Category - Meat Knowledge

The Italian Sausage Story

When I opened the butcher shop six years ago, I really wanted to make sausages. I was making some at a restaurant I was working at, and loved combining different seasonings for new and interesting links. This mentality is how recipes like the Cheeseburger Sausage, Lamb and Wild Leek Sausage, and Maple Syrup and Chinese Five Spice Sausages were born. Some flavours weren’t quite the hot sellers (where did you go Deli and Mustard Sausage?), but they were always fun to make. As we grew though, I realized I had to make some of the more conventional flavours as well; sausages people are used to buying at other stores. And the one people asked for the most whenever they came into the shop was the Italian.

The idea of an “Italian” Sausage kind of bothered me though. Back in the old days of the shop, I was snobbier than I am now. I had worked in Italy and spent much of my culinary career working in Italian restaurants, and to just choose one style of sausage and call it “Italian” seemed to be disrespectful to the regional diversity of that nation’s charcuterie. So we made a Pork Sausage with Chili, Garlic and Toasted Fennel. I thought this was a good compromise, but soon I realized that just confused a lot of customers. Every time someone would ask for an Italian Sausage I had to explain the reasoning, and after a year or so I finally conceded. Sanagan’s Italian Sausage was born. Soon after that we decided to make a spicier version using double the chilies. We consistently sold out of both types, and now it is a butchery crime to not have one available at all times.

A couple of years later, after we moved into the larger store, I met a guy named Sohaib who owned a spice importing company. He had a family-run spice farm back in India that used to supply many of the big spice companies, and he had a vision to go to the retailer direct with his spices. The benefit of this, other than the cost savings, was that we could get our hands on the freshest spices available. We started using fennel seeds, peppercorns, and chilies the flavour of which I have never tasted! They were so potent and fragrant! I was in love with this stuff, so we immediately changed our spice-buying program to almost exclusively Sohaib’s stuff. Now I made an error during this change over. All of our sausage recipes are in an Excel spreadsheet that ratios out the ingredient list by weight depending on how much ground meat we start with. After switching to Sohaib’s spices I failed to adapt the recipe to use less chili in our Mild Italian Sausage, and because of the strength of the chilies we’ve been selling “mild” Sausages that were actually quite hot. Not a big deal if you don’t mind the heat, but not great for sensitive mouths, especially children’s. I received a lot of complaints recently about this, and we decided to do something about it.

We are going to try to modify our recipe. We’re going to start making our Mild Italian Sausage without any chili at all, so basically just garlic and toasted fennel seed. We are going to run it like this for a while, and we ask for customer feedback.  We will still carry the Hot Italian for those who like the heat, but going forward I want to see if we can appeal to more mouths with a toned down version as well. Keep in mind it will still have the big flavour we are known for, just without the burning tongue. And, as always, we will be creating new flavours as well, to keep our mind and tongues fresh and exciting. Because otherwise, what's the point???

Nitrates, Nitrites, and Why I’m Not A Doctor

Since I opened my new, larger shop six months ago, I have been asked a question time and time again that I have been meaning to answer in blog post form.  You see, when I had the wee shop all I sold was fresh meat. Nothing cured, fermented, smoked or air-dried (save for the delicious bacon and smoked pork chops – I couldn’t resist having that stuff).  Our sausages were all made in house and consisted of fresh meat, salt, pepper and various other seasonings/aromatics. Even though at the time I would have loved to carry them, I stayed away from deli meats because I had no room for them. Simple.

And then I moved. And then I had room. Lots. It took trial and error to find out what people really liked, but my mandate for our deli section was that the meats were produced by smaller artisanal Ontario producers who leaned towards old world, European-style recipes. These recipes were brought over from the motherlands by the producers and adapted to the tastes of Ontarians, but not changed so much to lose their authenticity. Delicious hams, spicy salami, and smoky beef – the menu has grown into one I’m quite happy with. But now I get asked a question I didn’t have to answer much in the old shop – “does your deli meat have nitrites in them, and why?”

I am about to attempt the impossible – explain what nitrates and nitrites are (okay, not impossible), explain why they are used (also not really impossible), and explain if they are good or bad for you (really, really difficult, and possibly impossible given the conflicting research). I apologize if I don’t cover all the research that’s out there, but as the title states, I’m not a doctor and only doctors, rocket scientists and maybe really young children (you know the ones – the kids who learn how to use an iPad before knowing how to make themselves a bowl of cereal) are able to understand some of the scientific reports. Surprising, I know, but I just want to give some clarity to a fairly murky subject. So let’s do this.

(I just wanted to preface this whole thing by saying that deli meats, charcuterie, confit, terrines, bacon, smoked meats etc, are all considered preserved proteins. All of these products have some sort of preservative in them, whether it’s plain old sea salt, nitrite-cures, or naturally-occurring nitrates from celery juice. Please remember this when asking for deli meats with “no preservatives” (or when you see a pre-packaged deli product advertising no preservatives). It’s like asking for meat that doesn’t come from an animal. It doesn’t exist. Sorry, it just doesn’t. You can get nitrate/nitrite-free products like hot dogs, but they will/should be frozen and look darker brown. And will still contain a good amount of salt and a bunch of tasty fat. So there’s that.)

Nitrate – Naturally occurring (but can be synthesized) food additive that is used in meat preservation production for four main reasons – it inhibits the growth of bacteria that causes botulism; it prevents fat from going rancid therefore extending the shelf-life of meat; it gives the meat an appetizing rosy colour; it adds a tangy depth of flavour to cured meats. Nitrates are naturally occurring minerals that are present in a lot of vegetables (celery and beets), fruits and grains.

Nitrite – When nitrates are used to cure meats, time allows the nitrate to convert into nitrite, which is the active preservation ingredient in nitrate. Food scientists are able to isolate nitrite and use that ingredient in much smaller doses in charcuterie to the same effect as nitrates, therefore making nitrite a more common ingredient in cured meats.

Following so far?

Canadian Regulations – Nitrates and nitrites are regulated in meat production for two main food safety reasons. The government wants to make sure nobody dies from botulism after eating a bad batch of salami. On the flip side there had been studies in the seventies and eighties linking nitrate/nitrite consumption to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s in lab animals, so the government wanted to limit the use of these preservatives to make them safe for everyone. Approximate numbers given by the Canadian government go like this: we get about 85-90% of our daily nitrate intake from vegetables such as beets, lettuce and celery, and about 10% from cured meats.

Nitrosamines –This is a carcinogenic property which studies show can form from nitrites under highly acidic conditions in our stomachs, or when meat cured with nitrite is cooked at too high a heat and gets charred. Commonly an issue with bacon, it also is found in other foodstuffs with naturally-occurring nitrite. Beer and fish have been found to possess significant levels of nitrosamines.

Vitamin C – On ingredient labels called ascorbic acid, this ingredient inhibits the transformation of nitrites into nitrosamines. Many meat producers will add this in their recipes to aid in the prevention of carcinogenics.

Riveting stuff, eh? Truthfully, there is a lot of research out there that is for the use of nitrates/nitrites, as well as a lot of research that is against it. As I said in the preface to all of this, though, preserved meat needs an ingredient that will allow it to last longer than fresh meat. There’s really no way around it. For all of humanity’s history we have been trying to save meat from going bad. We’re quite lucky nowadays, what with proper refrigeration and freezers we don’t really even have to worry about curing, fermenting or smoking to preserve our meat. Except for one little thing:

Charcuterie is delicious.

I will never give up a smoked meat sandwich. I can’t see myself turning my nose up at a juicy hot dog. I will go out of my way to find the best soppresatta.

But, just like coffee, wine, donuts, pasta, apples, and pretty much everything else under the sun, I will consume my nitrates/nitrites in moderation. I’m not going to feed my kids hot dogs mixed with Kraft Dinner at EVERY meal. Just the ones where I want to be called Dad of the Year.

So I hope this answers your questions about preservatives in deli meats. If you have more, there’s a bunch of great information on the following sites. Just keep an open mind, hungry for the best information for you and your family.

Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality: Guideline Technical Document - Nitrate and Nitrite
Nitrates and nitrites – Part 1: bad for you
Nitrates and nitrites – Part 2: good for you