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We Tried 10 Breakfast Sausages & This Is the Best

Think you really know your favorite?

Sausage: every country, every culture has its own version. There's kielbasa, andouille, lap cheong, chorizo, linguica, pepperoni, hot Italian, "puddings," bratwurst—even hot dogs count. Throughout history, sausages have come to reflect cultural tastes and individual traits, all with as much diversity in their personalities as with the makers themselves. But only one profile of seasoning screams "breakfast" in America: our comforting, good old sage, thyme, salt and pepper blend of the perfect breakfast sausage.

Smaller than their dinner counterparts, breakfast sausage can be ground and loose, shaped into rough, slider-size patties or smaller and made into little links. In any form, they all more or less have that same familiar "breakfast sausage" flavor.

But because breakfast sausage is so ubiquitous, it's easy to hit decision fatigue. And that's without even going through all the brands since they're confusingly positioned in various parts of any standard grocery store like a scavenger hunt. You'll find them stashed with frozen breakfast foods, or frozen meats, or perhaps near the bacon and eggs, or possibly with the dinner sausages. It's as if the general flavor is the only thing most major makers can agree on!

So to help, we've gathered all the pork sausage links from across the land of Supermarketopia to assist in making the decision for you and to determine the very best breakfast sausage for your morning table. Plus, don't miss: We Tasted 8 Hot Dog Brands & This Is the Best.

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The Process

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In a diner, breakfast sausages are griddled, but for home, various cooking methods were offered on each package. Many pre-cooked breakfast sausages tempted us with the microwavable option; some raw packages directed us to use the boil/steam/brown technique; and others just said to pan-fry. For best results and to counteract potentially uneven cook times, we chose to use a drop of oil and just enough water to expedite cooking without affecting browning and or texture and did so in an even-heating, extra-large skillet over an equally extra-large burner that would fairly disperse the flame across the bottom for the most even results.

Johnsonville Original, Raw

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If there's one thing I learned from doing food product testing is that we all only think we know what we like most. Johnsonville sausage was a brand I've long known and liked, which made it all the more surprising that it came in as my least favorite.

That's not to say it wasn't good. Honestly, all ten sausage links tested were good, and in very similar ways. This one landed at the bottom for simply not being particularly notable. It cooked up a little sad and shrivelly, hiding in its wrinkling casing like an ingénue trying to hide in her still revealing slip. This demure covering came off easily, though, which we could see being a detractor for picky eaters like children, who might be put off by accidentally skinning their meat.

Texturally, it's chewy, meaty, and the driest of the bunch. It's very lightly seasoned as to be closer to the cured porkiness of ham than breakfast sausage, with the slightest hint of cinnamon for interest, but this flavor note required a lot of tasting to pick up next to the much bolder flavors of its competitors.

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Simple Truth Traditional, Raw

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Made of fresh pork raised on a vegetarian diet, this sausage looked to have a nice balance of lean and fat. We liked that these didn't shrink much in the pan, and also that the casing bit through clean, with significantly less drag than experienced in the Johnsonville raw sausages. These were firm and satisfying to the tooth—a necessary detail to counteract the slimness of their profile, since overly skinny sausages can feel insubstantial.

This had the best texture of all the cooked-from-raw sausages and had a generally balanced flavor. It was pretty salty, but didn't hit you over the head with it like the cooked-from-fresh Smithfield version. What bumped it down on the list, though, was a bit of a greasy aftertaste that left the aroma of slightly stale herbs lingering in our mouths. A fatty finish can be easily forgiven in breakfast sausage, but old or freezer-burnt sage? Not when the competition is this tight.

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Johnsonville Original, Cooked

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There's a lot of pressure with opening a plastic film-wrapped package of fresh sausage—you have to eat it before it goes bad, worry about leaking juices if you don't cook it all at once, and so on. For that reason, we appreciate the resealable, space-saving bag these come in and the long shelf life of cooked breakfast sausage links. We also loved that the clear packaging makes it very … well, clear what you were getting, which was par-browned links that would end the same size you started with. Additionally, you could see fat separation in what's stuck on the plastic package, allowing you to leave that extra grease behind.

Unfortunately, perhaps too much fat is left in the bag, as these lost points for cooking up drier than most—although still not as dry as this brand's fresh version. Other than that, these proved to be simple, basic, and perfectly middle of the road. It has a mild sausage flavor that's innocuous, a medium sponginess, and external browning that crisps a tad as it reaches the next shade. It's good, but doesn't jump out with any subtleties, making it a good pick for a wide range of tastes and suitable for most palates. "Inoffensive" is the word best used to describe this meek sausage—one that will give you the hint of breakfast sausage as a side without overwhelming you with its presence.

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Bob Evans Original, Raw

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I've never been to one of this restaurant's many locations, so the brand's recognizability says something about the level of consistent comfort anticipated from it. Their sausage is proprietary, but what we found was that it met but didn't exceed expectations.

Raw, it was a uniform color that denoted less fat than the Johnsonville sausage. Yet it cooked up juicier and remained plump, despite a good amount of grease escaping from the open ends of the casing—something the other fresh ones didn't have. Because of this and the fact that this skin was thicker and therefore sturdier, there was little wrinkling. It was meaty and took some time to chew through, making it feel more substantial than some of the others. Well-seasoned, this was the best and most balanced of the encased fresh. Like the Johnsonville Original, Cooked, it was exactly what it was supposed to be—no more, no less.

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Smithfield Hometown Original, Raw

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I'll be honest—these looked a bit unappetizing as packaged. It comes in a minimal, no-frills white cardboard that can stain with inappropriate defrosting, and you can see the (notably, for fresh!) skinless links peeking out gray, lumpy, and fatty-looking from behind a cut-out. Simple as this packaging was, it was deceptively annoying to open, with cellophane to break through and a plain box with no easy-tear perforation. And sold frozen, they required defrosting before cooking, detracting from the convenience factor. The other raw links, although shipped frozen, are sold refrigerated.

Once taken out of their prison whites, the Smithfield raw sausages revealed themselves to be heftier than their competitors. Cooked, they were much firmer, denser, and the meatiest feeling and tasting of all of the breakfast sausages in the test. They were the saltiest of the bunch, too, which was later quantified after tasting. The nutrition label revealed 340 milligrams of sodium per link—roughly twice more than the rest. It had more of a pronounced "breakfast sausage" flavor than its cooked frozen counterparts, surprisingly, and major pork brand competitor Johnsonville.

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Banquet Brown 'N Serve Original, Cooked

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Boy, were we shocked that this sausage landed where it did on the list! This brand is notoriously cheap, and associated with TV dinners whose quality is among the lowest. But there is a niche for hyper-processed food, and we call it nostalgia. This breakfast sausage tasted like fast food memories—unattractively gray out of the package, a little too soft and squishy. It's very fatty, a little rubbery, and definitely spongey—likely due to the addition of mechanically separated turkey and the addition of soy protein concentrate. I found myself bracing for bone chips in the heavily worked-up meat, and was pleasantly surprised to find there weren't any in the samples tasted.

All of that sounds like it should be lower on the rankings, but honestly, it bursts with so much bold, peppery, and familiar flavor right out the gate that it's hard not to weight the points in Banquet's flavor. Plus, it cooks from frozen (you're actually not allowed to thaw it) pretty quickly, so more points for convenience.

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Jimmy Dean Heat 'n Serve Original, Cooked

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Another immediately recognizable breakfast meat brand, this company has a massive following that includes every sausage-ordering customer at beloved Southern budget brekkie chain Waffle House. This yellow-signed icon is proud to advertise their use of Jimmy Dean's sausages, and they're not wrong to do so. The brand is a giant, and has built a frozen food empire on breakfast sausage. No surprise, then, that they ranked this high on our taste test.

Their frozen pre-cooked version isn't much to look at out of the easily resealable bulk bag. They're small and squat, significantly more diminutive than the other contenders, and not very uniform in size. You can thaw them before cooking to speed up the process, but it's not really worth the two minutes you'll save when they do just fine out of the bag. Their initial coloring is light and as they sat in the pan, appeared very dry. Its looks are incredibly deceiving, though. It burst with succulence and a big hit of pepper at the finish, leaving an air of sweetness after it was gone. That impression of juiciness is probably a side effect of its bouncy, squishy texture—similar to Banquet's, but less jarring since it's a smidgen firmer. Again, it's the mechanically separated turkey and soy protein that gives it this "cheap" texture that is somehow comforting and delicious; it brought every fast-food chain's breakfast sausage to mind. However, this one has more fat and protein than the budget brand, and you can taste it for sure.

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Smithfield Hometown Original, Cooked

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We expected the pre-cooked version of this less prominent recipe to be the same as the raw Hometown Original recipe, and were astonished to find that the bagged (resealable, of course!) convenience version was significantly better. Right out of the green-washed bag ("All natural! No gluten, MSG, preservatives nor artificial ingredients!"), whose color scheme is a firm departure from the traditional reds, blues, and yellows of breakfast sausage-land, they appeared delightfully appetizing. Like their raw counterparts, they're skinless and slightly lumpy as if to denote "meat!", but they're already browned nicely with touches of caramel frozen in place.

The first thing that struck us with this sausage was an extremely porky flavor. This cooked version is not as salty as the boxed Smithfield, but it's definitely very salty. But it wasn't of ham as the pre-cooked Johnsonville, who also approached their recipe with a lighter hand. This one let those signature breakfast sausage herbs step back a bit to allow a hint of celery to peek out, which contributed to the strongest impression from this sausage being bacon. This is the perfect sausage for those who are undecided between bacon and sausage, or want both but can't be bothered to fuss with two meats early in the morning. It may not take the top spot as what breakfast sausage is "supposed" to taste like, but it's close enough, and dang if it isn't delicious.

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Jones Golden Brown All Natural Mild Pork Sausage, Cooked

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A big description for a small package and simple branding, this breakfast sausage was underwhelming … up until the taste test. The marketing and design is rustic and wholesome in a "country" way that any more established brand in the natural foods category traditionally is. No nitrites or nitrates, no MSG, no preservatives, gluten-free—all the usual green lights were there. The thoughtlessness of how the box opens, with a perforated zip pull along the long side of the box, was an immediate turn-off as alarmingly gray, lumpy links threatened to scatter like so many pigs. Sure, there are only ten links per box, but it felt as though Philip H. Jones—whose face promises a satisfaction guarantee on the backside of the package—expected us all to use the entire box at once.

However, this irk was immediately forgiven upon the first bite. They're fully cooked already, and you can heat them from a frozen or thawed state. Either way, it browns up nicely in the skillet and offers a tantalizing, succulent, and satisfying bite from start to finish. Its ingredient list is considerably simpler than its rivals, and you can tell right away that this is 100% pork. Yet unlike the other pre-cooked all-pork breakfast sausages, you get a strong sense of unadulterated meat. However, it's not dry or chewy like the fresh encased links—these are both fat and fatty enough to feel juicy and full. In fact, these have the highest fat in its makeup of the bunch (a helpful reminder that "natural" doesn't mean "diet" food, boys and girls!)—70 out of 80 of its calories are from fat.

The payoff, though, if your heart can take it, is an immensely unctuous breakfast sausage with a rich flavor that takes over your entire mouth. That's not to say it felt oily—it doesn't. Rather, it's a heady, buttery sense that floods your taste buds, complemented by a sense of familiar flavor that feels more real than your original taste memory. It's loud, but not contrived nor artificial, feeling more pure and clean (if we can even use that term for something so fatty) than all of the others. This sausage is a prime example of what elevating nostalgia ought to be—better, higher-quality ingredients that taste as you remember but better defined.

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Honorable Mention: Kiolbassa Breakfast Links

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Apples to apples is the only way to objectively judge food items, but every once in a while, an orange with an identity crisis will find its way into the bushel. Such was the case with these breakfast links, which were disqualified for stepping too much to the beat of their own drummer, but not so discordantly as to be unpleasant.

While these plump, juicy little fellows were in keeping with breakfast sausage sizes, their flavor profiles were distinctly more dinnerly. Chubby and more festive in orange-red than their Quaker-gray and brown rivals, these were firm, dense, chewy, and thick. The skin blistered and bubbled on the frying pan like a bratwurst or a frankfurter, breaking from the retreating pattern of the other encased breakfast links. They retained much of their moisture, and were bouncy and firm to the bite with a smoky flavor that was very kielbasa-tasting (surprise, surprise) without straying all the way into that territory. They have a much higher protein level, but also more calories to go along with them. They're also considerably more "artisanal" in appearance and marketing, with no nitrates, nitrites, gluten, or MSG.

We thought this would be a gourmet pick, but ends up that these are hearty dinner and dinner-flavored sausages masquerading as breakfast links. The right size and shape, yes. Delicious, also yes. But ranking these against the more conventional recipes would, again, be like comparing Golden Delicious, Gala, and Fuji apples against a pineapple; good on its own, but not like the others, nomenclature notwithstanding.

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breakfast sausage links with fried eggs

One would typically expect fresh-cooked food to taste better. What a shocker, then, to find that the sausages that were cooked from raw actually had the least depth of flavor and lacked a pleasing texture! They extruded more fat in the cooking—which would lead one to believe that they'd had more juice to begin with—but evidently, the liquid was more escaping from the casing than indicative of excess run-off. They were meatier, sure, but the flavor was less concentrated and pronounced, and their firmness was a departure from the fatty sponginess associated with breakfast links.

The frozen ones performed admirably, retaining more flavor than the raw, as well as moisture. We wonder, then, if the pre-cooked ones were deep fried as part of their cooking process, as that also helps preserve a softer interior.

Another shocker was that the softest sausages—and also the "cheapest" but therefore more mainstream and familiar—did as well as they did. Theoretically, this would lead us to assume that they're not as good, but in the hazy arena of comforting, nostalgic food, they turned out to be better. The two sausages with fillers were most what breakfast sausage "should" be like, and their highly processed textures were not enough to put us off from their cozy feeling and flavors.

The winner, though, offered both elements: familiarity and flavor, plus an improved texture and whole-food bite. Its very close second rendered breakfast meat decision-making unnecessary, though, and both were exceptional.

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Su-Jit Lin
Su-Jit Lin is a food and lifestyle writer whose work has been featured in Real Simple, HuffPost, and more. Read more about Su-Jit