This past September my wife and I bought 1/2 a hog and I had promised to write about some of the things I did with the meat. Well, as usual for me, I did a few things, like make bacon, but then didn’t write much about it after that. It’s not that we haven’t used any of the pork we got, it’s more the fact that I was too lazy to write about it, or didn’t think that the simple roasts we did were worth writing about. This past week I was determined to change that so Sunday was “Sausage Making Day” at the Martin household. With just under 10 pounds of pork trim, I figured that I would make 2 of my favorite fresh sausages, Spicy Italian and Mexican Chorizo. Someday I would like to do some dry cured sausage and salami, but in our current house that probably won’t happen unless I can convince my wife of the need for another refrigerator; one that holds beer in the summer and curing sausages in fall. I’m not going to hold my breath though.

I’ll give you the recipe for the Chorizo in an upcoming post, so that leaves the Italian sausage for today. Sausage making is not difficult, although people seem to think that it is. The only hard part is stuffing the casings, but that is always optional. You can easily make sausage and leave as bulk pack, ready to be turned into sausage patties, meat balls, pizza topping, or crumbled up and used loose. At its most basic, sausage is nothing more than seasoned meat, most often pork although just about any meat can be turned into sausage, that has been run through a meat grinder, or finely chopped. That’s it…nothing more.

Of course, we can refine that a bit to get a better end product. Sausage relies heavily on its fat content. This not only brings moisture and flavor to the sausage, but also helps to bind the sausage and adds to its mouth feel. Most sausages work on a ratio of 2 parts meat to 1 part fat. This is a rough estimation and your sausage won’t suffer if this ratio is not dead on, as long as it is in the ball park. Now you could get really anal about this and weigh out your lean meat and fat, making sure you have the exact right proportions or you can do it the easy way and just buy an untrimmed pork butt. This cut of meat naturally comes with just about the right proportions.

At one time sausage making was a way to preserve meat for a longer period of time, before the advent of refrigeration. Hogs were butchered in the fall not only because they were at their fattest then, but because the cool weather helped keep the meat longer. Salting and curing meats also helped stave off decay, allowing for longer storage. Today’s fresh sausages don’t really require so much salt as modern refrigeration takes over the role of preservation, but as with bacon, we have come to enjoy the saltiness of a good sausage so salt still plays a major role in flavoring. Beyond salt, flavoring options are virtually endless. Almost all herbs and spices are used in sausage making somewhere in the world, although garlic seems to play a prominent role in the vast majority of them.

One final word about sausage making. If you plan on stuffing sausages, please buy real casings. Some people might cringe at the thought of working with natural casings, but they really do provide the best texture and mouth feel. They are a little less forgiving than artificial casings but, in the end they aren’t that hard to work with.

Spicy Italian Sausage
makes approximately 16 4oz links

4 pounds Pork butt (or pork trim if you are doing your own butchering or cutting) about 70% lean and 30% fat
4 cloves garlic
4 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 Tbs. black pepper, coarse ground
2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. sugar
2 Tbs. fennel seed
1 cup red wine

Lightly crack the fennel seeds, using either a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Don’t grind it into a powder, but just slightly crack the fennel. Combine the fennel with the sugar, red pepper flakes, black pepper and salt. Set aside. Cut the pork into 1 inch pieces, removing any heavy connective tissue or silverskin. Also as you are cutting through the large veins of fat look for, and remove, any glands. You can tell its a gland because it will be a dark tan color surrounded by the white of the fat. It also will have a slightly gelatinous look and texture to it. Remove any that you find as they can lend an off flavor to your sausage. Finely mince the garlic then mash it into a coarse paste with the side of your knife blade. Place pork in a large, nonreactive bowl then add the spices and the red wine. Mix well to evenly distribute the seasonings.

Cover with plastic wrap and all to marinate for, at least 2 hours, or overnight. About 1 hour before you are ready to grind your sausage, place all your grinding attachments into the freezer to chill. At this time you will also want to soak about 12-15 feet of natural casings. They usually come salt cured so we need to remove the salt and rehydrate them. Rinse the casings in fresh cold water for about 5 minutes then allow to sit, in fresh cold water, for about 30 minutes. Finally, just before using, open up one end of the casings, place over the faucet and run cold water through them. They are now ready to use. Set up your grinder using the coarse die. Oftentimes sausage is ground twice, once through a coarse die and then again through a smaller die. For this sausage which I like a little more rustic I only grind it once through the coarse die. Working with a handful of pork at a time, push the meat through the grinder, letting it fall into a bowl below.

Once the sausage has been ground gently mix it by hand to ensure that everything is evenly distributed. The sausage is now done and can be used as is, or you can continue on to stuffing.

Set up your stuffer, per the manufacturer’s directions. While I would love to have a stand alone stuffer, that’s not going to happen anytime soon so I use my Kitchenaid and the sausage stuffer attachments. Lightly oil the stuffer tube then slip the casing over the tube, feeding it on until only about 2 inches are hanging off. Many recipes will then tell you to tie a knot in the end, but I find I get a large air bubble so I leave it open for now. With one hand, feed the sausage into the hopper. With the other hand gently guide the sausage as it is being extruded into the casing.

This process can be a little tricky so it may help to have a second person; one to feed the hopper and the other to guide the casing. Eventually, it becomes easier and I usually do it by myself. As the sausage is extruded and starts fill the casings, you want to guide the casing off of the stuffer. The sausage should fill out the casing, but not tightly. If you stuff the sausage too tightly you won’t have room to twist the links and the casings will explode. You also want to avoid any large air bubbles. Continue stuffing the casings until you have used up all of the sausage. Once that it done, tie a knot in one end of the casing, tight against the meat. Measure out about 5 inches of sausage then gently pinch and twist, making 2 rotations towards you. Measure another 4-5 inches and repeat, this time twisting away from you. Continue doing this, alternating between twisting towards and away from you. Once you get to the end, tie another knot again tight against the meat. Don’t worry, if you rupture the casing as you are making your links. Just remove some meat, cut the casing and tie it off at the point, starting again where you left off. I have made a good amount of sausage and still, rupture a casing now and then.

Put the sausage into the fridge, uncovered for about 2-3 hours to dry out the casings slightly, then package and either freeze for future use or use up in the next 4-5 days.