The Missing Link: An Exploration of Sausage

Now that it’s finally beginning to get frigid outside, we should explore that lovely outdoor past time of the barbecue.

I won’t lie-I love a good, seared piece of meat.  Steaks, chicken breasts, pork chops, even whole racks of lamb perform admirably on the grill.  But sometimes, direct heat isn’t all you want to bring to the table.  Sometimes, that perfect crust on your solid slice of meat should take the backseat to a more balanced and subtle induction of flavor.  This time-consuming labor of love is known as smoking.

Look at that beautiful smoke stack!  Say... does anyone else want to watch Titanic?

Look at that beautiful smoke stack! Say… does anyone else want to watch Titanic?

Smoking opens up a whole new world of possibilities for cooking.  The cooking process and the preparation process begin to take equal weight here, as you now need to balance spices and marinades with the skill of maintaining a consistent temperature and a steady flow of thick smoke.  Sausage in particular responds to this environment by taking on different levels of delectability.

One of the fun things about sausage is the substantial variety of cuts of meat.  Most recipes use pork as a base, I assume because it’s easiest to grind up and relatively neutral in flavor, but you can use whatever your heart desires.  Turkey breast, veal, and chicken are all great additions to sausage; and that’s before you get to the really wild stuff.  Want a sweet breakfast sausage?  Add some maple syrup!  Want something a little bit herbal and sweet?  Add some chunks of apple and sage to that puppy!

Not that I’m advocating using puppy for sausage meat.  I’m getting side tracked, sure, but I’m not a monster.

No more talk about puppies.  Look! Meat!

No more talk about puppies. Look! Meat!

For this blog, we’ll focus on the American Fourth of July staple, the noble hot link.  I love hot links… who am I kidding? I love everything meaty and delicious. But hot links are diverse and go well with almost everything. In fact, I made the links themselves and smoked half of them, then placed the other half in a hot skillet with some olive oil. I ended up with half the yield as hot links going awesome with barbecue sauce and half the yield as spicy Italian sausage, which went awesome with marinara. I love a meal in the midst of an identity crisis.   Let’s get to the basic recipe I started with. Granted, I never write my recipes down because I like a bit of danger in the kitchen, but this is a start:

4 lbs of cubed pork (those cubed family packs in the grocery store are fine)
1 Tbsp salt
2 Tsp cayenne pepper
2 Tsp paprika (I used smoked)
2 Tsp dried basil
2 Tsp dried oregano
2 Tsp caraway seeds
1 Tsp dried sage
1 Tsp thyme
6 cloves crushed garlic
Several cracks of fresh black pepper

That’s basically it. I do distinctly remember getting to this point whilst working on the sausage, and suddenly deciding to clean out the spice rack. You can add whatever you’d like to make the sausage kick a bit. I’ve found the 1 tsp per 2 lbs of meat mixture works pretty well for most powdered and ground spices, so you may as well experiment with it a bit. There’s no problem with porkin’ around in the kitchen and having a bit of fun.

Now THAT's some nicely ground goodness.  It smells... amazing.

Now THAT’s some nicely ground goodness. It smells… amazing.

Also, my methodology past this point is really based on how much effort you’re willing to put into your sausage. I threw everything in a big mixing bowl and combined it until the pork cubes were evenly coated, then let it sit overnight in the fridge. The following morning, I put the bowl in the freezer for twenty minutes while I set up the meat grinder attachment on my stand mixer. I ran the entire mixture – pork and spices – through the grinder on a coarse setting twice before I was satisfied with the mixture.

The alternative here is, of course, to buy pork that’s ground already and mix it with the spices, but I like having a bit of control. If you do skip the grinding step, make sure you stop by a butcher shop and get coarse ground pork. Your sausages will thank you later.

Let’s talk sausage stuffing for a moment. Once you’ve got everything ground and good to go, you could really go with the littlest effort possible. Heck, you can shape them into patties and throw them in a skillet until they’re browned and delicious. You can even skip shaping into patties and have chunks of preground sausage browning if you feel like it, you savage. However, if you want to smoke the sausages, you probably don’t want your hard work falling through the grate of your barrel smoker. That’s when you give up, crack open a beer and order barbecue take out.

Links are much easier to work with.

Links are much easier to work with.

Sausage casings are actually quite easy to work with if you have a stand mixer with the sausage attachment. You don’t have to get the professional grade KitchenAid with a Cummins/Hemi Turbo Diesel engine, you can go with a more reasonable model, but I promise it’s worth it. It opens up new possibilities with breads, pastries, and now meats. And, most often, you can just walk up to the butcher section of your local grocery store and ask if they’ll sell you some sausage casings. They’ll charge you by the pound, which makes them a very cheap addition. If you’re using this much meat, you’ll need about nine feet of sausage casings. Soak the casings overnight in a bowl of water with a bit of apple cider vinegar.

I don’t know what the vinegar does.

I just realized, while writing this, that I have no idea what the vinegar does. Rather than research it, let’s come up with something on our own. Erm… Vinegar is acidic, so let’s just say that the acid will cause the sausages to constrict a bit after they are stuffed and drying, making for a plumper final product. Does that sound reasonable? Sure. #OutlawKitchen

There.  It looks weird, I know, but it works like a charm.

There. It looks weird, I know, but it works like a charm.

Next, you want to lubricate the nozzle of your sausage stuffer. Grab a bit of softened butter and rub it on the exterior of the nozzle. Then just work your sausage casing up the nozzle, all nine feet will fit easily.   Make sure the end is closed, as you don’t want the sausage mixture just flopping out on the counter. I promise, I tried, and there is no way to make that paragraph more awkward. Enjoy it.

After your casing is loaded up on the nozzle, you can start throwing a bit of the mixture in the top of the meat tray (also awkward) and working it through the stuffer. I cannot tell you how to go through this process, but I can say that while it is messy and awkward, it does get easier as you go through it. I can’t wait to have kids and destroy the kitchen with a sausage project – they’ll love it! My method was simply to stuff the sausage up to about 8 inch links, then just twist the casing to create a makeshift seal. It worked pretty well.

After your sausage is stuffed, you do want to dry them out for about half an hour. I chose the drip-dry method, and hung them on a piece of kitchen string between two cabinet handles. The picture explains better than I can. Also, while your sausage is drying, grab a safety-pin and poke a bunch of tiny holes all over the casing. This will keep the sausage from splitting, like little delicious pipe bombs of glorious porky goodness while they cook.

I learned this method from Emeril, obviously.

I learned this method from Emeril, obviously.

Next, you have the actual cooking process. Like I said, you can smoke if you’re comfortable with it, but that process is also a learn-by-doing process. I used a back of hickory chunks, soaked them overnight, and fed them to my smoke box over the course of two or so hours. Don’t feel bad if you have to finish your hot links off in the oven; my smoker held steady at about 175 degrees, and I didn’t want to give my guests trichinosis, so I put the links in an oven at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes until I was satisfied they were fully cooked through. They came out fantastic.

What are you waiting for? Go get some meat and start grinding! Seriously, sausage is a fun pastime, and you can get everyone in on the messy but fun project in the kitchen. Do it for America, you beautiful patriot.

That's how sausage should look.  Mmmm.

That’s how sausage should look. Mmmm.

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