Collagen Casing vs Natural Casing

Collagen Casing vs Natural Casing

Mar 30, 2023Bearded Butcher Blend Seasoning Co.

A lot goes into the making of a good sausage and it all comes down to using a good sausage casing. Using the right casings gives homemade sausage the correct bite and ensures that the sausage cooks evenly and completely. Today, we will discuss two options for sausage casings: traditional natural casings and artificial collagen casings.

Both products are made from animal parts and both work extremely well for sausages that will be cooked or smoked after stuffing. So before you mix up a batch of ground meat for bratwurst or breakfast sausage, consider your options for casings.

Sausage Casings 101

At the most basic level, a sausage casing has one job. It must contain ground meat, seasonings, and spices while the sausage is handled, cooked, and stored. There is an art to sausage making that requires patience and practice. The meat must be pushed into the casings without air bubbles or tearing the casing. One of the reasons that artificial casings have become popular is that they are often easier to use than natural casings. However, not all casings are the same, and you will need to use different types of casings for different types of sausage.

Choosing the Right Sausage Casings

Making sausage is a skill that developed so far back in time that the origins are lost to knowledge. What we do know is that the process of making sausage developed as a way to preserve meat long before anyone ever thought of refrigeration. Our ancient ancestors learned that by coarsely grinding meat and fat, then stuffing the mixture into tubes and smoking it, they could create a meat product that offered all of the health and nutrition benefits of fresh meat in a portable, shelf-stable package.

Where Do Natural Casings Come From?

Even though tens of thousands of years have passed since the first sausage was made, some of the original principles remain. Natural sausage casings are still among the most popular and are a go-to for many people making fresh sausage at home. These natural sausage casings are derived from portions of the digestive tract of animals. The most common part is the submucous lining of the small intestine.

Making Your Own Natural Casings

Hunters who are interested in finding good uses for as many parts of an animal as possible might want to try their hand at making the casings at home the old-fashioned way. Sausage casings can be made from pigs, sheep, deer, cattle, and likely almost any animal, even bear or elk. The process begins by carefully cleaning the body cavity to locate the stomach and the intestines. The small intestine is a tangled mass of tubes held together with a membrane.

The intestine is severed from the stomach and the large intestine, unraveled, and then manually cleaned and flushed with water. Since the intestine can be very long, cutting it into six to ten-foot sections or wherever a portion of the intestine tears during the rinsing and cleaning process is common.

The intestine is then flipped inside out to complete the cleaning process. A thin, whitish layer on the inside of the intestine is scrapped off with the back of a knife, and then the intestine is rinsed again. Finally, the cleaned intestine is packed in salt and water to cure before being used. Fresh, natural sausage casings should be used as soon as possible.

Where Do Artificial Collagen Casings Come From?

More modern sausage-making techniques have led to the development of artificial casings made from collagen. Collagen is a naturally-occurring protein found in all living animals. Collagen is found everywhere in the body but is most easily recovered from the hides of animals during the slaughtering process.

The process typically involves exposing the cleaned animal hides to either an acid or an alkaline that causes swelling of the proteins. The swollen proteins are extracted from the remainder of the hide using pressure, dried, flattened, and then formed into tubes.

Making collagen casings at home is not something that anyone should try. The process requires specialized equipment to get it right. The collagen degrades and becomes gelatin when the process doesn't work right.

How Do You Decide Between Natural Casings and Collagen?

Most of the time, natural casings and collagen casings can be used interchangeably. Both collagen and natural casings are used to make similar types of sausage and both work very well when used correctly. Deciding between the two comes down to personal preferences and practical considerations as there are benefits and drawbacks to collagen casing vs natural casings.

The Benefits of Collagen Casings

Many people find that sausage made in collagen casings has a better bite and a more firm texture than sausage in natural casings, and there is some scientific evidence to back this idea up. A 2022 study published by the National Library of Medicine demonstrated an improvement in texture using collagen casings for fermented sausage over natural casings.

Collagen casings are made in a bunched-up tube, making them easy to load on a sausage stuffing horn. The casings fill evenly and smoothly without the tube becoming tangled. They also have a uniform shape, thickness, and size.

Collagen casings do not require any prep work, either. There is no need to rinse, soak, or salt them, so when you are ready to stuff sausage, your casings are ready to go.

If you're looking to start making your own sausage at home, check out some of our popular videos before you get started:

Drawbacks of Collagen Casings

Collagen casings can be difficult to twist and may not hold their shape. Some types of collagen casings are too delicate to use for sausage that is hung and smoked, but this is largely dependent on the age and condition of the casing. Collagen casings must be stored carefully to prevent drying out or exposure to air, both of which can cause the collagen tubes to disintegrate.

Advantages of Natural Casings

One big advantage of natural casings is that they are made from a part of the animal that often is discarded. We always believe that every part of a harvested animal that can be used should be used. Many people report that the flavor of natural casings is superior to collagen and that the casings allow a better permeation of smoke flavor. Some natural casings are better for hanging in a smoker than others, but most people have success hanging natural casings.

Drawbacks of Using Natural Casings

Some people are squeamish about eating intestines. We get it – sometimes things sound so unappealing that they will never taste good.

Natural casings have an irregular shape that can make stuffing the sausage more difficult. Certain types, like sheep intestine, can be very delicate and difficult to stuff without blowouts and air pockets. The natural shape often means that your sausage will look lumpy rather than smooth.

Natural casings must be stored and handled appropriately. They require rinsing before use to remove excess salt and can only be stored in very salty water.

What's Better for Your Grill: Collagen Casing vs Natural Casing

Both types of sausage casings are appropriate for sausages that will be grilled, but the variety of options available with collagen casings often means that you'll have better sausage for grilling using collagen casings. Collagen casings are available in both an edible and non-edible variants. The non-edible type are thicker collagen casings, frequently called fibrous casings or cellulose casings. They are intended to be peeled off after cooking. Do not use plastic casings on the grill. Plastic casings are for making things like hot dogs that are removed from the casing before cooking.

Natural casings may split more easily on the grill. This is particularly the case for sheep casings and is less common with hog casings and beef casings. A general rule of thumb – and a law governing commercial sausage manufacturers – is that the source of the natural casing should match the primary meat blend stuffed in the casing. That means pork in pork casings, veal or mutton in sheep casings, and so on. Deer sausage with a natural casing is one of our favorite things to make every season.

Tips for Using Collagen Casings

Collagen casings are the go-to for most people who are just getting into homemade sausage making. The benefits of the casings make them easy to pick up and use, but there are a few tips that can improve your results.

  1. Do not let the casings get wet when you are stuffing. The water will overhydrate the casings and they will fall apart. You can use them dry, right out of the package.
  2. Pay close attention to the volume of meat going into the casing. The collagen casing can burst when there is too much sausage being stuffed at once. When twisting off collagen casings, only twist one to two times. More will cause the casing to tear.
  3. Collagen casings are available in three variants – fresh casings for making brats and other tender sausages, smoked for making sausages that will be smoked, and Snack Sticks for making dried sausages.

Tips for Using Natural Casings

Natural casings are the authentic way to make sausage, but they require a little more care and patience (and a lot more cleaning) than collagen casings.

  1. Natural casings should always be packed in salt and water to ensure bacteria development is held at bay.
  2. You will want to have a good idea of how much sausage you are planning to make and only prepare enough casings to do the job.
  3. Soak natural casings for at least 30 minutes in cool water and rinse thoroughly to remove as much salt as possible, then thread the casing onto the tube.
  4. Use gentle pressure when stuffing sausage into natural casings to prevent blowouts and air pockets. The natural shape of the casing can make this process difficult. Prick air pockets with the tip of a sharp knife.

Final Thoughts

The decision to use collagen casing vs natural casing when making sausage often comes down to a matter of taste and convenience. Around our house, we most frequently use collagen casings for the majority of sausage making we do, but there are times that we also choose to use a natural casing. We usually suggest that people who are just getting into sausage making start with collagen casings to get a feel for the process with a much lower risk of failure before moving on to the more advanced process of using natural casings – that's why we include them in most of our DIY kits.

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