Making Your Own Sausage

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Kristen Frederickson

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The scandal goes on. Horsemeat in beef, across the UK, France, Belgium, even in IKEA’s beloved “beef meatballs.” And, as if that weren’t distasteful enough, there have now been discoveries of pork in so-called “beef lasagna,” from no less than the super-posh food retailer Waitrose. This latest colossal mistake registers not only on the “that’s gross” scale, but also on the more specific and sensitive religious scale for Muslims and Jews for whom pork is simply not acceptable.

Just over a month ago, when the first hints of scandal emerged, I jumped on my high horse (sorry, couldn’t resist) to lecture you all about the importance of grinding/mincing your own meat. This week, HandPicked Nation addressed the horsemeat issue directly, asking if readers thought eating horsemeat at ALL was acceptable. I would not mind eating horse if that’s what it was billed as, but I object strenuously to being fooled as to what’s in the food I offer to my family. My husband and daughter – and guests! – are dependent on me to provide healthy, true food, and I am increasingly unwilling to be dependent on my food retailers’ knowledge and honesty about what they are selling.

So it was just a matter of time before I turned my attention to sausages. It’s a famous joke, after all. “Legislation is like sausage: no one wants to see how it is made.” Well, I might not care too much about legislation, but I definitely want to see how my sausage is made. There could be ANYTHING in there. Are there stabilizers, preservatives, or various glutens bulking things up? Even if the basic meat is what they say it is, can they possibly be using the best cuts? And hygiene – my heart quailed to think of all the surfaces that were open to bacteria. I couldn’t trust them anymore.

I made my way to the local butcher shop, J. Seal of Barnes. There, I fulfilled my reputation as the “Crazy American” who wants to learn how to bone chickens and mince her own beef.

“Sweetheart, you don’t want to make your own sausages. It’s best left to the professionals,” said my stout, white-haired, twinkly-eyed butcher.

“No, seriously, how hard can it be? My mincer has a sausage attachment. All I need are some casings, and lots and lots of different meats,” I insisted.

Finally he relented and handed me a very small, wet plastic bag. “You’ll find enough casings in there to make plenty of sausages. Just soak them for thirty minutes and they’ll be ready to fill up. You’ll find that the whole experience takes you back to your teen years.” A roguish wink.

I came away with the casings made of lamb intestine, a pound of chicken fillets, a pound of pork chops (not loin, just the inexpensive cut), and a pound of venison.

It’s a two-person job, just so you know, or at least it was in my household. One person needs to feed the filling into the machine, and another must manage the filling of the casings. You’ll need a number of four-inch lengths of butcher’s twine, set within reach. Put the casings in a bowl of cold water.

I began with the chicken sausages. One pound of boneless chicken breasts (well trimmed of gristle and fat and cut into 2-inch chunks) went through the mincer, emerging so beautifully pure and fresh. Then the world’s your oyster: season the chicken with anything you like. I used onion powder, garlic powder, dried oregano (about 1 1/2 teaspoons each) and a generous pinch of salt and pepper, plus about 8 ounces/200 grams feta cheese, crumbled up. Add just a handful of panko breadcrumbs (or, if you are avoiding gluten, whizz a handful of rice crackers through your Cuisinart until nice and crumby). Mix well. Once you’ve replaced the mincing blades in your machine with its sausage nozzle, fit the casing on carefully, sliding it up the nozzle until it can’t accommodate any more length. Tie the end with a double knot and cut off the outside end of the casing. Now you’re ready.

It’s a learning process, to be sure. There is an organic, spontaneous skill in learning how much of the sausage meat must emerge from the nozzle before you’re ready to begin sliding the casing along. Gradually you learn the rhythm of the supply of meat and the length of the casing. If you encounter really troublesome air bubbles, you may be forced to make a tiny hole with a pin and let the air out. Simply put all the chicken mixture through the mincer and down into the casings until you run out. Then tie another double knot around the very end and cut the casing off.

For the truly professional touch, decide the length of the sausages you want and press down on that spot, making a slight depression. Then twist away, both hands twisting in opposite directions, until you’ve formed a sausage link. Twist longer than you think you need to, in order to make the links truly separate from each other and strong. Continue with the rest of the long casing, making individual links until you run out. Don’t overfill the casings; they will develop lesions and the meat will force itself out.

If you’re making more than one kind of sausage at once, you can push a bit of onion through at the end of each sausage “run” to force out any remaining bits of filling left in your machine. It’s also a good idea to wash the machine parts thoroughly with some warm, soapy water to keep things clean and to keep the different flavors from mingling.

For my pork sausages, I minced and sautéed a bulb of fennel and three cloves of garlic, then mixed in one tablespoon of crushed fennel seeds, a good grind of black pepper and a dash of salt. Another handful of panko or rice cracker crumbs and you’re ready to make your pork sausages.

Then, it’s onto the venison, which I put through the mincer and then prepared with two tablespoons of grainy English mustard, half a red onion (diced and caramelized), a handful of minced chives, a handful of crumbs, and a splash of red wine.

Once you’re ready to cook your sausages, you have loads of choices.

1. The Irish and French like to poach their sausages in either water or stock for about 15 minutes, then pan-fry them. This method results in an extremely dense, consistent sausage. Be warned that there is nothing less appealing to look at than a poached sausage! You’ll need the pan-fry step to get them caramelized.

(A word about pan-frying sausages: forget anything you have heard about starting with a super-hot pan OR pricking them first. Do neither of these things! My butcher assured me that it’s best to start the sausages in a cold pan so as not to shock the casings into breaking, and pricking only ensures that you will end by losing much of the precious juices within the sausage.)

2. You can pan-fry them from raw, of course, but do it over a moderate heat and take your time, about 20 minutes. Putting a lid on the skillet helps speed up the cooking.

3. If you’re not addicted to the caramelization thing, you can easily bake your sausages, again for about 20 minutes.

4. You can certainly grill or barbecue your sausages, if it’s not pouring down cold gray rain on a London evening in February.

This is all just the tip of the sausage iceberg, of course! The challenge in flavorings is the inability of the cook to taste the pre-cooked mixture. So it’s a bit of trial and error. I am longing to make a pork sausage with shredded mature Cheddar, and I think Boursin in a chicken sausage would be heavenly. How about diced sautéed red pepper, or even chilies if you like a bit of heat? Some people swear by diced apricots or apples in their sausages, and there is a classic Welsh pork sausage that is loaded with leeks, the national vegetable. Of course if you can get hold of a nice chunk of wild boar, you should, and the same for a bit of rose veal.

Fish sausages! Bouley Restaurant in New York used to make amazing ones, but I never had any idea what was in them. I can envision sausages made of fresh salmon and chives, maybe with a hint of crème fraiche? How about fresh tuna, wasabi and fennel?

You will have a wonderful time making your sausages. After a successful first go at it just for the family, we had a party to which we invited a couple of adventurous friends, and they had to admit it was a unique social experience. There’s the shared anxiety over acquiring a new skill, the tremendous thrill of getting the sausages just right, the heavenly anticipation of flavors to come, the kitchen heady with the scent of sautéed onions, fennel and garlic. And best of all? You will know JUST how the sausage was made.

Have you ever made your own sausages at home?

Photo Credit: John Curran and Avery Curran