I have been making a lot of sausages lately, and as each batch will typically give me some new insight into this craft, I have much to tell from my recent adventures.
You can learn all kinds of things from books on the subject; I recently went through a quick review of my sausage-making library. But as we all know, there is an enormous amount to learn about any subject we want to become expert at that, for whatever reason, never shows up in print. Maybe it becomes second nature to the experts, who then forget to write it down. Maybe it’s how they maintain their advantage — if you don’t tell ‘em everything you know, there will always be a reason to buy from a pro, right?
Before I get into the Secrets of the Sausage (which sounds like a title for a bad porno flick), let me stop and say that these are tips best appreciated by those who have made sausage before, or who really, really care about making top-quality links.
If you’re looking for a simple primer on sausage-making, I wrote one on Elise’s site she has posted here.
My recent sausage binge started with some extra pork shoulder I had left over after making Portuguese blood sausage. I needed to use the meat before it went into the freezer, and our annual Big Fat Greek Party was coming up, so I decided to make a Greek sausage.
Whenever I am brainstorming All Things Greek , I start with Diane Kochilas’s The Glorious Foods of Greece. In it she describes all kinds of sausages, but doesn’t really bother with recipes. It’s all something like, “in Thessaly sausages have cumin and allspice,” or “Cyclades sausages have leeks and garlic.”
So I then consulted Rytek Kutas’ Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing or Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie for some details. The recipes I publish on this site are always amalgams of written recipes, ideas from authors who merely describe what seasonings go into various authentic sausages, added to my original whim. The result of this was what I am calling my Cyclades sausages, or pork sausages, Greek Islands style.
These links, as it happened, were the best of a bunch of different sausages I made for the Greek party — although I forgot to serve them at the soiree, so Holly and I have been gorging ourselves on them this week.
In addition to the pork shoulder, I also made two types of Greek lamb sausages, which I did serve, and my Thessaly-style lamb sausages turned out to be a favorite among many who ate them at the party. Another hit were the Spanish-style longaniza sausages I made from the trim of the whole goat I broke down. These were my favorite of the party links, but the guests were evenly split.
What did I learn making all these links? First and foremost is what I call Hank’s Law of Sausage Cooking: It is impossible to cook a sausage too slowly. Good sausages hate high heat. Indirect heat on a wood-fire grill is perfect, but my indoor alternative is to put a spot of oil in an oven-proof pan, brown one side over medium-low heat, flip the links, then put them in a 300-degree oven for 20-30 minutes. They come out perfect.
Some other tips:
- When making fresh sausages, use fresh ingredients. This should be a “duh!” thing to say, but it bears repeating: I used fresh green garlic in many of my sausages, freshly grated lemon zest and fresh herbs and I noticed the difference.
- When you do use dry spices, toast them in a dry pan first. For whatever reason it makes them taste stronger, even weeks later.
- Buy the best casings you can afford. I had a near-murderous moment when the “premium” casings I had bought broke again and again. I’m glad no one was around when that happened; I had sharp knives handy.
- Leave some spices out for the final mix. When you do this, you get some whole things, such as caraway or fennel seed, or larger chunks like cracked black pepper or crushed juniper berry. This makes the texture of the link a lot more interesting.
- Vary the length of your sausage links depending on how rich they are. This is of course a matter of opinion, but I think leaner links ought to be long and skinny, and fatty ones shorter and plumper. I made a batch of classic white bratwurst last year that were so rich few could eat more than one — and those were only 5-inch links. Imagine if they were eight or nine inches.
- Spend the time to trim silverskin. It is a huge pain in the ass, but you so need to get your knife sharp and trim away gristle and the silverskin membranes on the meat, especially if you are making sausage from the trim of a whole animal. I’m talking to you, deer and pig hunters! I’ve had a great many homemade wild game links that were fine-tasting but really gnyah-gnyah…
- The poorer the meat quality, the finer the grind. If I am dealing with hopelessly gristly or chewy meat, or meat from an old animal, I will grind it a second time through a fine die (like the sausages I made from that old rooster). It will greatly improve your sausage.
- Choose your fat wisely. There is fat and there is fat. Choose the hardest fat you can find on the animal (not a problem on a deer or with beef fat) as it will freeze better and resist smearing better than soft fat. Use back fat on a hog if possible, although there is plenty of suitable fat in the shoulder. Just avoid using fatty bits that are stringy; they usually live between muscles.
- If you’re going real slow, add a bit of nitrite. This last tip is a bit controversial, as many people want to limit their nitrite consumption and fresh sausages typically don’t need any added nitrites. But if you plan on slow-smoking your links below 200 degrees, I’d advise a few grams of sodium nitrite (Instacure No. 1) for protection against food poisoning — it will also give you a beautiful rosy color within the meat.
- The liquid matters. The exact same sausage recipe with red wine instead of white wine will taste different. Vinegar will change it again, as will water or fruit juice or liquor; I’ve added ouzo in a few of my recipes. Put some thought into not only what kind of liquid you want to use, but also the quality of it — if you won’t drink it, don’t use it.
Finally, after several years of doing this, I feel like I am becoming an intuitive sausage-maker. I’m getting an eye for how much spices or herbs would overpower the meat, how long to make links, etc. All of this is pretty cool. But what I am really enjoying is learning balance.
I know, I know, it sounds all Karate Kid. “Balance, Daniel-san!” But think about it: A good sausage has all flavor elements in harmony. Savory is easy, so is salty. Sour can come from vinegar or a slow-fermented salami, sweet from any number of sources. Herbs need to play well with one another, as do spices. To garlic up a link or not? Will there be a star player, other than the meat?
Not every batch I do meets these goals; A sausage can still be good without doing so. My Cyclades sausages, however, met my expectations and then some — and it’s not just because I am eating one right now.