Meet the Scientist Who Studies Sausage Sounds
British breakfast sausages are called bangers, so the story goes, because during World War I, when meager meat rations meant Brits had to supplement their sausages with rusk and water, causing the links to pop and crackle and sizzle like they never had before. But sausages across the pond were making a ruckus in the pan well before the war, according to a study by the British food scientist Stuart Farrimond, who recently took it upon himself to measure the decibel levels produced by sausage recipes going back all the way to 1845. Farrimond found that, at 78 decibels (louder than a vacuum cleaner but softer than a garbage disposal), Kentish bangers from the nineteenth century were the loudest sausages in his survey, while sausages since 1945 have decreased in sizzle volume by about half.
In an email conversation, Farrimond discussed, among other things, his favorite sausage, the evocative sound of a sizzling link, and how British banger recipes have changed over the past two centuries.
Extra Crispy: What gave you the idea to go about measuring bangers’ sizzle volume?
Stuart Farrimond: I was approached and asked whether I would like to perform scientific experiments to celebrate National Sausage Day 2016. Science is all too often stereotyped as academic and aloof, and I am passionate about dispelling that, instead exciting and engaging others to think about the world in new ways. Many of us have memories of eating sausages (their consumption has dropped in recent years) and there is the widespread belief that the food we eat today has markedly changed in some way and become inferior over time.
The sound of sizzling sausages is quite evocative and I had the suspicion that the sausages I cook in the kitchen today don’t seem to have the same “bang” and bluster as those I recall my mother cooking. Of course, memory is ridiculously fallible, so it made sense to try to test this notion.
How does one measure decibel level produced by a sausage? Doesn't it depend on how high the heat is at any given moment and the variability of different recipes?
Using a decibel meter, held at a measured distance away from the cooking sausage. (You can google to see what they look like.) Yes, the heat does make a difference, so the experiments were standardized. A clean, lightly oiled frying pan was heated over a high heat and a single sausage placed in the centre when the pan’s temperature reached 160°C (which is the temperature that the Maillard “browning” reactions are in full flow). Each sausage was made to a standardized size, using identical natural casing by a professional butcher.
You analyzed banger recipes going back to 1845 and determined that today's bangers just aren't as loud as they once were. Where did you find sausage recipes going back that far, and how did you reproduce the recipes?
A professional butcher made the sausages and he found the recipes by delving into various historical cookbooks, sourcing a variety of very old recipes that reflected the types of sausages that would have been commonly eaten. (I’ve no idea where he managed to get the books from, I can only imagine that he had to visit some large libraries!)
The reason for the decrease in volume, you say, is that bangers contain less liquid. But isn't it also the case that they contain less rusk?
The volume of the sizzle is caused by a combination of factors. Sizzling is most often due to water evaporating—if the oil is at 160°C, for example, then any water that comes out of food bubbles away with a fizz very quickly. Many people assume that it is fat that causes sizzling, but this is not the case. Moisture within fat tissue can cause sizzling, but not the fat itself: add butter to a hot frying pan and it doesn’t sizzle, but spray some water in and it does! Today’s sausages tend to have more lean meat and less moisture. (The sausages that were made in the 1940s are horrible—very salty and less than 50 percent meat.)
Kentish bangers from the nineteenth century were, at 78 decibels, the loudest sausages in your study. Why is that?
Part of the reason is explained above—i.e. the amount of moisture within a sausage that isn’t bound to rusk. The Kentish sausage was interesting because the meat is chopped very coarsely. As pieces of fat melted, a sudden gush of moisture would strike the pan, causing very loud, geyser-like spraying fizzles.
Do you prefer a loud sausage or a quiet sausage?
It’s all about taste.
Of the sausages you analyzed, which one was your favorite, in terms of taste?
Difficult call. I actually quite liked the Kentish because the recipe is so simple—lots of chunky meat and pepper.