making sausage — a primer

grinding pork

We love sausage in this house. There’s really no disguising it.

When it’s done right, sausage can be a delight that lasts all morning. Whether it’s flecked with fennel seeds or hot with chiles, sausage pleases the mouth.

Unless it’s bad sausage. Mealy sausage that crumbles within its casing. Dry sausage that tastes of sawdust. Overspiced sausage that demands to be put down. No, thank you.

One of our favorite sausages is from Skagit River Ranch, their sweet Italian sausage. Every week, we bought a pack at the University District farmers’ market, and we parcelled it out all week long. Saturday morning breakfast was sad without it. Sunday was lovely.

When we moved to the island, however, we couldn’t go as frequently anymore. I sort of despaired of life without it. That’s when Danny told me, “Honey, we can just start making our own sausage more often.”

I like being married to a chef.

Danny started making sausages from scratch in culinary school and continued honing the technique at various restaurants where he worked, especially the French fine-dining establishments and bistros. He has taught me, repeatedly, that foods that seem beyond my ken simply require an open mind and plenty of practice.

Now, I take having homemade sausage around the house for granted. And we’d like to share some guidelines with you so you can do it too.

(These are all in Danny’s voice.)

* Start with a great piece of pork. Everything begins with a fresh piece of meat. Shoulder is the traditional — and still the best — cut of pork for sausages.

* Cut the pork into small pieces, about 1/2 inch each. These will make grinding the meat much easier.

* You will need fatback, since shoulder meat isn’t very fatty. Adding fatback to the meat helps to make sausage juicy.

* For 3 pounds of shoulder meat, use about 3/4 pound of fatback. This is a good ratio for whatever volume of sausage you will be making.

* Marinate the pork and fatback in whatever spices and flavors you want in the sausage. Let them sit in the refrigerator overnight.

* If you are grinding your own meat, you will need to put the pork in the freezer the next morning, for about an hour. Cold meat is a necessity. Work with the pork when it is between cold and frozen.

* Put all the attachments and parts to your grinder into the freezer along with the meat. Everything must be ice, ice cold for this to work.

(If you are interested in making your own sausage links, and you don’t have a meat grinder, you might want to look into a KitchenAid Stand Mixer, along with the meat grinder attachment and the sausage stuffer.)

* Crush a few ice cubes to go in with the meat as it is ground. This will help with even texture.

* Making sausage is a meditative experience. You can’t rush it, but you also can’t go too slowly. Be there as you grind the meat. Efficient, not fast. Slowly, but not dawdling.

* And it helps if you have a friend to help you with this.

* After you have ground the meat, put the ball of sausage meat back into the stand mixer and let it mix for a few minutes. This will also help the texture of the final sausage. You don’t want mealy sausage.

* Put the sausage meat back in the refrigerator while you prepare the casings.

* Casings are made out of pig intestines. If you make sausages, you are using more of the whole hog than you think. (They can also be made out of beef or sheep intestines.)

* Before stuffing the sausage, run water through the casings to open them up, loosen them a bit.

* Put the end of the casings onto the end of the grinder attachment. (There’s no other way around this — it’s like putting on a condom.) Before you start filling the casings with meat, take the dull edge of your chef’s knife and tap the casings, making little indentations. This will let the air out while the meat is stuffing into the casings. Do this every time you extend the casings out, every few inches.

* You don’t want the casings overly full, because you don’t want the sausages to burst from the casings when you cook them.

* Leave space on both ends of the casings when you are done — this will give you some room to even out the length of the sausage, if there is one part that bulges.

* You should have a long tube of sausage meat at this point. Stand back and enjoy your accomplishment.

* Next, decide how long you want each sausage to be. At that length, all along the tube, twist and crimp off the casing.

* Twirl them all into a circle (think Princess Leia’s hairdo in the first Star Wars). Refrigerate them and cook them when you want.

And there you have it. Sausage.

There are so many different kinds of pork sausages you could make that you could make a new flavor combination every week for a year and still not be done.

So feel confident. If the first time you make homemade pork sausages, you find them imperfect? Jump back to that grinder next week. There are sausages to be made. You’ll learn.

5 thoughts on “making sausage — a primer

  1. You know I always agree with you guys about everything, but…

    Shoulder is only lean if it’s from a factory pig and has been overly trimmed. I make sausage frequently without using additional fatback. (And also, less frequently, with additional fatback, but that’s usually if I’m making a sausage from something other than pork.) If you buy a nice hunk of shoulder it’ll be plenty fatty to make a good sausage. I mention this only because hunting down fatback is one of the biggest obstacles for the first-time sausage maker.

  2. @Matthew & fatback… you should come to Georgia, USA where I live. Fatback has its own section in the meat case, alongside all other things porky. Finding good quality pork that’s not been juiced up with other stuff- now that’s the challenge here. Thank goodness for our local farmers and few remainging real butchers!

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