Granted, you can increasingly find some pretty good packaged sausages. But for the true fan, nothing compares to the texture and flavors to be found in great homemade sausage.
Sausage making is an art that spans almost every regional and ethnic cuisine, a craft carefully honed and perfected over thousands of years. For the first-time sausage-maker, the process can seem a bit mysterious. Not to mention daunting.
But make your own sausage, and you might never go back to commercial again. Make your own, and you're limited only by your imagination. Choose what kinds of meat you want to use, and flavor the sausage to suit your tastes. Best of all? Made from scratch, the sausage is your creation and you know exactly what's gone into it -- no mystery ingredients here.
Start with something like a simple, country-style chicken sausage. Combine just a few ingredients, and the sausage is ready to go. It doesn't need to be cased; simply form the loose sausage into patties and fry them to order. Studded with apples and onions, and scented with cinnamon and chopped sage, it's wonderfully fragrant and tender -- the perfect breakfast sausage.
Or riff on a classic, such as bratwurst. It's a rustic pork and veal sausage ground with a delicate balance of flavorings and spices. Case the sausage into plump, tender links, and they're ready to go, whether you're serving them up for Oktoberfest or grilling a batch for your next pre-game cookout.
Or maybe get creative with a bold and spicy sausage, like merguez. This lamb-based sausage gets its bright color and assertive flavor from fresh and dried peppers and chiles. Grill it, and serve it on its own, or use it to spice soups, stews and chilis.
While the ingredients are basic, sausage-making does take some special equipment, which is available at kitchen stores or online. Consider purchasing a food grinder. Though not essential (you can ask your butcher to grind the meat for you), a grinder enables you to flavor and season the sausage mixture before it's ground. Hand-cranked and motorized grinders are available, as are grinder attachments for heavy-duty stand mixers. You can also grind the meat with a food processor, but it's easy to over-heat and over-grind the meat, reducing it to a paste.
You also might want a sausage stuffer if you plan on casing your sausage. Tube stuffer attachments are available for most meat grinders, which are great for small batches of sausages. Stand-alone stuffers tend to be a little more expensive but are a good investment if you plan on making homemade sausage frequently, or more than a few pounds at a time.
Sausage-making should not be rushed. Allow yourself enough time to complete the entire process, from purchasing your ingredients to stuffing the links, in one day.
Sausages can be made from almost any meat, but the most common is pork. Pork is versatile, inexpensive, tender when ground and full of juicy flavor. Pork typically stays moist throughout cooking and lends itself to any of a number of flavorings. Cheaper, tougher cuts of meat, such as the shoulder, or "Boston butt," often work best.
An integral part of any sausage recipe is fat. Fat may often gets a bum rap, but here it lends flavor and gives a smooth, juicy texture. Recipes may vary from about 15% to 30% fat. This may seem high, but it's comparable to most commercial ground hamburger and lower than some commercial sausage, which can contain up to 50% fat.
Pork fat is used most in sausage making, regardless of the type of lean meat used. Back fat (or fatback), the white fat that runs along the back of the pig, is often recommended.
Keep it cold
When you're ready to start, cut the meat and fat into manageable pieces, about 1-inch cubes, toss them with seasonings and spices and then cover and refrigerate the mixture for up to two hours so the flavorings marry with the meat.
Half an hour or so before grinding, place the mixture in the freezer; it should chill almost to the point of freezing. Keeping the meat thoroughly chilled is essential. If the meat warms, the protein and fats in the sausage can separate, causing the sausage to break when it cooks, resulting in a coarse, grainy texture. It's also a good idea to chill the grinder and stuffer attachments before using.
Keep the sausage mixture well-chilled at all times, and make sure to grind it into a bowl set over ice. If the grinder blade clogs during grinding, be sure to clean it quickly to prevent the sausage mixture from warming.
When the sausage is ground, knead the mixture with your hands. Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, in their book "Charcuterie," compare mixing ground sausage to kneading bread dough; working the mixture develops structure. The final mixture should be cohesive, with a slightly sticky texture.
After the sausage is combined, test for flavoring and seasoning. Break off a bit of the sausage and make a small patty, then pan-fry it and taste it. When you're happy with the flavor, wrap the loose sausage tightly in plastic wrap (a large log shape works well; unwrap the log and slice patties as needed), or prepare the stuffer to case the sausage into links (if stuffing, plan to do this soon after kneading, before the sausage has a chance to "set up," or stiffen).
Traditionally, sausages are stuffed into natural casings made from hog, beef or lamb, generally from the intestines. To prepare the casing for stuffing, remove the length of casing needed for your recipe (typically 1 to 2 feet of hog casing, or about 4 feet of narrower sheep casing, per pound of sausage). If the casing is packed in salt, place the casing in a bowl of warm water. Flush the interior with running water to remove all of the salt, then soak the casing in fresh water until it is soft and pliable, about 1 to 2 hours. If you are using liquid-packed casing, you may need only briefly flush and soak it.
Stuff the sausage according to manufacturer's instructions and when the casing is filled, inspect the sausage for any air bubbles and prick them with a pin, then twist the sausage into even-sized links. Place the sausage on a rack and refrigerate, uncovered, for a few hours or up to overnight to set up. Uncooked fresh sausage generally will keep, tightly covered, two to three days refrigerated and up to two months frozen.
After it sets, go ahead and cook the sausage. Loose sausage can be cooked simply by pan-frying it in patties or by crumbling it into a larger dish. With cased sausage, cooking can be a bit more tricky. It may be tempting to throw those beautiful links directly on the grill, but that cooks them unevenly, potentially causing the fat to separate, even making them split and burst. To keep them beautiful, poach them first, just until they're cooked through. This cooks the sausages gently and evenly so they retain their moisture and smooth texture.
Now all you need is that cold beer.