What is summer sausage made of? Why is it called summer sausage? It isn’t just for summer, but it sure is great with a cold beverage. Learn what kind of cheese goes with summer sausage.
Summer sausage is one of world’s great snack foods…but it’s not just for snacking, and it’s not only available in the summer. This deliciously versatile treat is right at home in any meal, at any gathering, at any time of the year. So what’s up with the seasonal name?
Why Is It Called Summer Sausage?
The answer, as is so often the case, lies in history. Sausage has been around for centuries, and was even mentioned by Homer in The Odyssey. To be honest, it was originally made more to use up scraps, trimmings and organs that would normally have gone to waste. The meat was ground, seasoned aggressively with salt and spices (the word “sausage” comes from the Latin salsus, meaning “preserved in salt”), forced into natural casing—typically a very well cleaned hog or sheep intestine—and cooked to make a tasty meal.
Many types of sausage evolved over the years using different blends of meat and spices—and far better cuts of meat—but not all were truly “preserved in salt”. Like all meats, they had to be cooked right away, or eating them would be a risky proposition. Salt was a good start, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that curing salts (nitrites and nitrates) were discovered, providing a more effective method for killing harmful microbes. Smoking the sausage also slowed microbial growth, and added incredible flavor.
Another way to inhibit microbial growth was to use a beneficial microorganism through lactic acid fermentation. Adding Lactobacillus bacteria (found in foods like sauerkraut and yogurt) to the meat, along with sugar to feed it, produced lactic acid. Not only does this substance inhibit pathogenic (bad) bacteria, it also gives the sausage a tangy flavor.
By using all three preservation methods—lactic acid fermentation, curing, and smoking—sausage makers were able to make a product that was not only delicious, but could be kept without refrigeration…even in the summer. They had made summer sausage.
Does summer sausage need to be refrigerated?
Yes. Before we get too carried away, “without refrigeration” is a relative term. We are talking about meat, after all. While there are some dry sausages (pepperoni, saucisson sec, etc.) that are shelf-stable, most summer sausage is considered semi-dry and does need to be refrigerated if you’re keeping it awhile. We recommend storing your summer sausage up to one month in the refrigerator.
What is the difference between summer sausage and salami?
Summer sausage, as mentioned, is a semi-dry sausage; it loses around 15 percent of its original moisture during aging. While salami can be considered a type of summer sausage, it generally loses about 25 percent of its original moisture during aging, making it a dry sausage. This gives it a longer shelf life, and some varieties can even be stored without refrigeration for a while. (Always refer to storage directions on the package of any sausage.)
Pairings: What Kind of Cheese Goes with Summer Sausage?
Frankly, we’re not as concerned with storing summer sausage as we are with eating it. Once it’s opened, it’s not lasting a month in the refrigerator, or anywhere. So what goes best with summer sausage? For us, the first thing we want to look at is cheese.
When selecting a cheese to go with summer sausage, let’s look at the properties of the sausage. It’s semi-dry (semi-hard). It’s salty, smoky, and tangy from the lactic acid fermentation. What you’re looking for in a cheese is contrast. Choose a cheese that’s creamier in nature, with enough fat to balance the acidity. Smooth, semi-soft cheeses like Havarti, butterkäse, or Muenster are perfect, with a neutral background that lets the sausage’s seasonings shine. A sharp Cheddar (any Cheddar, really) or Swiss is also a fantastic match, with nutty notes that perfectly complement the smoke and acidity of the sausage.
Now, what should you drink with your summer sausage? The first choice should be beer. Summer sausage is essentially a German thing, though neighboring countries and cultures have their own similar foods. (Coincidentally, they also brew beer in France, Italy and elsewhere, even though they’re better known for wine.) Really, any beer is a good match for summer sausage—from a malty stout to a hoppy IPA—but the best of all is a crisp, German-style lager or pilsner.
Wine is not a bad choice, either, and when it comes to summer sausage anything goes—red or white. It’s better to match the wine to whatever cheese you’re serving. Gewürztraminer or riesling are the top choices for a Swiss; mild Cheddar loves chardonnay, while sharp Cheddar can handle the big dry cabernets and zinfandels; follow these links to find wine recommendations for Havarti, butterkäse, or Muenster.
Summer sausage will spice up any cheese and charcuterie platter, but it’s not just about noshing with beer or wine. Summer sausage has many uses, and can star—or at least play a supporting role—in a number of dishes.
Summer Sausage Recipe Ideas
Needless to say, summer sausage is the perfect ingredient for sandwiches and other picnic recipes. Another obvious use of this favorite snack meat is summer sausage appetizers. You can simply put out your cheese and charcuterie board as hors d’oeuvres, or dress it up a little by threading cubes of summer sausage, cheese and grape tomatoes on skewers or toothpicks and drizzle with olive oil. Remember how creamy things go well with summer sausage? Stir diced summer sausage into softened cream cheese and sour cream with shredded cheese, minced onion and garlic and make a cheese ball or warm dip. Or dice it up and toss it with chopped tomato, garlic and olive oil to make a savory bruschetta topping: spoon it onto sliced French bread, top with shredded Parmesan cheese and broil for a delicious appetizer.
Ready for something off the beaten path? Try this summer sausage salad, aka wurstsalat. In Germany and Switzerland it’s made with something closer to mortadella or bologna, but summer sausage makes it even more flavorful. For the Swiss version, add some shredded or matchstick-cut Swiss cheese.
And who says you can’t cook summer sausage? To make a savory summer sausage casserole, just add a handful of diced summer sausage to your favorite mac and cheese recipe. Or, since it’s “Summer” sausage, try it on the grill. It doesn’t take much cooking—just enough to warm it up and give it a little caramelized sizzle—then layer it with Havarti on these awesome summer sausage sliders. Add a nice cold beer, and your summer party is on!
What are you waiting for? Get your Wisconsin summer sausage here.