By Danielle Centoni
If you don’t have some pre-cooked chicken sausage in your refrigerator, we recommend you get some — and pronto. They make it so easy to bulk up your lunch or dinner with extra protein. All you have to do is heat them through (see Zestful Kitchen’s Italian Chicken Sausage with White Beans and Kale, for example.)
But which pre-cooked chicken sausage should you get?
Of all the varieties out there, Italian sausage is by far the most versatile. Flavored with a mix of peppers, garlic, and Mediterranean herbs like fennel and oregano, it’s able to move seamlessly between pizza and pasta, hoagies and casseroles. Still, it turns out, there’s a wide array of pre-cooked chicken Italian sausages to choose from these days.
So, which ones offer the most robust flavor, ideal juiciness, and chewy (not spongy) texture? We visited several grocery stores, rounded up all the brands we could find, and put them to a taste test.
Pro tip: Most brands use natural pork casings for their sausages. If you’re avoiding pork, just one, Al Fresco, uses collagen casings.
As we shopped for pre-cooked Italian-style chicken sausages (a very specific quest indeed!), we kept our eyes open for those with simple ingredients lists containing no nitrates, hormones, unnecessary antibiotics, MSG, artificial additives, or preservatives. We also steered clear of any with more than a gram of added sugar. We found 10 different options, two of which were organic. Most options were mild but a couple were labeled spicy.
We cooked all of the sausages on the grill for about 4 minutes per side until heated through, unless the directions specified otherwise. We tasted each one on its own, and also paired with sauteed peppers and onions to see how well the flavors held up when combined with other ingredients.
Some sausages we tried had hardly any flavor at all. Or they skewed oddly sweet without hardly any herbs and spices to balance them out. But there were some clear standouts. Mindful of the fact that some of us have more tolerance for spice, we picked two winners, one mild and one spicy.
And the winners are…
The Best Mild Pre-Cooked Chicken Italian Sausage
We think an Italian sausage should taste, well, Italian — or at least more Mediterranean than a bratwurst. And of all the sausages we tried, Aidells Italian-Style with Mozzarella Cheese was the one that tasted the most complex, robust and truly Italian-inspired. The fennel and oregano really came through, with just enough piquant spice to offset the sweetness of the peppers and chicken. It’s made with parsley, roasted garlic, and a host of spices including paprika and basil. Though mozzarella is the second ingredient in the list, the sausage wasn’t cheesy. However, it was exceptionally juicy.
Buy It: Aidells Italian-Style with Mozzarella Cheese, $6
The Best Spicy Pre-Cooked Chicken Italian Sausage
If you like your sausages hot, Whole Foods Organic Spicy Italian Chicken Sausage is the one to get. Made with red peppers, fennel, anise, paprika, mustard powder, cayenne, oregano and chile flakes, it wowed us with deliciously spicy flavor. We could really taste the peppers and herbs in every bite. And the flavor held up when combined with sauteed peppers and onions and served on a bun.