Fish sausage: High-quality nutritional alternative to cheap gap fillers

by Thomas Jensen
fish sausages

An attractive and sustainable recycling opportunity for fish

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 3 2023.

Fish sausage has existed for thousands of years. However, it has largely fallen into oblivion as its filling has been replaced by pork and beef products. Nevertheless, it has never completely disappeared from the market thanks to committed entrepreneurs who believe in the success of healthy sausage alternatives and are always generating new product lines. Is this persistence finally
paying off?

The quote wrongly attributed to the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, “Laws are like sausages – it’s better not to be present when they are made”, subtly resonates with the accusation that some things are not quite right in the manufacture of sausages. Even today, the suspicion that some sausages contain ingredients that simply should not be there still persists. But who decides and where is it written which raw materials are allowed in a sausage? Sausages were originally used to preserve meat and to utilise as much of the edible parts of slaughtered animals as possible. That’s why sausages are also one of the oldest foods known. References to them can be found on 7,000-year-old depictions of life in Egypt, Syria and China back then. Etymologically, “sausage” means something like “mix or blend something together”. However, this definition leaves completely open, what exactly that can or should be. Pork and beef are the classics, but venison and fish sausages have also been recorded historically at court festivals since the 13th century. The fish sausage has been somewhat forgotten today but it used to be appreciated by high society as it lightened the culinary dreariness of periods of fasting (Lent). Eating “four-legged animals” was forbidden on up to 150 religious fasting days each year. Fish, on the other hand, was allowed and thus fish sausages served as a kind of “nutritional emergency supply”.

Incidentally, even in historical times, the production of sausages corresponded to those ethical principles that many feel today, as predominantly regional and seasonal ingredients were used. Added to that, sausage preparation was very sustainable as the whole of the slaughtered animal was processed into a foodstuff. Think of black pudding or meat in aspic, for example. Although interest in fish sausage declined after the Middle Ages, it never died out entirely. Take Germany. Considered the home of the sausage, with its Wurst-heavy food culture and an estimated 1,500 types of sausages from Lyoner to Bratwurst, Weisswurst and Currywurst to Salami, even there, fish sausages have never completely disappeared. German butchers are willing to experiment and have attempted various recipes many times. However, neither the fish salami nor the Leberwurst with anchovies nor the crab bratwurst has managed to seriously compete with the good old pork or beef sausage.
After all, as early as 1937, “Die Umschau” newspaper reported on attempts at the Institute for Sea Fisheries in Wesermünde (today Bremerhaven) to produce boiled sausages from fish meat. A good twenty years later, the news magazine “Der Spiegel” (5/1949) wrote about “Prime Sausage without” at a price of 50 pfennigs each, which the German Fish Sausage Factory (Defifa) in Bremerhaven produced from haddock. Defifa’s production program was relatively broad and, in addition to liver sausage made from herring, it also included ham sausage, bratwurst and bockwurst, for which red sea bass, haddock and cod were blended together through the meat grinder. “Since fish has now become socially acceptable as a sausage filling and is served with sauerkraut even in higher-end restaurants, other companies have also started to unleash their meat grinders on to the blessing of the seas”, wrote Der Spiegel. All fish sausage manufacturers shared the hope that fish sausage could gain a permanent place on the German sausage butchers’ hook.

Comparable health benefits to fish

In fact, sausages made from fish – whether for grilling, roasting or cooking – deserve more attention and appreciation in retail and among customers. It doesn’t really matter whether they are sea or freshwater fish or a combination of both. In times when vegan sausages are celebrating success in retail, there should be just as much space on the shelves for fish sausages. Not every fish sausage is suitable for ­vegetarians (many are in natural casings, sometimes pork fat is mixed into the fish meat), but the large volume of fish eaters should still be happy, especially since fish sausages also offer very similar advantages to “real” fish. They almost always consist of high-quality fish fillet, contain plenty of protein with essential amino acids and the valuable omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Not only health-conscious consumers but also children, who prefer fish fingers, are easily won over to fish when it comes in the form of a familiar Bratwurst that is guaranteed to be bone-free. Compared to conventional sausages made from warm-blooded animals, fish sausage contains on average only half as many calories, around 80 percent fewer fats of higher quality and three quarters less cholesterol. Fish sausage is therefore a healthier nutritional alternative.

Although the nutritional and health benefits of a diet rich in fish are well known, the large retail and catering chains rarely offer the fish sausages and usually only as a test. In 2022, for example, the Nordsee restaurant chain carried out a campaign with fish curry and fish bratwurst. These attempts, which started with great enthusiasm and expectation, were almost always abandoned as the hoped-for sales successes did not materialize and too much product had to be written off. However, one reason for the failure of such efforts is probably precisely this short-term thinking. If fish sausage is only available sporadically, almost as an extravagant speciality, and not permanently, only a few consumers will be enthusiastic about it and demand will stagnate.

In the trade, fish sausage is extremely rare

The list of attempts to develop appealing fish sausage recipes and successfully establish them on the market is getting longer and longer. In 2008, the East Frisian master butcher Peter Bolduan from Aurich allegedly presented Germany’s first fish salami, which tasted “slightly sour and fishy”. The enthusiast worked on the recipe for three years until he ­eventually landed on the correct mixture. His salami contained red sea bass, wild salmon, catfish, butterfish and pollock. Salmon provides a juicy pink, the butterfish imitates the bacon bits. A Mediterranean spice mix of pepper, curing salt, lemon grass, sugar and garlic gave the fish mixture the taste of salami. Years earlier, Bolduan had tried to introduce a seafood product for the grill with his fish sausage “Fjordi”. This was a clear success, which is proved when glancing at the refrigerated shelves of the stores where fish sausage currently plays practically no role. Other vendors fared like Bolduan, and their accepted good fish sausages met with little interest. Just a reminder of the “Wienys” from the Commercial Agent for Seafood Specialities “Schekerka” or the wieners from fillets, which were made from sustainably produced African catfish.


A fundamental question is, should products such as sausages made from fish taste like the “original” meat or, what would be more authentic and honest, like the actual original, i.e. fish? Currently, almost all attempts are aimed at imitating the taste of “real” sausage. This may be one of the reasons why many consumers stubbornly stick to the original, despite the healthier alternative made from fish. If there are no differences in taste and fish sausage usually costs more, it is difficult to see why you should switch.

Fish sausage suppliers such as Fischmaster even advertise that their fish sausages made from Claresse fillet, a hybrid of the African catfish species Heterobranchus longifilis and Clarias gariepinus, do not taste or smell like fish at all. The Fischmaster range of products includes fish salami crackers, fish fried and fish boiled “meatloaf style” sausage – all produced by hand without preservatives and flavour enhancers.

Fish sausage at branded products level

The Saxon sausage manufacturer Meister’s Wurst und Fleischwaren also produces a wide and very attractive range of fish delicacies in addition to the classic sausage products made from beef, pork and poultry. The fish used, ­African ­catfish (Clarias gariepinus) and Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), all come from Saxon aquaculture in Kirschau. That’s why Tilapia is also somewhat cryptically listed on the product labels as “Saxon perch”. In addition, there is carp, the most important species of fish in the Saxon pond farming. It’s amazing what the butchery experts at Meister’s conjure up from these three types of fish. Bratwurst, fish grills and patties, fish cakes and boiled sausage as well as two tasty varieties of fish in aspic. Some of them even in various flavours from paprika & chilli to spicy lemon to herb butter & orange. There are also smoked products made from skinless Tilapia fillets and bone-cut carp fillets. Everything is very attractively sealed for self-service using vacuum packing or in skin shrink packs. An eye-catching, fish-based all-in-one package that will do credit to any fish department and is sure to peak customer interest.

The North German butcher Mühlenbeck in Schiffdorf-Spaden has expanded its traditional range of boiled and fried sausages, cooked sausages, cooked cured products as well as spreadable and sliceable Mettwurst sausages with some fish sausage products. In cooperation with the Bremerhaven fish wholesaler Transgourmet Seafood, the family company Mühlenbeck, founded in 1908, has developed a bratwurst and a currywurst based on African catfish, which can hardly be distinguished from the original products in terms of appearance and taste. During blind tastings, test persons, who had no idea of the “fishy” origin of the sausages, were amazed when they were informed about the composition of the products. It is obvious why numerous producers are particularly fond of using fillets of African catfish when making fish sausages. Above all, the low price and the constant availability should be mentioned here, because this fish is now reared in recirculation systems in many European countries. In addition, the firm catfish meat is particularly suitable for fish sausage. Its proportion in sausage meat usually varies between 70 and 90 percent.

However, a look at the Internet shows that far more types of fish are used for the production of fish sausage worldwide. The search engines show more than 100 million websites with relevant information, recipes and preparation methods under the terms “fish” and “sausage”. Tuna, marlin, bonito and salmon are used particularly frequently as raw materials for the production of fish sausage. Processing is usually done at relatively low temperatures because fish proteins are quite delicate and will denature prematurely when exposed to high heat. This sometimes causes problems, because harmful bacteria have a better chance of surviving in the raw fish sausage meat at low temperatures. In order to limit bacteria growth, it is often necessary to use preservatives such as sodium sorbate when making fish sausages.

Possibility of exploitation for less popular fish species

It is also economically viable to use fish as a raw material, in particular as the possibility exists of using lower-quality fish species that are otherwise very difficult to market, as well as mechanically separated meat that remains stuck to the bone after filleting. In Brazil, for example, targeted studies were carried out on how by-catches from shrimp fisheries can be used to make surimi and fish sausage. Fish species with little commercial value were tested, such as the Brazilian flathead (Percophis brasiliensis), for which there is otherwise little demand. In tastings, the fish sausages were very popular with consumers attaining acceptance values of almost 90%. The authors of the studies concluded that this results in a real opportunity to use previously despised fish species sensibly for healthy fish sausage with high nutritional value, which is very popular with consumers and a pleasure to eat.

Although the per capita consumption of fish in Brazil has already risen significantly after massive advertising campaigns, it was still at a relatively low level in 2020 at around 9.5 kg, according to FAO estimates. The main reasons for this are, according to experts, the considerable problems in sales and marketing, traditional eating habits, which primarily favour meat and sausage products, and the lack of knowledge about how to prepare the fish alternative. One way to solve this problem of changing consumer interests in connection with an increasingly urban lifestyle is to offer an even broader range of ready-to-eat or semi-ready foods that can be prepared quickly and easily. Fish sausage could easily exist within these requirement concepts. It is therefore worthwhile for everyone involved, from manufacturers to retailers to consumers, to continue to push the development of fish sausages.

Manfred Klinkhardt

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