Seasoned with Secrets: Sausagemakers leave the guesswork to your tastebuds

Snoop around a sausage shop, ask a few questions and you’ll soon fall suspect. Suspect to stealing secrets – spicing secrets, the foundation of the sausagemaker’s art.

“I can’t tell you exactly what goes into the sausages we make, especially the spices – that’s a secret,” said Gerhard Wanninger, co-owner of G & W Sausage Co., an operation that has specialized in German wursts since 1965. “All I can really tell you [is] that we use traditional family recipes.”

Wanninger wasn’t the only local sausage-meister who keeps his recipes close to the vest. Try to ask Ted Piekutowski, who makes Polish-style sausages from his father’s recipes at the family’s North St. Louis sausage shop, and you’ll get the same result.

“Well, you know I can’t tell you exact spice amounts, but I can tell you what makes kielbasa: Kielbasa is pepper, nutmeg, thyme, cardamom and garlic,” said Piekutowski, who confirmed he’s only made one small change to the family recipe over the years (the sausage shop opened in the 1940s). “Only difference in the recipe we use today is that we don’t use fresh garlic anymore – and I’m glad. When I was a kid it was my job to grind the garlic.”

Granulated garlic didn’t seem to compromise the authentic Polish flavor of Piekutowski’s sausage, a reported favorite of the late Pope John Paul II. “I was told the pope didn’t remember a lot about St. Louis, but on his last visit he did remember, and requested, our sausage.”

Perhaps sausage’s inherent ethnicity is the secret of its success, linking us to our culinary roots. Nearly every country makes sausage, each featuring its own spice palette dictating flavor and style, from China’s peppery pork lop chong to Irish bangers that are sometimes seasoned with stout.

No matter what specific herb and spice flavors are used, salt is often the first ingredient used in sausage making. After all, sausage comes from the Latin word salsus, meaning salted.

To help sausagemakers create their ethnic spice palettes, McCarthy Spice & Blends owner Margaret McCarthy begins the process with research. “Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing by Rytek Kutas is one of my first sources I turn to,” said McCarthy, who custom blends the secret spices for many of the area’s sausage processors. “Of course today you can go online and get any spice blend recipe for anything you want. But the recipes people are most interested in are breakfast sausages and brats.”

When asked what spices give sausage a sweet taste, McCarthy said, “Think apple pie. Nutmeg, clove and mace, the same types of spices used in apple pie will offer a sweetness to meat.”

McCarthy was willing to share a few flavor profiles. Mexican chorizo, she said, is “best described in two words: chile and paprika. Italian sausage seasoning typically blends fennel, basil, garlic, savory, black pepper and anise with the optional hot pepper, which never surfaces in traditional bratwurst. Instead, German brats have a sweet profile using nutmeg, onion, mace and ginger. Wisconsin-style brats are seasoned with sage, celery seed [and] a touch of cardamom.”

“There’s really [nothing] that people haven’t tried,” said Mike Sloan, part owner of Swiss Meat & Sausage Co. Sloan’s family-owned company makes a wide variety of fresh and dry-cured sausages, including many national grand champions and more than 40 different flavors of bratwurst. “It’s a trial-and-error process that first begins with the meat, then comes the spices and seasonings.”

With countless bratwurst recipes, it’s easy to tweak the ingredients, grind or spice to create your own secret brat. Stone Hill Winery owner Jim Held’s secret ingredient in his homemade bratwurst is a splash of white wine – Stone Hill wine, of course.

“People can have fun making their own special homemade sausage recipes,” said Sloan, who shared the basic rules for sausage success. “No matter how you season your sausage, just keep everything clean and learn how to mix the meat. Over- or under-mixing will affect not just the texture but the flavor of the sausage – no matter what the spice blend.”

New sausage styles and food trends have always reflected a community’s diversity. The bistate region is no different. Sloan and McCarthy noted the popularity of Mexican sausages in recent years, which mirrors the growing Hispanic population. Both also have witnessed a growing interest in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern sausage styles.

“The Bosnians make some great sausage,” said Sloan. “Perhaps those, along with more Middle Eastern sausage styles, will begin to catch on here in the future – but for now it’s bratwurst season.”