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The Virtual Gourmand #21: Sausage 101

DSC00394Lately, I have begun a culinary journey into the world of charcuterie.  This term is derived from the French words for "flesh" (chair) and "cooked" (cuit). It dates from the 15th Century, and was applied to shops that sold pork products. The definition has expanded to include meats other than pork, and also applies to patés and terrines as well as sausages of virtually any type. I don't expect to teach you how to make a fancy goose liver pate or a seafood terrine (I doubt you would even be interested in that), but every man loves sausages, and I can show you some very basic methods and recipes for some of my favorites.

There are as many different types of sausage as there are people who enjoy them. Some are cured, some emulsified, smoked or even dried and allowed to grow mold on the outside and age much like wine or cigars. If you decide to pursue this hobby further, I would recommend that you purchase Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman (who you might remember from Anthony Bourdain's travel shows on TV) and Brian Poleyn (ISBN 978-0393-05829-1), and Great DSC00409Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing, 4th Edition by Rytek Kutas (ISBN 978-0-02566860-7). Both are treasure troves of information for sausage lovers. Several of the recipes I am going to show you are from Ruhlman's book. You have to be careful with some of Kutas' recipes, as he is an "old school" sausage maker, and his measurements from English to Metric aren't always accurate. So have a conversion table handy if an ingredient (like salt) seems a bit excessive. There's nothing worse than discovering that a recipe is way too salty, and you have to correct it with more meat and spices after all of the work of grinding and seasoning is done. I know this from experience. A quick Google search will reveal numerous collections of other recipes, as well as forums dedicated to the craft where you can ask specific questions.

I am going to focus this article primarily on what is known as "fresh" sausage. It is somewhat rudimentary. But the same skills apply to cured sausages, which are more complex when you start bringing the different curing salts into play. "Fresh" sausage only implies that the sausage has not had any curing agent applied to it. It does not mean that it cannot be frozen. In fact, I would guess that 80% or more of the sausages sold in the USA would be considered "fresh" sausages even though they are sold frozen. Curing is only necessary if you are going to smoke or hang sausage to prevent botulinium bacteria from growing, as the meat is smoked at low temperature or dry-aged. Nonetheless, there are lots of your favorite sausages that you can make in your home kitchen. And you can make them tastier than those purchased at the local market.

DSC00410Making sausage is also a great way to use up trimmings from other meats you've prepared in the kitchen, pork fat from chops or tips from spare ribs cut down to St. Louis style. Bag them up, label them and freeze them until you are ready to process a batch. Even so, you are going to want to start off with some fatty pork. I prefer to use either what is known as a Boston butt (a shoulder roast from the top of the pig's front leg) or the Picnic (most all of the front leg above the hock, and also is sometimes labelled as fresh ham). Of the two, I prefer the Boston butt because it is easier to de-bone (unless you buy it boneless at a wholesale club). Picnics have to be peeled of their skin, and are much harder to de-bone even though you will get more fat than with the butt roast.

DSC00371Sausage has to be at least 25 to 30% fat to keep it from being dry. That means for every 5 pounds of product you have to make, 1.5 pounds of that product needs to be fat. Some butchers will sell you fat, but it is more likely you'll have to use either bacon ends and pieces or fat back to achieve the blog. If you elect to use fat back, either buy it skinless or in whole pieces where you can remove the skin before grinding. If you don't remove that skin, your grinder will be very cross with you. Fatback should be cut into skinless strips and placed in a bowl of water to soak and to rinse away the salt that was added to it. I change the water three times and slice up a potato each time to help leech out the salt.

If you are to make sausage, you will need some basic equipment. A grinder, a stuffer and a kitchen scale that measures both in English and Metric are essential. If you own a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, you're already ahead in the game. These have a grinding attachment that is fantastic (it's what I use myself) that costs about $40, and a stuffer (for about another $20) that attaches to the grinder. I'm not as enthusiastic about the stuffer as the grinder, but it does a passable job for a beginner. If you are looking for a stand mixer, Kitchen Aid is one of the best out there, and it will last more than a lifetime. Do not be afraid to purchase a "factory refurbished" model. You can get a better mixer fo a lot less money. The kitchen scale I have is a Salter (and is no longer being manufactured), but America's Test Kitchen advocates for an model made by OXO that can't be beaten for $50. A large stainless steel mixing bowl is useful as well. In my opinion, these three pieeces of equipment should be standard issue in every kitchen.

If you choose to make link sausage, you will require casings. Markets that make their own sausages in-house (which doesn't include most major supermarket chains anymore) will often be willing to sell casings to you. Whole Foods is a reliable source for casings in my experience. If you cannot find casings locally, Allied-Kenco out of Texas has everything you could ever want to make any kind of sausage ever made. They also have excellent customer service, reasonable pricing and are able to answer questions over the phone. Casings come in two forms: dry packed in salt or wet packed in brine. I personally prefer to use wet casings, as they are easier to work with, are already hydrated and are much easier to rinse the salt out of before stuffing. Dry casings can be kept on the shelf for at least a year, but leftover casings can be packed in water and frozen, keeping almost indefinitely.

DSC00408Cleanliness is also a must for making sausage. Even though my grinder attachment is dishwasher-safe, the dishwasher doesn't always get it completely clean on the inside. I always wash the attachment parts thoroughly before putting them in the dishwasher, and visually inspect them for any leftover food that may have caught in the nooks and crannies. Even after that, any tools that I am going to use are first sterilized. I fill my stainless bowl with hot water and add a capful of liquid chlorine bleach to the water. I soak all of my instruments in the water for five minutes before rinsing them in hot water and assembling the attachment. This seems a little extreme, but as you progress in sausage making into more complex recipes, the risk of bacterial contamination begins to climb nearly exponentially. Proper cleaning isn't that much trouble, and is useful if for no other reason than to make it a habit. You also want your work surface to be clean. Sanitizing wipes are very handy for achieving this after an initial wipe down with a clean cloth and some soapy water.

DSC00373Temperature also matters. Cold meat and cold supplies are the easiest to work with. Meat just on the verge of freezing is the easiest to grind. I keep my supplies in a bowl in the fridge until I am ready to use them, and after I have cut my meat into cubes for grinding, I pack them in a zipper bag and put the bag in the freezer until I am ready to start. I have even seen recipes that call for your mixing bowl to be placed inside another bowl containing ice to keep the meat as cold as possible. That is a bit extreme for our purposes here, but it underscores the concept of keeping the product as cold as possible. Not only is it easier to work with, but cold meat also reduces the risk of bacterial contamination. There is no better incubator for toxic bacteria than a sausage.

I won't go deeply into the process of deboning a butt roast. Most butchers will do this for you for free if you ask them and are friendly (it never hurts to get to know the people who work at your neighborhood market). If you choose to do it yourself, you will need a sharp boning knife that is flexible. Using short strokes, and holding the meat as you separate it from the bone, trace the shape of the bone as it is revealed by your cuts. It gets easier with practice, but getting the bone out cleanly shouldn't take you more than about 15 minutes. Cut the roast into 1 to 1.5" cubes and keep it in the freezer until you are ready to start.

DSC00374Once your grinder is assembled and your meat is cold, you're ready to begin. Your grinder, regardless of make, should have at least a fine plate and a coarse grinding plate. Some prefer to grind meat through the coarse plate first and then run the coarsely ground meat through the fine plate for a total of two grinds. To me, this is twice the work for little added benefit. You decide which.

Once your meat is ground, place it in the fridge until you have measured out all of your seasonings. Usually, an aluminum pie plate on the kitchen scale is an ideal way to do this. Set aside another bowl to accept the seasonings as you measure them out. Bring the ground meat out of the fridge, sprinkle the seasonings over the top of the meat and then wash your hands thoroughly halfway to the elbow. Why? Because you're about to use them to mix it all together. With your hands, mix the seasonings (and liquid, if the recipe calls for it) very thoroughly. At this point, you need for all of the flavors to marry overnight. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight. The next morning, take a DSC00383small bit of the sausage, form it into a patty and fry it in a skillet to test the flavor. Now is the time to adjust the seasonings no matter what kind of sausage you are making. If the flavor is what you are looking for, you are ready to proceed to the stuffing phase. If you are making bulk sausage (like breakfast sausage) you can pack it into zipper bags (or vacuum bags) in what ever portion you prefer and freeze it for further use.

Stuffing sausages into casings is a bit more of a challenge for the beginner. With a little practice, you'll be able to do it well and efficiently. First, you need to have your casings soaked and rinsed and your equipment sterilized--even the stuffing horn. I find it useful to coat the stuffer with a little vegetable oil spray to make it eaier for the casings to be mounted on to the horn and make it come off smoothly as I am stuffing them.

Select a casing and find one end of it. Slip this end over the horn. Using short strokes of your thumb and forefinger, slip the casing up onto the horn, compressing it on the horn as you go. The casing will want to slip and twist to one side or the other, so the short stroke will allow you to adjust the casing so that it goes on DSC00392evenly. If it goes on evenly, it will be more likely to come off evenly, and that will make the job much easier. When you get to the opposite end, let it hang off of the end of the horn. One small note: if you are using the Kitchen Aid stuffer, you do not install the blade or the grinding plate, just the auger and the horn.

Start the stuffer and put the sausage into the hopper until it just peeks out of the horn. Stop the stuffer, tie a knot in the casing and roll it back until it is snug against the horn and the meat. This step will avoid wasting casing with unnecessary air. If you had tied the knot before the meat was crowning out of the horn, the air in the machine would have blown it up like a balloon, or even burst it from built-up pressure.

Start the stuffer again, and let the flow of the sausage determine how quickly the casing comes off of the horn stuffed with meat. The first few feet, don't be frustrated if you have air bubbles or a few blowouts. This is to be expected. Bubbles can be pricked with a needle and blowouts can be compensated for by making irregularly-sized links. Concentrate on making the stuffing smooth. You are going to have to use one hand to load the stuffer and the other to catch the stuffed casing and arrange it on the cutting board. This can be a challenge, and is akin to rubbing circles on your belly with one hand while patting the top of your head with the other.

DSC00393Don't worry about making links at this point. Concentrate on turning the filled casings into a coil on the work surface. A little spritz of water will make it slippery enough to be easier. Once you've reached the end of the casing, turn off the stuffer and remove the rest of the casing from the horn. If you are picky about the length of your links, you can use a ruler to measure the links. I prefer a more rustic presentation. I want whomever eats my sausage to be able to see that it is hand made. Using short lengths of butcher's twine (sterile cotton twine), tie off the sausage into links. Allow it to air-dry, and then cut it into 2 link servings, vacuum pack them, label them and freeze for later use. Now that you have the basics under your belt, you can get creative with your sausage ingredients. As long as you keep your fat ratio at 25-30% and your salt at about 1/3 ounce per pound, the sky is the limit.


This is a bulk sausage recipe that is meant to imitate the flavor of Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage. It is fantastic in a peppered white gravy over biscuits, but is also a welcome addition to meatballs when combined with equal amounts of sausage and ground beef.

5 lbs. pork butt, ground

36 g. Morton Kosher salt (5 t.)--different brands have different densities

1 g. ground sage (1 t.)

2 g. red pepper flakes (2 t, or to taste)

2 g. thyme leaves (1 t.)

3 g. ground black pepper (2.5 t.)

2.5 g. ground coriander (1.5 t.)

Optional: 1/3 C. real maple syrup

Combine seasonings with meat thoroughly. Refrigerate overnight. Test seasonings by frying a test patty and adjust to your tastes. Package tightly in zipper bags, removing as much air as possible, or vacuum pack and freeze.

Classic Fresh Bratwurst (Ruhlman)

3 lbs. (1350 g.) pork butt, cubed

1 lb. (450 g.) veal, cubed

1 lb. pork back fat, cubed

1-1/2 oz. (40 g.) Kosher salt (3 T.)

1 C (140 g.) soy protein concentrate or non-fat dry milk

2 t. (6 g.) ground white pepper

1-1/2 t. (5 g.) ground ginger

1-1/2 t. (5 g.) freshly ground nutmeg

2 large cold eggs, lightly beaten

1 c. (250 ml.) ice-cold heavy cream

Combine all ingredients except eggs and cream and mix until seasonings are thoroughly combined.

Grind with fine plate into stand mixer bowl.

Using the paddle attachment, mix the meat on low speed for one minute. Add the eggs and cream, increase speed to medium and mix until cream and eggs are thoroughly combined and sausage appears sticky, about 1 minute.

Stuff into casings. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to cook. This sausage is highly dependent on keeping the ingredients as cold as possible. If it isn't, the texture will "break" and become unpalatable.

Italian Sausage, Spicy or Sweet (Ruhlman)


4.5 lbs. (2 kg.) pork butt, cubed

8 oz. (225 g.) pork back fat, cubed

1-1/2 oz. (3 T) (40 g.) Kosher salt

2 T. (32 g.) granulated sugar

2 T. (16 g.) toasted fennel seeds

1 T. (8 g.) toasted coriander seeds

3 T (24 g.) Hungarian paprika

1/2 t. (1 g.) cayenne pepper

4 T (24 g.) fresh oregano leaves

4 T. (24 g.) fresh basil leaves

2 T (12 g.) red pepper flakes

2 t. (6 g.) coarsely ground black pepper

3/4 C. (185 ml.) ice water

1/4 C. (60 ml.) red wine vinegar, chilled


4 lbs. (1800 g.) pork butt, cubed

1 lb. (450 g.) pork bacck fat, cubed

1-1/2 oz. (3 T.) (40 g.) Kosher salt

2 T. (32 g.) granulated sugar

2 t. (12 g.) minced garlic

2 T. (16 g.) toasted fennel seeds

2 t. (6 g.) coarsely ground black pepper

2 T. (16 g.) sweet Spanish paprika

3/4 C (185 ml.) ice water

1/4 C. (60 ml.) red wine vinegar, chilled

Combine all ingredients except water and vinegar, toss to combine and chill until ready to grind.

Grind through fine plate into stand mixer bowl.

Add water and vinegar and mix with paddle attachment on stand mixer until liquids are incorporated and product has developed a uniform sticky texture, about 1 minute on medium speed.

Stuff the sausage into casings. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to cook.

Holiday Kielbasa - Wieska (Kielbasa with Marjoram) (Ruhlman)

5 lbs. (2.25 kg.) pork butt, cubed

1-1/2 oz. (3 T.) (40 g.) Kosher salt

1/4 C. (72 g.) minced garlic

3 T. (18 g.) coarsely chopped fresh marjoram or 1-1/2 T. (3 g.) ground dried marjoram

1 T. (10 g.) ground black pepper

1/2 C. (125 ml.) ice water

Combine all ingredients except water and refrigerate overnight.

Grind the product through a fine plate into a stand mixer bowl set in an ice bath.

Add the water to the meat and mix using paddle attachment until water is incorporated and mixture develops a uniform sticky texture, about 2 minutes on medium speed.

Stuff into casings and refrigerate or freeze until ready to cook.

With some basic equipment and a little practice, you too can make sausage that will impress your friends and family.DSC00396

Owner/Publisher and CW Executive Chef lives with his family in suburban Atlanta.

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