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.
- 4½ pounds boneless pork shoulder butt, trimmed of sinew (but not fat) and cut into 1½" cubes
- 8 ounces pork back fat, partially frozen and diced into ½" cubes
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons white or raw sugar
- 3 tablespoons fennel seeds, toasted or not
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander (or 1 tablespoon coriander seeds)
- 3 tablespoons sweet paprika (not hot)
- ½-1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (depending on how hot you like it)
- 4 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves (or 1¼ teaspoons dried)
- 4 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves (or 1¼ teaspoons dried)
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley (or ½ teaspoon dried)
- 2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- ¾ cup ice cold water
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar, well chilled
- Combine the pork and the rest of the ingredients (minus the vinegar and water) and toss to evenly distribute the seasonings. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-12 hours before proceeding.
- Using a small die or disc on your meat grinder, grind the meat/spice mixture.
- Transfer the meat into the work bowl of your stand mixer (or into a very large mixing bowl) and mix the vinegar and water in with the paddle attachment (or a hefty, sturdy spoon) until the liquids are all fully incorporated and the meat is sticky and uniform in appearance. This should take about 1 minute on medium speed.
- Pinch off a quarter-sized amount of the sausage and pan fry it to check for seasonings. Adjust if necessary before proceeding.
- Thread the casings onto your sausage stuffer and fill, taking care not to overfill but also not to leave air pockets, and twist it into links of your desired size.
- Cook immediately with desired method or store tightly wrapped in the freezer.
- 6 raw hot Italian sausage links
- 1 can (12 ounces) drinkable quality beer (lager or ale is a good choice here)
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, sliced into half and then into thin strips
- 2 large bell peppers, green, red, orange or yellow or a blend, sliced into thin strips
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 6 hearty sausage rolls or Homemade Hot Dog Rolls
- Lots of yellow mustard!
- Preheat half of your grill to high (or build a bed of moderately hot coals on one half of the grill.
- Place the sausage links in a single layer in a heavy-bottomed skillet and pour the beer over the top. Put the lid on the pan and bring up to a boil, covered tightly, over medium high heat. As soon as it boils, remove the lid, drop the heat to low and simmer for 1 minute only.
- Transfer the sausages to the hottest part of the grill. Cook them, turning often, until they start to become golden brown.
- Immediately move them to the coolest part of the grill and let them cook , turning frequently, until they are very hot all the way through (150°F on an instant read thermometer).
- Move the sausages to a platter and tent loosely with foil while working on the peppers and onions.
- Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium high heat. Add the sliced peppers, onions, and garlic, sprinkle with salt, and stir to coat. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the peppers and onions are tender with just a little bite in the center. Transfer to a bowl.
- Serve each sausage on a bun, smeared with yellow mustard and piled with sauteed peppers and onions!