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Whether it’s simmering in a pot of jambalaya or crisping on a grill, venison sausage is a staple meal in Texas kitchens. And this year, hunters can get a jump start on their health-related New Year’s resolutions when they haul coolers packed with fresh deer meat to their local processing market.

After the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in October that preservatives in processed meats can indeed cause cancer, some sausage lovers are looking for healthier options. Local meat markets feature menus with seemingly endless deer sausage flavors: Jalapeño, garlic, Polish, Italian… The list goes on. What you probably won’t find listed is which options contain nitrates and nitrites.   

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Raymond Skelton, the head butcher and owner of Ainsworth Meats in Magnolia, Texas, offers a general rule of thumb: Smoked sausage has preservatives and fresh sausage doesn’t. “We have customers who request fresh sausage. A lot of them will get an Italian sausage, a bratwurst or a Polish sausage because those traditionally are fresh and not smoked. We do have some people who are a little more health conscious, so they ask for the fresh sausage.”

If you crave a sausage variety that’s typically smoked, like jalapeño-and-cheese, you can ask your butcher to scrap the nitrites. But Skelton says he doesn’t saturate his smoked sausage with the unhealthy ingredients anyway. He adds about two ounces of preservatives to 320 ounces (20 pounds) of meat. He says that’s significantly less of the amount put into most lunch meats.

So what’s the difference between fresh and smoked venison sausage? For starters, the taste. Skelton says the fresh links have a good flavor, but they obviously lack the robust smokiness possessed by the sausage that spends eight hours in his smokehouse.

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Another difference is the cooking time. During the smoking process, the meat’s internal temperature is brought up to 170 degrees. That’s high enough to kill bacteria. Fresh sausage is raw, so it needs to be cooked longer. Skelton recommends cooking fresh sausage for 30 minutes on the grill or 5 to 7 minutes in boiling water, making sure the internal temperature is 150 degrees. Smoked sausage only needs 10 to 15 minutes on the grill or 4 to 5 minutes on the skillet.

Shelf life also varies for fresh and smoked venison sausage. When it’s vacuum sealed, you can keep smoked sausage in the freezer for a year without a loss of flavor. If you freeze fresh sausage for more than eight months, you’ll probably be kicking yourself for not eating it sooner.

Skelton hasn’t noticed a big uptick in customers ordering preservative-free meats since the WHO’s October announcement, but he has his eye on the changing market. “Being a small-business owner, you have to pay attention to what your customers are asking for so you can stay on top of your game. If you don’t, you’ll end up being left behind and wondering why your business isn’t growing,” he says.

If your New Year’s resolutions include looking for ways to cut back on preservatives in your diet, ask your butcher to explain the different options for your next order of venison links.

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