With the possible exception of the hot dog, no sausage looms larger in my mind than does the simple sweet Italian sausage. I’ve eaten more of this type of link than any other — including hot dogs — and I’ve been making it, off and on, for nearly 20 years.
This is the sausage swimming in the spaghetti sauce. It’s the one you eat with peppers and onions. It’s the stuffing for pretty much everything, the base for meat sauces and the star of many a sandwich.
Originally a sausage made by and for Italian immigrants to the United States, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food in America, this style spread in popularity across the country after Word War II, when returning GIs who’d eaten real Italian sausages wanted that flavor back home.
Virtually every supermarket worth its salt makes their own, and virtually every home sausage-maker has his or her own version. This one’s mine, developed over the years.
Sweet Italian sausage has a few commonalities no matter who makes it. For starters, “sweet” is a misnomer, although there is sugar in many recipes, including mine. The term sweet is mostly to differentiate this sausage from the hot Italian sausage, which will have lots of red pepper in it.
Fennel is another constant. If a sweet Italian link doesn’t have whole fennel seeds in it, something just doesn’t seem right to me. Lots of green things, typically chopped parsley, is another constant. Use fresh parsley here, too.
I prefer my Italian sausage a bit coarse, but not so coarse it won’t bind. My grinder only does coarse and fine, so I improvise by grinding half the mixture coarse and half fine; I find that this gets me the consistency I grew up with.
A word on fat. Good Italian sausage is fatty. My recipe below is about the minimum amount of fat-to-meat you want to go. Sometimes I go with 3 1/2 pounds of meat to 1 1/2 pounds of fat. You can also use some really fatty pork shoulder, too: Ask your butcher to give you a five-pound hunk before he’s trimmed it.
That’s it, really. This is a very simple sausage, a utility link you will find yourself making over and over because while it has great flavor on its own, this sausage goes well with all kinds of dishes (especially my Bolognese sauce).
Sweet Italian Sausage
- 4 pounds of lean (ish) pork or wild boar
- 1 pound of pork fatback
- 36 grams of kosher salt, about 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon
- 30 grams of sugar, about 3 tablespoons
- 18 grams of fennel seeds, about 2 heaping tablespoons
- 10 grams freshly cracked black pepper, about a heaping teaspoon
- 1 gram of nutmeg, about 1/4 teaspoon
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 heaping teaspoon fennel pollen (optional)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1/2 cup white wine, chilled
- Hog casings (if you are linking your sausage)
- Get out about 15 to 20 feet of hog casings and soak them in warm water.
- Cut the meat and fat into chunks you can fit into your meat grinder. Mix together the salt, sugar, half the fennel seeds, black pepper, nutmeg, oregano and fennel pollen, then mix this with the meat and fat until every piece has a little on it. Put in the freezer until the meat and fat are between 30°F and 40°F. Put your grinder parts (auger, dies, blades, etc) in the freezer, too, and put a bowl in the fridge.
- Grind half of the mixture through the coarse die on your grinder, and half through the fine die. This creates a more interesting texture. If your meat mixture is still at 35°F or colder, you can go right to binding. If it has heated up, you need to chill everything back down. Use this time to clean up the grinder.
- Once the meat is cold, put it in a large bin or bowl and add the remaining fennel seeds, white wine and parsley. Mix well with your (very clean) hands for 2 to 3 minutes -- a good indicator of temperature is that your hands should ache with cold when you do this. You want to to mix until the meat binds to itself. You can also do this in a stand mixer set on its lowest setting, but I find you don't get as good a bind as you do when you do this by hand.
- You now have Italian sausage. You can leave it loose, form it into patties, or link it. I link mine most of the time. Put the loose sausage into a stuffer and thread a casing onto it. Stuffing sausage is easier with two people, one to fill the links, the other to coil, but I do it solo all the time. Stuff the links well but not super-tight, as you will not be able to tie them off later if they are too full. Don't worry about air pockets yet. Stuff the whole casing, leaving lots of room on either end to tie them off; I leave at least three inches of unstuffed casing on either end of the coil.
- To form the individual links, tie off one end of the coil. Now pinch off two links of about six inches long. Rotate the link between your hands forward a few times. Look for air pockets. To remove them, set a large needle or a sausage pricker into a stovetop burner until it glows (this sterilizes it), then pierce the casing at the air pockets. Twist the links a little and gently compress them until they are nice and tight. Repeat this process with the rest of the sausage.
- Hang your links on a wooden clothes drying rack for at least an hour, or up to overnight if you can hang them in a place that doesn't get any warmer than 40°F or so. This lets the links cure a little, filling their casings and developing flavor. Once you've taken the links off the hanger, they can be refrigerated for up to 3 or 4 days, or frozen for up to a year.