It's almost opening day for the grilling season. Memorial Day weekend for many means a trip to the market for a package of brats, Italians and dogs. You could, however, save the gas and make your own.
I doubt if any word brings dreams to more meat-lovers' eyes than the word "sausage." Sure, some of us adore rib-eyes, others, leg of lamb, and still others drool over venison or duck. Pork butt holds a special place in many hearts (and I'm not referring to arterial plaque). The meat-eating universe is big with many large and wide-ranging appetites. But whatever one's protein of choice, sausage holds a special place.
The word sausage comes from the Latin salsicus meaning seasoned with salt. Salt was initially used as a preservative, as it was until refrigeration became common. Removing moisture from the meat — desiccating it — made it less susceptible to bacteriological contamination.
Preserving a ham or a haunch of beef isn't that difficult. Salt it well, hang it in a cool place with good air circulation, smoke it, perhaps, to further dry it and kill surface contamination, and it will keep for quite a long time. The outermost layer of meat will dry out, but it can be trimmed off.
This technique works fine for big, solid cuts of meat, but what happens to the fiddly bits? Those bits of meat trimmed from the haunch, picked from the neck, wrapped around the tails — they don't dry well. They get hard and tough after a month or so on a rack. It turns out, though, that you can grind these bits up with fat (to replace the water) and salt and spices (preservatives), then pack them in casings and dry them to make salami, sopressata, South African droe wors, pepperoni and other cured sausages — and then those fiddly bits will last quite a while.
Despite the origin of its name, however, sausage isn't limited to the preserved varieties. Fresh sausage — sausage meant to be eaten within a week — also has its place. Fresh sausage also contains salt, herbs and spices and is also often packed in a casing. But although a casing is required to make a cured sausage (the mixture must be kept compact), it's just an option with fresh sausage. A casing on fresh sausage is more about presentation and convenience than anything else. And if you're ever bought Italian sausage at the store only to strip off the casing to use it in a dish, then you'll appreciate why I seldom make stuffed Italian sausage.
About 16 years ago I bought a stand mixer with the grinder and stuffer attachments so I could begin making sausage. I got some books on making sausage and began experimenting.
Those efforts weren't particularly successful. The results were dry and sawdust-like in texture. I quit trying until Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn published Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing. "Fat is fundamental to the quality of a sausage," the authors write. Sausage should contain 15 percent to 25 percent fat, they recommend. None of my other books had specified fat content, but it really is the difference between rich, juicy sausage and flavored sawdust. I specifically buy fat when I make sausage because even a fatty piece of meat like a shoulder is usually trimmed far too closely to provide enough lubrication. And remember, most of the fat will render out unless the sausage is in casings.
A kitchen scale also helps. Recipes specify ingredients by weight. If your recipe calls for 3 pounds of pork shoulder and the shoulder you bought weighs 3.75 pounds and you want a 20 percent fat content, then a quick calculation indicates you need to weigh out about a pound of fat.
Although I recommend a scale, you don't need a grinder or a stuffer. You can mince the meat and fat in a food processor (it affects the texture, but works) and a stuffer is only needed for stuffing sausage. If you want a grinder and stuffer, you can buy hand-operated devices for about $80 total — and my grinder/stuffer attachments for the Kitchen Aid stand mixer cost about that. In fact, if you're really dedicated, you can use a knife to mince the meat and feed sausage into a casing with a spoon - which is the way it was done for thousands of years. Although stuffed sausages are more traditional for grilling, there's no reason you can't make hamburger-style patties to grill or fry in a skillet.
Perhaps the greatest thing about making sausage yourself is you get to determine the results. If you love the taste of fennel in Italian sausage, you can add more fennel. If mild breakfast sausage is too mild and hot too hot, then you decide how much heat to add. Like the idea of mixing some gruyere into your bratwurst? Go for it. Can't find fresh chorizo in your town? Make it yourself.
Making sausage is neither quick nor easy, but there's little more satisfying than having some friends and family over for a cookout and serving them your own homemade sausage, with grilled sweet onions and peppers.
General Guidelines For Making Sausage
- Buy extra fat. Most meat is too lean to make juicy sausage. For pork, fat back is best, but make sure it hasn't been cured (salted or smoked) in any way.
- Cut the meat into cubes, toss with dry seasonings, spread on a tray and freeze for 1 hour.
- Chill the mixing bowl, and grinder if you have one, in the freezer.
- Grind the meat and fat together or process together in a food processor.
- Don't force the meat and fat through the grinder; just drop in a cube at a time. You can feed the grinder steadily — just don't pack it. For a food processor, pulse the meat and some fat in relatively small batches until about the size of small corn kernels and then scoop into the cold bowl.
- Chill the ground mixture for at least an hour after mixing. Mix in the other ingredients gently to avoid toughening the meat.
- For a finer texture, grind a second time after mixing, using a smaller grinding plate, and for a food processor briefly pulse in small batches a few more times.
- After chilling, fry a small patty, taste and adjust seasonings.
- At this point you can stuff the sausage into casings if you wish (or I often form it into 1/4-pound balls and wrap in plastic). Give it another 12 to 24 hours in the refrigerator before using or freezing for best flavor.
- I find that if I'm not using casings, bumping up the fat content is a good idea because much of the fat renders out.
- Traditional casings are made from pig, lamb and occasionally beef intestines. This is in the spirit of using the animal from nose to tail. However, artificial casings are also available. You may be able to get casings from a local butcher, but I order them on the Internet. Just search for "sausage casings."