Barbecue University™

Grilled Sausages — No More Flare Ups!


Say it ain’t so: Pinkberry in the North End?! When I lived in Boston, this warren of winding streets was our Little Italy, and you’d no more go there for yupscale yogurt than you’d root for the Yankees at Fenway Park. If you happened to come here during a street festival, like the Feast of Saint Anthony, you’d know you weren’t in Kansas—or even Boston—anymore. Crowds thronged streets once trod by Paul Revere. The soundscape was a cacophony of religious processions and street singers. As for the taste of the North End, more than 100 vendors and pushcarts sold everything from arancini (fried cheese-filled rice balls) to cannoli. Which brings us in a round about way to my most vivid gustatory memory of Boston’s Italian street festivals: grilled Italian sausage and pepper sandwiches.

Sausage. And fire. Two components of human happiness that can function as partners—or bitter adversaries. Cook the former over the latter in a controlled manner and you get a crackling crisp casing, supernaturally moist ground meat, and fire and smoke flavors that endow the sausage with greatness. (Case in point: This must-try Mile Long Italian Pepper & Grilled Pepper Sandwich.) Combine them the wrong way and you’ll turn the sausages—and your grill—into a conflagration.

One challenge comes from sausages’ high fat content (as much as 50 percent depending on the type). Another challenge is the high pressure under which that fat shoots onto the fire should careless tongs—or a barbecue fork—rupture the casing. A third is to cook the sausage to a safe temperature inside without drying it out or burning the exterior.

To dodge those perils, sausage grillers resort to a number of strategies—some well-intentioned, some folly. Should you parboil sausage before grilling? Prick it with a needle?

Here are 10 techniques you need to know now for grilling the perfect sausage:

  1. Direct grill with care: Yes, you can direct grill sausages, and most of the world’s grill masters do. The key is to work over a moderate fire and to move the sausages as needed to dodge the fat-frenzied flames.
  2. The 30 percent rule: The second key to direct grilling sausages is to not over-crowd the grill. You will get flare-ups—this is a given—and you can’t avoid the flames if sausages cover every square inch of the grate. Leave at least 30 percent of your grate food-free so you have room to maneuver.
  3. Maintain a safety zone: As a corollary to the 30 percent rule, keep a third of your grill fire-free. On a charcoal grill, this means spreading the coals over the rear two-thirds of the firebox and leaving the front third coal-free. On a gas grill, leave one burner off (the one closest to you). This is where you move the sausages if they start to burn or if you get flare-ups.
  4. Do not boil: Pre- or par-boiling sausages is a little like boiling ribs: It diminishes flavor and moistness and tarnishes your reputation as a grill master. You don’t need to boil if you grill carefully.
  5. Do not prick: Likewise, there’s no need to prick sausages with toothpicks or needles before grilling. Perforating the casing only releases flammable fats, juices, and flavor. Plus, you don’t need to worry when you can’t find the needle.
  6. Oil the casings: Lightly brush or rub the casings with olive oil or butter. This prevents sticking and makes them extra crisp. Notice I said lightly. Too much oil and your sausages will burn and taste sooty—especially when direct grilling. One teaspoon of oil is enough for one pound of sausages.
  7. Handle with care: The key to a juicy sausage is to keep the casing intact. Enter the sausage grilling basket, which lets you grill and turn sausages without pinching the casings. If you do use tongs, wield them gently.
  8. Indirect grill: This is my own heretical contribution to the art of grilling sausages. Set up your grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium. Arrange the sausages over the drip pan away from fire and close the lid. If you’re working on a charcoal grill, toss soaked hardwood chips on the coals. This gives you an unexpected and unbelievably enticing smoke flavor.
  9. Indirect grill: The technique is so cool, I repeat it again. Even on a gas grill, indirect grilling gives you crisp casings, spectacularly moist meat, and you’ll never get fires or flare-ups. Best of all, there’s virtually no shrinkage, so you get every last bit of sausage nirvana.
  10. Do not overcook: The safe internal temperature for ground meats—sausages included—is 160 degrees. The casing will be crisp and brown, the filling plump and bubbling. But the only way to check doneness for certain is to insert an instant-read meat thermometer through one end of the sausage toward the center.