Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza, and pie—all of these are foods that would easily make a top-ten list of classic culinary Americana. But we’d argue an Italian-American sausage and pepper sandwich is just as deserving of a spot. Whether you’re wandering a street fair in a crowded city, grabbing a bite at a baseball stadium, or hitting the rickety rides at a traveling carnival, you’re likely to spot a concession stand featuring a large griddle loaded with juicy Italian sausages and a tangled pile of tender peppers and onions. Stuffed into a sub roll and handed unceremoniously to you on a paper plate, it’s a sandwich that’s quietly familiar, rarely talked about, always present.

It’s an easy sandwich to make at home as well. A proper Italian sausage sandwich should have a nice snap when you bite into it. The fennel-scented sausage should remain juicy and bulging (but not bursting) in its taut casing, topped with wilted, charred, and lightly sauced bell peppers and onions, all nestled into a hearty sub roll. It’s relatively quick (under 45 minutes) to make and relies on a number of pantry-friendly seasonings you probably already have on hand. The key to this homemade version’s success is the cooking method.

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

The best way to achieve perfectly cooked and “snappy” sausages that are plump, not wrinkled, is to first simmer them in a flavorful sauce until they register 145°F (62℃) before finishing them in a skillet for a properly browned exterior. Kenji uses a similar technique and rationale for grilled sausages, pointing out that if you cook a sausage directly over high heat, the casing and outer layers will quickly get very hot, causing them to contract while the raw meat in the center won’t have contracted at all. The frequent and undesirable result is the casing bursting open, expelling all the sausage juices into the pan, never to be recovered. You’re left with a sausage with a leathery exterior and a dried out and possibly still raw center.

Gently simmering the sausages first ensures the outer casing and the interior meat cook through at the same rate. A moderate and consistent heat avoids any fast contracting of the casing which could cause it to tear or wrinkle later on. Better yet, simmering in an intensely seasoned broth with garlic, fennel, and dried Italian spices infuses the sausage with even more flavor during cooking.

While the sausages are simmering, the iconic duo of peppers and onions are wilted and browned in a skillet. I prefer to use a cast iron skillet for optimal browning, but a stainless steel or even a nonstick skillet would work fine— just omit the preheating of the empty skillet in step 3.

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

The sausages are then quickly browned in the skillet before a portion of the concentrated tomato-based cooking broth is stirred into the pepper and onion mixture and cooked until the broth is reduced and the vegetables are well coated. Stuffed into a sub roll, it’s time to take a bite. The only question is, which American scene does the flavor take you to?

In a large saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add half of the garlic, Italian seasoning, fennel seeds, and crushed red pepper and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant and garlic is lightly browned, about 1 minute. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in chicken stock and tomato sauce and bring to a simmer.

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Add sausages to the tomato mixture. Return mixture to a gentle simmer over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally and adjusting heat as needed to maintain gentle simmer, until sausages registers 145°F (62℃), 8 to 10 minutes; remove from heat.

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Meanwhile, heat an empty large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat for 3 minutes, then add remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and heat until shimmering. Add peppers, onions, salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened and beginning to brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Add the remaining half of the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 1 minute. 

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Using tongs, push onion mixture to the edges of the skillet and place sausages into the clearing in the center of the skillet. Sear the sausages over medium-high heat, flipping sausages and stirring vegetables occasionally, until sausages are well browned in spots, about 4 minutes. Transfer sausages to a plate. 

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Stir 1 cup of the cooked tomato mixture into pepper and onion mixture in the skillet. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened and vegetables are well coated, about 1 minute. Remove from heat. 

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Place 1 sausage in each bun. Divide pepper and onion mixture evenly among buns, spooning any remaining sauce from the skillet over top. Serve.

Serious Eats / Victor Protasio

Special Equipment

Large saucepan, large cast-iron skillet

Notes

Italian seasoning blend is usually made from a mixture of dried herbs including oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, and marjoram. Feel free to mix up your own version using whichever of those dried herbs you have on hand.

Red pepper flakes can vary significantly in their level of spiciness, as does an individual’s tolerance for heat. Use more or less depending on the intensity of heat of your red chile flakes as well as your heat preference.

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