seasoning manufacturers to develop flavors, Armstrong says. But larger seasoning companies must be aware of a wider range of flavors for regional preferences. He discloses that most new flavors for retail sausage come from chefs at trendy, upscale restaurants.
“Once consumers have sampled these flavors, they are ready to have them at home,” he observes.
Poultry will lead the way in new sausage products, Armstrong predicts. “Poultry provides a low-fat base," he adds.
Armstrong also foresees great potential in sausage appetizers.
“Consumers look for healthy food items," he says. “We can take a lead from ethnic communities that purchase highly-seasoned meats and sausages such as chorizo, smoked hocks, and red-hot sausage, to add to rice or beans for low-fat tasty meals. If this style of cooking ever gains a celebrity champion, it will lead a new wave of home cooking.”
Advanced Food Systems Inc., Somerset, NJ manufacturers binding systems combined with flavor components. David Nance, vice president of business development for the company in Fort Worth, TX, says newer creations incorporate Mediterranean spices with fruit and meat combinations.
“Our systems bind the natural fat, the source of much of the flavor, to avoid the greasiness of many sausages,” Nance reports. “During pre-cooking, the fat-binding capability becomes more important since the manufacturer takes the yield loss if the fat cooks out. With raw sausage, the customer experiences the loss,” he explains.
Sausage manufacturers seeking an old-world or artisan look use natural spices, notes Bob Rust, president of Rust Associates Inc., Ames, IA. Rust is a sausage-processing expert and Professor Emeritus, Iowa State University.
“If that is not an issue, you might opt for the spice extractives — rather than ground pepper you add the oils,” he explains. “Soluble spices usually are not visible in a product. In some products, however, color is desired; pepperoni’s orange paprika characterizes the sausage. Spices are what differentiate products. Spice formulations are probably the only real trade secrets in sausage processing.”
Twenty years ago neither Cajun nor Tex-Mex flavors were common in sausage, Rust recalls. “Now we have fusions such as Southwestern blended with Asian flavors," he adds.
Whole spices be sterilized as untreated spices have microbial loads that can discolor the sausage, Rust says. With precooked sausage, the spices are volatile; flavors may change through the cooking process and during long-term storage. Precooking also affects aroma.
Rust suggests using very fresh spices when formulating a sausage product in the R&D lab. “Spices sitting on a shelf for ten months yield a different taste and aroma than fresh spices used in the final product,” he points out. The product’s use must be considered; a sausage patty to be crumbled into gravy for biscuits needs more seasoning than for patties eaten alone.
Everson Spice in Long Beach, CA, custom blends seasonings for sausage. President Ken Hopkins says his company offers Polish, bratwurst, apple cinnamon, Cajun, sweet bourbon, sun-dried tomato, along with other flavors.
“On the East Coast, we see chicken sausage, as well as traditional breakfast [sausage] and Italian seasonings,” he says. “In the Southwest, Hispanic flavors are popular. Further north we see bratwurst, Polish, potato, and traditional items. The use of sage is much more prevalent in the south.” Hopkins also indicates that wine-flavored sausages for dinner are gaining popularity.
Seasonings and spices add variety and adventure plus convenience, says Peggy Iler, seasoning development manager for Kalsec® Inc., an ingredient manufacturer in Kalamazoo, MI.
"When cutting fat and salt to make the sausage healthier or changing meat species, spices and seasonings are the tools to use," she declares. Iler further reports that mainstream dinner sausage may include smoked bratwurst, Polish, Italian, chorizo, or frankfurters in various meat species. Precooked gourmet flavor combos include sun-dried tomato and chipotle.
"Chorizo and andouille are becoming mainstream," she adds.
Iler says the challenge is maintaining fresh cooked taste at the end of shelf-life in both meat and seasoning by using natural spice extracts that contain antioxidants such as Herbalox Seasoning®.
Jerry Hall, chief executive officer of Excalibur Seasoning Inc. Pekin, IL, draws up all the formulas for seasoning, marinades, and binders for the complete line of fresh and smoked sausage items. “They call me ‘the mad scientist,’” he relays with a laugh. “We have about seventy-five standard pork-sausage seasonings and three-hundred to four-hundred private-label seasonings for fresh sausage.”
Excalibur handles many Polish sausage products because the company is located near Chicago, which has a high Polish population. “The Chicago area alone comprises about twenty-five percent of our business,” he states.
The company also provides products for the Hispanic population, which increases every year. “We also sell to different ethnic delis and sausage houses like Russian, Polish, and German,” he states. “We are looking at going kosher and also organic.”
Excalibur purchases spices from India — mostly in union with other companies. They buy spices already ground and treated for bacteria to the company’s specifications.
“We sell to Smithfield, John Morrel, Jones, and other whole-hog sausage companies, as well as smaller companies that make their own sausage,” he reports.
His minimum order of $75 is probably the lowest in the industry, he relays. “We started with small companies, and they put us where we are. We’re not about to abandon that segment of the industry,” he relates.
Hall says he works mostly with natural products and tries to avoid chemicals. He explains that spices are harvested in Indonesia and South America where bacteria control is poor.
Southwestern flavors use chili peppers, cumin and onion, Hall says.
“We’ve gone from carrying three kinds of chili peppers to six or seven; each has a little different flavor note,” he says. New England consumers seek spices not usually found in pork sausage like thyme.
Precooked sausage will grow; most are precooked anyway, Hall points out.
Some ingredients are expensive, but they do a good job. For dinner sausage, he adds a dried vegetable mix to make sausage more healthful and appetizing.
“Sometimes we go out and show processors how to make sausage. Thirty-five percent fat is not done any more. It’s more like ten to fifteen percent,” he notes. “We’re on the right track, making healthier sausages will help the industry grow.” NP
Ingredient suppliers featured in this report include:
A.C. Legg Inc., phone (800)-422-5344 or (205) 324-3451, fax (205) 324-5971, visit