Customers who ordered sausage for breakfast could expect standard pork links or patties spiced with a blend of sage, herbs, salt and pepper. That’s no longer always true. Companies such as Johnsonville, Jones, Hormel, Hatfield and Farmland have expanded their lines considerably. Breakfast sausage products now come in many protein choices (pork, beef, turkey, chicken and even vegetarian), formats (uncooked, fully cooked, fresh and frozen), shapes (links, patties, bulk rolls, slices and crumbles) sizes, flavor profiles, textures and casing styles.
“More than ever, chefs and operators are looking to create their own identity, so they’re seeking sausage products that allow them to offer something different,” says Philip Jones, president of Jones Dairy Farm, which offers more than 35 varieties. The 170-year-old family recipe for traditional, all-natural breakfast sausage uses pork, sage and black pepper, “but we are also open to working with customers to create a unique flavor profile, whether it’s sweet, extra sage, spicy, etc.,” Jones adds.
“Sausage is a ‘flavor bomb’ that can be manipulated with different spice blends and ingredients to deliver any flavor system,” notes Jim Murray, corporate chef and “sausage evangelist” at Johnsonville Sausage. “We’re seeing more breakfast flavors being incorporated, such as Vermont maple, as well as ingredients like blueberries and apples.” Although many operators prefer breakfast flavors for the breakfast menu, a number are ordering Johnsonville’s fully-cooked chorizo, hot ’n spicy and Italian slices or crumbles for frittatas, breakfast wraps and other items.
As far as format goes, patties and links are neck in neck in foodservice popularity, reports Jones, but he believes that patties are more versatile and lend themselves to more uses, including the ever-popular breakfast sandwich. Both links and patties are available in precooked and raw forms, with time-pressed operators frequently opting for the convenience of precooked. Links can be stuffed into casings or purchased skinless if precooked.
Breakfast links are available in weight ranges from .5 to 2 ounces, but Johnsonville’s R&D group is playing around with miniaturization. “The mini links can be split and grilled for breakfast sandwiches,” says Murray. “And we’re taking full-size links and enrobing them in crusts for grab-and-go breakfasts.” Patties are generally sized between 1 and 2 ounces, but there’s a trend to go larger for better plate and sandwich coverage. Jennie-O, a turkey sausage leader, recently introduced 2-ounce premium Anniversary Sausage Patties that are suitable for signature breakfast sandwiches as well as upscale breakfast plates.
Although artisanal sausages are often sold fresh, “you can capture fresh qualities very well in a frozen format,” contends Murray. When judging a sausage product for quality, he recommends using all your senses. First, look at the casing—is it natural collagen or cellulose (collagen is preferred); does it enhance or distract from the appearance of the sausage? Then grill the sausage and bite into it. Does it have a desirable “snap”? “Texture is very important to extract the maximum flavor from the cooked product,” says Murray. “And the sausage shouldn’t have an ‘off’ flavor from a particular kind of fat. If the meat quality is inferior, fat is the first taste you’ll get.”
Clean labeling is also key to quality sausage. “With a greater concern over food allergies, operators are very interested in sausage made without artificial ingredients, MSG, preservatives and other allergens,” says Jones, whose breakfast sausage has been certified gluten-free. His latest product: Vegetarian Breakfast Patties made from whole grains and sunflower seeds that are gluten- and soy-free.