There is a lot of pretty food in the world; Much of it provokes your salivary glands into action when you look at it. But if you lay out a bunch of pictures of beautifully photographed food side by side, the one that’s going to fire me up the most is going to be a perfectly cooked sausage. There is no food that makes me hungrier just to think about it.The snap of biting into it (because a great sausage link always, always, ALWAYS has a snappy casing), the perfectly moist interior, the balance of spices and herbs and the fat.
There’s no getting around it. A sausage needs fat. No fat/low fat sausages = not sausage. It’s true. If there is no or low fat it is simply spiced up ground meat stuffed into a casing. That’s not to say it’s going to be bad, but it is what it is and what it isn’t is a sausage.
For many moons, I’ve made my own bulk sausages (in other words, not in casings) but I’ve had a hankering to stuff sausages for quite some time. This urge, desire, obsession, whatever-you-call it, is the fault of Bell’s Meat Market in Kane, Pennsylvania. When my dad was working at a camp down in the Harrisburg area, Kane was directly on the path between our two homes. En route to or from my house, my dad and stepmom had discovered this little place in this little town that made what had to be the best hand made sausages any of us had ever eaten. Since the drive was well outside of the “I’d drive that far for a craving” range, the idea of making exquisite sausages (not to be confused with the a-okay for every day but not earth-rockingly wondrous variety available at local grocers) firmly rooted itself in my mind.
When Dad and Val moved back to the Upper Peninsula, Kane was no longer on the way to or from and the situation became culinarily urgent.
Then came Charcutepalooza. This “Year of Meat” project brought people from all walks of life together to get all meaty together. Cooking from scratch? You bet. Canning? Oh sure, everyone has dabbled in that, but preserving your own meat? That was hardcore. And I was all over it. I bought the “manual” for our collective project, “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing” by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. Reading that book made me feel like the heavens had opened and the angels were singing. There was the answer to my sausage conundrum. I had the method, I had the basics, and I was ready.
I recruited my nine year old minion because he is currently infatuated with the Two Fat Ladies and is willing to do anything and everything remotely connected to Jennifer and Clarissa (and he had watched an episode where they made Bangers and Mash the night before our grand project.) With Ty turning the handle on our old school meat grinder/sausage stuffer and me feeding meat into the hopper and then manning the casings (an admittedly off-putting and slightly blush-inducing job), we managed to turn out a glorious string of Hot Italian Sausage Links. To say we were proud would be an understatement. We shuffled around like the Tim-Conway-as-the-old-guy-on-Carol-Burnett saying, “Would you like some huh-weenies?”
Those sausages were not going to be admired for long. We popped half of them in the freezer (for later minestrone or Sunday sauce or some other such project) and put the other half straight into a pot to simmer in beer before their ultimate destination… The grill.
We cut peppers and onions into strips to fry up with olive oil and garlic.
Let’s have a word about properly grilling sausages, shall we? If you throw them on a hot grill and ignore them you’re going to, in all likelihood, have three tragic things happen.
- You will have unevenly cooked sausages.
- Your sausage casings will explode which will cause tragic thing #3.
- You will have dry little sausage jerkies because all the juices and fat will leak out on account of the breached casings.
There is no drama like sausage drama, so let’s discuss how to do it the right way, shall we? This applies to all “raw” sausages, not just homemade ones.
- Gently par-boil your sausages in something yummy. Beer, apple cider, wine? All good choices. If you want to know what is best to use, consider whether what you’re using for simmering would be tasty served alongside the finished sausage. If the answer is yes, then use it! The goal here is to get heat moving into the sausage, not to cook it completely.
- When you move on to grilling, put the sausages over moderate direct heat to start with so you get nice browning on the outside.
- When you have some nifty grill marks and tantalizing browning started, move the sausages to indirect heat (in other words, not directly over the flames/coals/what have you, until it is done through. For these sausages, that is 150°F.
When the sausages look like this, make haste in getting them off the grill!
These were crackling crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. This is a good reminder of why you want the casings to pop open only when you bite them. All that lovely fat and those intense juices from the meat were contained in the casing. If you do it right, you get to eat all that good stuff. If you do it wrong, it sizzles out onto the grill and is wasted forever and ever amen. Not to put too fine a point on it or anything, but a dry sausage is a sad sausage.
This is not a sad sausage.
Neither were the other two that I ate. I’m just being honest.