On the third-most important Sunday of the football calendar (conference championships next weekend and the Super Bowl in three) I made my way to Oakville for a very appropriate cooking collaboration: Sausage Fest 2010. One of my earliest posts was about grinding beef for hamburgers and I have made homemade sausages before but this time Alex and I were going all out. Some might even say overboard. But they’re wrong.
If you come from a sausage-making tradition and have been participating in multi-generational sausage parties for years you probably don’t need to hear much more from me on the matter–except perhaps that pork shoulder is on sale and can be had for as little as seventy-nine cents a pound in some places–otherwise some research is in order. Online, the best place to start is a remarkable website called Hunter Angler Gardener Cook created by a gentleman named Hank Shaw. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that most of the sausages he makes feature deer, bear, and squirrel–the process is the same for grocery store pork. He wrote this dead-simple guide to making sausages on Simply Recipes, an advanced guide on his own site, and for those who prefer books here is his sausage and charcuterie library.
Every guide to making sausages stresses the need to keep everything involved as cold as possible. All the equipment should be refrigerated, the meat should be chilled for an hour in the freezer and added fat can even be frozen solid. As described in Hank Shaw’s excellent guide the goal is to keep the fat as a separate phase that doesn’t melt or smear.
To properly take advantage of the cold weather we decided to set up our meat grinding–including the awesome old school, manual grinder I recently as a gift–operation outside. In search of a little professional hand-holding I sent Michael Ruhlman (author of Charcuterie, the best beginner to intermediate guide to sausage making) a message on Twitter asking for his thoughts on al fresco sausage making. Predictably, he’s better at responding to fans who write to declare that his cookbooks have changed their lives (for the better) than to those of us asking real questions. Anyway, in the River Cottage Cookbook there’s a picture of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and friends (in various shades of ironic British country garb) crowded around an outdoor table in the sausage-making section. I suppose that will have to do for an expert opinion.
For those readers–especially the “guinea pigs” who will be tasting the product–concerned that the outside venue means that all sorts of nasty pathogens were invited to the party: relax. Every surface the meat touched was scrupulously clean and there were no guest appearances by friendly birds or insects. Plus, when the sun refused to come out my failure to bring a ridiculous tuque took its toll and we moved the operation inside.
Charcuterie has recipes for five-pound batches of meat and after a rough division we found that we had enough pork for five types of sausage–that’s twenty-five pounds for those not mathematically inclined. As a sort of hedge against flavour disaster we kept pretty close to the master’s dictates and made the bratwurst, the hot Italian, and the Mexican chorizo recipes from Charcuterie. For the other two batches no holds were barred and we let creativity reign. Each of us picked a food to emulate in sausage-form–Alex chose pizza and I went with a pork-based bacon cheeseburger.
If you want to try this yourself I can’t stress enough the benefits of reading and following one of the recommended guides. For those who are just following along for entertainment’s sake the process roughly breaks down as follows:
- Skin, bone, and cube the meat. Divide into batches, balance lean and fat according to the recipe, and add salt and spices (reserving 20% of whole spices like fennel seeds). Refrigerate.
- Grind and refrigerate.
- Add liquid and the reserved spices and beat using the paddle attachment for a Kitchenaid or a stout wooden spoon. Refrigerate.
- Stuff into casings, twist into links, and allow to dry at room temperature for an hour. Refrigerate.
Fittingly our efforts were fueled by a lunch of Buster Rhino’s excellent barbecue brisket and freshly ground veal shoulder and pork belly meat balls. After this repast we didn’t start working in earnest until 1:30 in the afternoon, but from then we went for seven straight hours. This was a ferociously grueling undertaking. By the time Alex dropped me off at the GO station for my trip home we were both describing ourselves as “dizzy tired” and “ready for an eight-hour meat nap”. All parts of the process are repetitive and don’t require much mental acuity so our plan for next time includes caffeine, music, and an assistant to pepper us with crossword clues. Also, we’ve resolved to move at least the boning, cutting, and mixing operations to a separate day and then grind and stuff the next day.
This is a fairly messy operation and there is no way to avoid porky hands. It really pays to copy out any recipes you’ll need beforehand instead of trying to flip through cookbooks. Make (and update) notes about what speeds and times work best for each step of the process (grind, mix, and stuff) if using a Kitchenaid. By the bleary-eyed end of the operation we were trying to remember which speed was best for stuffing based on the pitch of the motor’s whirring noises. As we found out, it’s also good to have all babies present firmly secured into bouncy seats and cared for by doting mothers and/or pork-bribed dogs.
Here are some more tricks that we picked up as we went along:
- Cold is important but the meat can get too frozen. At one point the stuffing tube jammed with a frozen cube of meat. About three minutes of waiting was all it took for the pork to melt enough to be pushed through the tube.
- Use the larger gauge stuffing tube in the Kitchenaid set. There are roughly three size categories of sausages: Those that use hog casings (just about every fresh sausage available from your butcher or grocery store), smaller ones that use lamb casings (some breakfast links and those spirals of mergez), and those that use larger casings (many dried sausages like salami, mortadella, etc.). Frankly, I’m much more inclined to try making salami so I don’t know why Kitchenaid chose the smaller gauge as the second option but definitely go with the bigger of the two for fresh sausages using natural hog casings.
- When loading the casing onto the stuffing tube hold the casing under a faucet, trap about three inches of water, and push this along as you ease the casing onto the tube. Hold the other end of the casing over a bowl or sink for the water to drain into.
- Lubricate the stuffing tube with water or pork fat to make the casing slide on more easily.
Once a length of casing (we figure they range from between four feet to about seven feet) is stuffed lay it out as straight as possible. Tie off both ends with butcher twine. Move along in six-inch intervals pinch between two lengths and then twist the new length to form a break with the next one. Twist in the opposite direction of the last link. It feels like it shouldn’t work but it does. Also if you’re doing it right everything except the link under consideration will remain stationary and you want have to worry about a two-foot length of sausage flopping around the counter.
We tasted samples as we went along–either scooped from the mixing bowl or popped out of the feed tube–fried in a pan and the results were remarkably good. Alex and family are coming to town this weekend for an official tailgating (go Brett!) tasting so I’ll have another post soon after with more on the fruits of our labour and perhaps a recipe or two.