Check Out My Awesome Sausage

Some time last year, I purchased a food grinder attachment for our KitchenAid stand mixer, with visions of homemade sausage and burger patties dancing in my head.  Soon after it arrived, we threw a grilling party and invited some friends over to try out some freshly ground burgers.  This was probably the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in the kitchen as I had violated the cardinal rule of cooking for guests: never serve anything you haven’t successfully made before.

When I passed the chunks of beef through the grinder, some fat and gristle hit the grinder blade and clogged up the works.  The meat that did make it through the grinder into the bowl was devoid of fat and flavor, which resulted in horribly compact, dried out pucks of grilled meat.  I was not pleased, and I expressed my great displeasure by banishing the grinder attachment to the dark recesses of our kitchen cabinet, never to be used again.  Having missed a routine fly ball, was I blaming the glove?  In hindsight, yes.

Time, as the saying goes, heals all wounds.  So, like finding an old college buddy on Facebook, the craving to explore uncharted waters made me reconnect with my grinder attachment after nearly a year of exile.  The mission: homemade sausage.  The unavoidable challenge – I would have to try my hand at grinding meat again.  I was hoping that my grinder would not turn out to be the Kobayashi Maru of meat.

I had been considering making my own sausage for several months, but out of the universe of food, sausage is one of those items with a greater  potential ick factor.  It’s not so much the grinding of the meat, really, than the average person’s unfamiliarity with sausage casings.  Having never worked with casings before, I had this nightmarish vision of cracking open a tub of tubes, getting hit full-on in the face with an odor that would confirm that, yes, these are organic casings that were once piggy parts, then losing my nerve to make sausage forevermore.  Sure, I could just form the loose sausage mixture into patties and fry them, but that’s not REAL sausage.  Real sausage comes in links.  Real sausage is measured using the length of your arm.

To my great and welcome surprise, and as a reassurance to all of you, there was no odor at all, and working with the casings is actually quite easy.  They come packed in coarse salt to keep them dry, and prepping them is as easy as dumping the whole lot into a pot of cool water, using your fingers to separate them, then running cool water through them.  While I initially regarded $7 as a bit on the pricey side for casings, I didn’t realize that the plastic tub contains quite a few casings, and you’re only going to need one or two per batch of sausages.  In other words, so long as you repack your leftover casings in salt and keep them in the fridge, you shouldn’t need to buy more casings for quite a while.

The sausage turned out unexpectedly well, and the grinding went without a hitch, thanks to a few very critical tips that I did not have the benefit of knowing the first time around.

First, it’s important to keep everything as cold as possible – that means freezing your cubes of meat and fat until they are slightly firm, and refrigerating the various parts of your grinder attachment.  The semi-frozen fat, when it hits the grinder blade, will be ground up and passed through to the bowl because it is too firm to melt, smear, and clog the disk.

Secondly, you must always maintain a fairly high ratio of fat to meat in your grind mixture.  If you think about this, we already take this into account when we buy ground beef from the market – we know that the 80/20 mixture makes the tastiest burgers because a full fifth of the weight of that package is fat.  The reason why my first attempt at grinding meat for burgers was such a miserable failure is because I had not ground enough fat into the mix.

Those two rules of thumb are really all that separates success from failure when it comes to making your own sausage.  Because of the abundance of sage in the garden this year, I decided that my inaugural attempt at sausagemaking would be the Sage and Red Wine Sausage recipe in Fine Cooking magazine.

All sausage recipes follow the same basic pattern.  You grind the meat, mix in your seasonings, and then allow the mixture to cure in your refrigerator for a little bit, so that the flavors will meld.  After at least an hour, or preferably the next day, you stuff the mixture into casings, and you’re done.  The whole process took far less time than I anticipated.

Following the recipe, I cut about four pounds of pork shoulder and one pound of fatback into small cubes, then froze them on a cookie sheet for about an hour.  While waiting for the meat to firm up, I picked about 30 sage leaves from the garden (which, by the way, didn’t make a dent in the plant at all) and chopped those finely, along with about four times the amount of garlic that the recipe requires.

The moment of truth came quickly – I assembled the grinder attachment, powered up the KitchenAid, and started feeding the chunks of meat and fat into the hopper.  Immediately, I was struck at how different this grinding session felt from my first one, how the fat extruded itself in neat spaghetti-like strands like a Play-Doh barber shop set.  Compared to the stop, start, stop process of my first grinding attempt, this time everything went smoothly, and within fifteen minutes all of the meat and fat had been ground.  I sifted my fingers through the pile a bit to evenly distribute the fat, but had to switch to a spoon when my fingers grew too cold.  I tossed in the sage, garlic, some salt and pepper, then added the 1/2 cup of red wine from a previously-opened bottle that we keep on the kitchen counter.  A small test patty was incredibly flavorful, so I was hopeful for a good outcome.

Having overcome my fear of grinding, I then faced a new moment of truth when it came time to place the sausage into casings.  I assembled the sausage stuffer (a small conical tube with a silly price of $9) onto the KitchenAid, then fumbled around with a sausage casing, trying not to let the slippery string tumble down into the garbage disposal.  Eventually, I was able to wrestle an open end of the casing onto the stuffer attachment, working the rest of it onto the cone in an accordian-like bunch, with about five inches left to hang.  I tied a knot into the free end, retrieved the sausage mix from the refrigerator, and set to work.

It’s important to work as quickly as you can when stuffing sausage, because the risk of bacterial contamination increases as your sausage mix gets warmer.  I used a rubber spatula to load the hopper with sausage, then a food pusher to shove it down into the grinder, maintaining one hand on the feeder cone to regulate the casing as it filled.  There’s no getting around the fact that this step can become extremely messy, so it’s a good idea to line the area underneath your KitchenAid with foil or parchment.  By tightening and loosening my grip on the casing, I could control the thickness of the end product.  Occasionally, I would have to stop and reload the hopper, or take a toothpick to burst the pockets of air that would become trapped in the casing.  When I was done, I twisted the sausage into links, managing to only break two because I twisted one way when I should have twisted the other.

Ultimately, this recipe produced nearly four feet of sausage at a cost of $7 for the casings (enough for several batches, though), $8 for the pork shoulder, and about $4 for the fatback.  Presuming you store the remainder of the casings for future use, each subsequent batch of sausage would run around $12, which is an incredible savings over the typical $5 per pound that most markets charge for premade sausages.  As an added bonus, the sausages freeze extremely well, making for even more options when you need quick dinner ideas.