Cocktail sausages are not any single type of sausage, but instead are sausages that are made in a specific size. In general, they are small enough to be eaten in only one or two bites, making them popular as an appetizer and giving them their name. The sausages can be served on a plate or skewered with toothpicks, and they may be wrapped in dough or bacon and baked. A classic way to served cocktail sausages is to cook them in a sauce, usually one that plays on sweet and savory or sweet and spicy elements. These sausages are intended to be eaten sparingly, so both the sausages and the sauces used to have a reputation as being decadent and sometimes very high in calories.
The shape of cocktail sausages is generally similar to a standard-size sausage, just smaller. They are intended to be eaten quickly in only a bite or two. Very small links sometimes plump up when being cooked, giving them an almost spherical appearance.
The type of filling inside cocktail sausages can vary. Beef, pork or chicken — or a mixture of all three — are frequently found in commercially made versions. Some less common types, such as buffalo or duck, also are available. The sausages can be fresh, requiring cooking before being eaten, or cured, dried or smoked. Some types of cocktail sausages are made from very finely ground meat in thin casings, resembling small hot dogs, although these are sometimes called cocktail wieners or cocktail franks and are not always considered sausages.
Several methods can be used to serve cocktail sausages, although one of the easiest and most accessible methods at an event is to place a toothpick in each sausage, allowing it to be easily picked up and eaten without the need for a plate or utensils. They also can be served from a slow cooker with a thick sauce or wrapped in baked pastry dough. When glazed, the sausages can be placed on a piece of bread or inside a lettuce leaf so they can be held without making a mess.
The sausages are often coated or served in a thick sauce. Some of the earliest recipes for the sauce include barbecue sauce mixed with grape jelly, ketchup with brown sugar, and mustard with brown sugar. Other combinations also are used, including sesame oil, honey and soy sauce, or tomato sauce and hot sauce. The robust sweet and sour — and sometimes spicy — mixtures are intended to provide an intense flavor with each bite.