I’ve been making my own sausage for quite a long time now. Seriously, if you like sausage, consider learning how to make your own.
Aside from the cost savings (and skill building), one of the best things is, you know what’s inside the casing. None of that government regulated approved-rat-turds-per-sausage kind of quality control!
There are basically three types of sausage – Fresh, Dry (raw) cured and Cooked cured.
Fresh sausage is simply ground meat and spices which is then refrigerated and used very soon, or is frozen.
Dry cured is sausage (think salami) where, in addition to the meat and spices, you add Prague Powder #2. This powder is a mixture of salt, sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate. Dry cured sausages are made by stuffing casings with the meat, spice and curing salts, and hanging them in a cool dry area for a specific length of time. The nitrite is present to immediately stop the growth of bad bacteria, like botulism spores. Since the sausage (or meat, such as ham) is left hanging to cure for weeks or months, the nitrate that’s present slowly converts to nitrites. Think of it as time-released nitrites.
The final type is Cooked cured sausage – two styles of which I’ll show you here. With these, you use Prague Powder #1 (you can also find it as Morton’s Quick Cure). In this case, the cure is only salt and sodium nitrite – the quick acting stuff. Since we’re going to be curing these sausages by slow cooking, we only need the nitrite present to kill the bacteria short-term.
A note on these curing salts: They’re generically known as “pink salts”. They are dyed pink so someone doesn’t use them on food like regular table salt. The nitrites and nitrates can kill you if consumed in too large of proportions. Cure #1, for instance is actually made of roughly 94% salt, and 6% sodium nitrite. You use one teaspoon of Cure #1 for 5 pounds of meat! So, don’t run down and buy straight sodium nitrite at the local pharmacist and try to figure out how much you need. Buy the commercially made curing salts.
Also, when adding the table salt that is a part of your sausage recipe, be sure it’s not salt containing iodine. The iodine can render the sodium nitrite useless. Only use kosher or non-iodine table salt.
Lastly, there are foo-foo yuppie “pink salts”. The ones I’ve seen on the Internet are from the Himalayan mountains. They’re just salt that happens to be pink, so you can show off to all of your friends about how “salt aware” you are. These DO NOT contain the nitrite or nitrate needed to cure your sausage.
Alright. The first style of Cooked cured sausage are poached. Think about a hotdog you buy from the grocery store. The meat has been ground into a paste – emulsified – stuffed into a casing and then cooked slowly. When we’re cooking this sausage – slowly – we need to know when the internal temperature reaches between 155F and 160F.
The very best way of doing this is by using one of the temperature probes with an alarm.
They have a curved metal probe and a cord which attaches to the base unit where you set the target temperature. Note that the cord is plastic. This is what you want! They also make these with a kind of braided cord. The braided version works well in the oven or in a smoker, but will give you false readings when it comes in contact with water. The plastic versions work well in all of the cooking environments, and will not melt.
This first sausage is a garlic sausage [recipe here– PDF]. After you’ve followed the How To instructions linked here, you put the probe into one of the sausages at the end of your links, THEN put it in the water (around 170F heavily salted water).
You may be thinking, “If I pierce the casing, all of the flavor goodness of the sausage will leak out of the hole.” Not so. As the sausage cooks, it “seals the wound” around the probe. If you use one of the manual instant temperature thermometers, you WILL lose juices each time you poke the sausage to check the temperature.
Once your internal temperature is met (this took about a half hour), you need to quickly cool the sausage. If you just take them out of the poaching liquid and set them aside to cool, they’ll get all wrinkly. You want to have a bucket, or in my case, my sink, full of ice water. Take the sausage directly from the poaching liquid and put them into the ice water.
Please note: most recipes tell you that you need to cook these sausage before consuming. In my book, something cooked to an internal temperature of 155F is fully cooked. The choice is yours.
On the left is one of these sausages cut open, and on the right is the same sausage cooked in patty form (I ran out of casings!).
Cooking them CAN add a lot of flavor, though. Here is how I like these the best – fried in a pan to the right color over medium heat, then a quarter cup of water (or beer) is added to the pan. Cover the pan and steam for 3 or 4 more minutes to ensure the sausage is warmed all of the way through.
Damned good stuff. FWIW, with the garlic sausage recipe above, I now use hot smoked paprika and double the garlic powder. But that’s just me. Mix and match the spices to your liking, but DO NOT mess with the curing salt proportions of 1 tsp/5 pounds of meat.
The second style of cooked cured sausage I make is smoked sausage. The idea is the same as the poached version: Mix up your ingredients, stuff your casings, then bring the internal temperature up to 155F. The only difference is that we’re going to do that in a smoker.
One of the VERY important things to do before smoking is to dry out your sausage casings first.
Place them on racks or hang them for a couple of hours. If you don’t do this, the casings will look all blotchy from where the smoke couldn’t reach them. Take the time and do it right.
This batch is of my sweet Italian sausage.
Get your smoker ready and load up your meat. Insert your temperature probe into a link that’s near the top of your smoker (furthest away from your heat source). My smoker doesn’t have a way of using sausage hooks, so I must keep mine on the racks. Regardless, be sure none of the links are touching, as those portions won’t get any smokey goodness.
My smoker is an electric one with a wood chips tray. You may have some monster truck of a smoker that uses whole branches of hardwoods.
We’ve all got the same goal: I can’t stress this enough – Go Slow! You want to bring the smoker up to around 165F to 170F. It will take your sausage anywhere from 3 to 5 hours to smoke, so set aside some, “me time” to do this right.
If you use a higher temperature, the fat in the sausage will melt, and may ooze out of your casings. You’re going to have a tough, dry sausage as a result. No bueno.
At this low of temperatures, my electric heating element won’t get the wood chips smoking, so just before I close the door, I hit them with a propane torch to get them going. I add new ones every hour for the first 3 hours.
If you’re going to use fruit woods, you can use smoke for the whole three hours. If you’re using a stronger wood, like hickory or mesquite, I only use them for the first two hours. TOO MUCH SMOKE IS WORSE THAN TOO LITTLE SMOKE. If you do much meat smoking, you know what I mean.
Just like with the poached sausage, after you hit your internal temperature, you want to plunge your sausage into an ice water bath. Since I’m smoking outdoors, I just filled up one of my 7 1/2 gallon beer brewing buckets half way with ice water.
After the sausages have cooled, put them on drying racks, pat them down to remove the excess water, and let them dry out again for a couple of hours. It’s called, “the bloom” and it makes the casings turn a deeper brown.
You may notice a couple of things with this image. First, the sausages are a bit wrinkled. Yeah. I got a phone call about 2 minutes before my temperature alarm went off. In my haste, I just turned off the smoker, figuring I’d be done with the call in a minute.
Twenty minutes later, I finished the call, and they had already started to cool. I still plunged them into the ice water, but they had already wrinkled up.
Secondly, notice the white dime-sized marks on the end of the sausage up at the 2 o’clock position in the photo, and the one just to its left. Those white spots are where the ends of the links were touching, and they didn’t get the smoke.
This photo is of the inside of one of these beauties –
Notice the bits of fat? That indicates that the sausage was smoked nice and slow so the fat didn’t melt due to too high of heat.
Here’s the inside of that same sausage after being quickly browned and steamed as discussed above –
I’ve got no idea how long this stuff lasts in the fridge. I’m guessing a week or so. I vacuum seal mine in 4 link packages, note the type and date, and toss them in the freezer. I’ve pulled out links that are YEARS old, and they’re still as good as stuff made the week before.
Sausage making is very easy. It just takes a bit of your time, but is well worth the effort. If you’re going to do this with any regularity, I really recommend getting a dedicated stuffer. Nothing elaborate – just something where you can put 3 to 5 pounds of sausage through at a time.
Careful, though. Keep your pie-hole shut when you’re making it. You WILL be expected to share if word ever gets out! It’s a great trade item, though. I got a couple pounds of fresh tuna for a couple of 4-packs of sausage.
Tuna sausage? Hmmm…….