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Feature Thu Jun 14 2012
Think you've got what it takes to make sausages as creatively as Doug Sohn?
Personally, I wouldn't go that far, but I did want to try my hand at making some sausages for Memorial Day weekend, so my partner and I roped our friend Drew, who has a meat grinder attachment for his mixer, into making sausages with us. Read on for some photos and rough instructions.
First, find a sausage recipe you want to make. I did not do this step, and instead fudged my recipe based on the one that the more organized Drew had looked up. When you look at a real recipe, you'll realize you need "back fat" or "fat back," as it's often called -- i.e. soft fat from the back of the pig which is unlike the normal fat you see in the middle of cuts of pork shoulder. You can get it frozen in one pound packages at Paulina Meat Market for $5. This is also where you can get the sausage casings (aka pig intestines) you'll stuff your meat mixture into; these are not as cheap at $8.50 for a tub of 50 feet of intestines packed in salt.
Next, get your meat and spices together. I got bulk pork shoulder pieces at Costco for less than $3 per pound, and Ryan grabbed a venison roast from a deer that he shot last Thanksgiving. His sausage used a mix of venison, pork, and the back fat, since venison is very lean -- a sausage made only of venison would be crazy dry. He ended up using smoked Hungarian paprika, ginger, garlic powder, and a bit of Mexican oregano and ground coriander to spice his sausage. I went straight pork (and back fat) with a couple cloves of diced garlic, blue cheese, and dried blueberries soaked in apple-cinnamon moonshine. Drew found a nice recipe for a spicy pork sausage with jalapeno cheddar, diced apples, and a mix of peppery spices. Each recipe got a healthy couple tablespoons of kosher salt as well.
We corralled our spices in small bowls, and got to preparing our meat.
Ryan cut the venison into chunks about the size of a matchbox car - these smaller pieces are better for feeding into the meat grinder.
The back fat was thawed, and then bowls of meat and fat were mixed together.
Drew's recipe called for 3 1/2 pounds of pork to 3/4 pound of back fat, so Ryan and I also used these measurements for our recipes. After the meat/back fat mixture was passed through the grinder attachment, we mixed in our spices, cheese, and fruit, and prepared a test patty to ensure that our flavor profile worked. Thankfully, all passed our taste tests. At this point, we popped our bowls in the fridge and took a lunch break, but more determined soldiers would carry on with the sausage stuffing.
The actual stuffing of the sausage into the casings is by far the most painstaking part. Not only do you have to soak the salt-packed casings in water, but you also have to run the water through the casings to rinse them out. I've spared you a photograph of this step, but suffice it to say it looks as gross as you'd think (that is, if you're thinking of a full bladder like I am. Oops. Sorry.)
Now, you want to grease up your sausage stuffer nozzle quite well with some lard, which apparently you can buy by the bucket (thanks, Drew!) You then take care to bunch all of the casings up on the nozzle, being careful not to twist it, but also not force it on so hard as to tear the casing.
When you get to the end, if it's not one that's pre-knotted, you tie a knot. Bubbles in this process are not your friend, so keep a small sharp knife nearby to poke holes should you get air bubbles as the sausage is coming out. From here, using non-professional equipment, you need one person to load meat and stuff it in the hopper, and a second person to guide the casings and twist off the links. The first time we did this, I missed the part where one should twist in opposite directions -- "over, under, over, under," I had to keep telling myself -- so they didn't all come unraveled. And you needed to twist quickly because that meat doesn't stop coming out just because you've reached your perfect eight inches (heh). When you get to the end of the casings, you'd better have small or nimble fingers, and have enough casing left to tie that end knot - I recommend six inches at least (see? Six inches isn't as funny....or is it?) When you run out of meat you can make yourself a couple more patties with the leftovers, to reward yourself for a job well done.
So we grilled these sausages up for some friends on Memorial Day weekend, and each one was a hit. Some folks got to try venison for the first time, and others asked when I was opening a restaurant (the answer: as soon as I find someone who can fund it). When I learned about an experimental sausage-themed competition the following weekend, I knew exactly what I (and my blueberry and blue cheese sausage) had to do.
We got the meat gang back together again, and made a quadruple batch of my sausages, which at this point I'd dubbed Too Blue. For anything beyond making a batch or two of links for a party, I would recommend (and wished I had access to) a professional kitchen's giant sausage-making machine, not unlike this one. It took us far longer than we'd intended to make my sausages, but was very rewarding once we saw the encased meats of our labor.
The competition itself was quite fun -- apparently these Food Experiments had started in New York and were branching out into cities across the US this year, with different themes for each city. How fortuitous that sausage was chosen for Chicago! Fourteen teams, with dishes ranging from a sausage-flavored shortbread cookie and maple ice cream sandwich to a lamb sausage burger to jambalaya to paella, battled for top honors. Three winners were selected by the judges, and three by the audience. Too Blue was awarded Theo's Prize For Excellence in Experimentation, a special prize named after one of the contest's founders and in the spirit of the event itself. Oh sure, loot was collected, but truly, I would've done it for nothing -- the experience was a lot of fun, and in the brief moment I left my station to sample my competitors' dishes, everyone else seemed to be equally as happy. Theo's recap (and additional photos) can be found here, and I look forward to competing when they bring the Food Experiments back next year.
*apologies for no photos of the finished sausages - we were too busy stuffing our faces!