What Is the Difference Between Italian Sausage and Sweet Italian Sausage?

There’s a whole wide world of sausage, and some of it is hard to tell apart. Like, what’s the difference between Italian sausage and sweet Italian sausage? (And how about hot Italian sausage? And mild Italian sausage?) And can you use them all interchangeably?

You’ve got questions. We’ve got the meaty answers.

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Italian sausage vs. sweet Italian sausage

Italian sausage, as it’s referred to in the United States, is most often a pork sausage that is made with fennel seed or anise. It packs a ton of flavor, and can be seasoned with fresh or dry herbs. It’s the usual type of sausage that you’ll find in most pasta sauces, as a pizza topping, etc.

But what, exactly, is sweet Italian sausage? This version of the meat has the special addition of sweet basil. It’s still Italian and it’s still sausage, of course, but it imparts a sweeter flavor due to this herb.

Hot sausage vs. mild sausage

Ready for one more distinction? You’ve probably noticed some sausages are labeled as “hot” and others are labeled “mild.” The difference here is that hot sausage has spicy red pepper in its ingredient list, whereas mild sausage does not.

Can you use them interchangeably?

Yes and no. In most recipes, you can safely substitute “sweet” sausage for “mild” sausage, and vice-versa, without concern. If you don’t mind some heat, you can use hot instead of either too. And if your recipe calls for hot but all you can find is sweet or mild, just add some crushed red pepper from your spice rack!

Can you make your own Italian sausage?

You sure can. While the average home cook will probably want to leave stuffing sausage links to the pros, if you’re using bulk sausage (the kind you buy loose by the pound), or planning to remove the meat from the casings to crumble it into a dish, you can always just buy ground pork and add your own seasonings instead. 

Homemade Italian sausage recipes commonly call for fennel, garlic, parsley, sweet paprika, and oregano, among other spices. Red wine vinegar frequently appears as well. Add crushed red pepper for a hot version or try an Italian seasoning blend for a shortcut.

And if you don’t eat pork, you can use ground chicken or turkey for your homemade sausage instead.

Uses for Italian sausage

Italian sausage is a great addition to soups, stews, pasta, and pizza, and if you remove it from the casing, you can crumble it and use it similarly to ground beef. It’s great grilled on a bun in place of bratwurst (though it has a stronger flavor).

And while Italian isn’t usually recommended in place of breakfast sausage (the latter has a powerful sage flavor), nothing’s stopping you from trying it.

Italian sausage recipes

Use your favorite version of Italian sausage in any of these dishes.

1. Quick Italian sausage Bolognese

Italian sausage Bolognese

The Italian sausage in this recipe makes for an incredibly flavorful and rich Bolognese sauce that takes no time at all (compared to your usual Sunday gravy, especially). Try it with your favorite shape of pasta and add more hot red pepper flakes if you like a kick.

Get our quick Italian sausage Bolognese recipe.

2. Orecchiete with sausage and broccoli rabe

Orchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe

The sweet Italian sausage in this recipe is a great counter to the spicy and sometimes bitter broccoli rabe. Garlic, red chili flakes, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and fresh bread crumbs make for a dinner-party-worthy dish you can assemble in minutes.

Get our orecchiete with sausage and broccoli rabe recipe.

3. Italian sausage panini

Italian sausage panini

A good Italian sausage with peppers and onions is always satisfying, but those same ingredients also make a fine panini filling. Bonus: gooey melted cheese! If making these for lunch, we suggest adding a few extra links so you can enjoy the sammies for dinner the next night.

Get our Italian sausage panini recipe.

4. Italian sausage stuffed shells

Italian sausage stuffed shells

Italian sausage and plenty of cheese (ricotta, parmesan, and mozzarella) fill plump pasta shells in a rich tomato sauce, while 3 cups of spinach mean you’ll get your greens too. This dish can be made ahead and kept in the fridge so all you have to do at dinner time is pop it in the oven.

Get our Italian sausage stuffed shells recipe.

5. Italian sausage calzone

Italian sausage calzone

If you prefer your carbs in the form of bread, this stuffed dough roll is a perfect option for dinner or a party snack. And since we call for store-bought pizza dough, it’s nowhere near as hard as it looks.

Get our Italian sausage calzone recipe.

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