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The case for homemade sausage

Making links or patties from scratch takes some patience, but your reward is sausage that suits your tastes.

September 30, 2009|Noelle Carter

It's a sausage lover's world out there, right? Especially at this time of year, nothing goes better with a great cold beer. The crisp crunch of that first juicy bite, the perfect blend of fresh ground meat redolent with toasted spices and pungent herbs.

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.

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Meat variations

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.

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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.

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