If I were able to physically load my stress onto the pages of a calendar, December would be the heaviest, but it has nothing to do with holiday anxiety or preparing to entertain. For me, the stress comes with realization of all that I didn’t accomplish during the year, despite my intentions and wishes. I have tried to shift my attention to the things I’ve finished rather than not but, sadly, this seems to be my default. It is heavy on my mind this week as I have reviewed my culinary bucket list, and the ever-growing “I want to try” column.
My most frequent lamentation to my husband is that “I want to do everything at once!” Most of the time, I’m doing good to just break even on my get-it-done list, and the biggest obstacle I face is my own lofty expectation, especially in the kitchen. I don’t want to throw proverbial spaghetti at the wall, hoping something will stick. I research unfamiliar techniques and recipes carefully and if they seem complex, I research some more until I feel at least somewhat equipped for the task. Sometimes, I just keep researching until I flat-out scare myself away from it.
But once in a while I give in and try something that surprises me with its simplicity, and this homemade sausage is one of those things. Turning a chunk of pork shoulder into a flavorful, composed ground meat mixture is not at all the challenge I imagined it to be, thanks in large part to this book by J. Kenji López-Alt and an easy-to-use attachment for my stand mixer.
I was gifted this fascinating book a couple of years ago for my birthday, and I love the science that its author lays out on every page. If you want the full scoop and Kenji’s brilliant approach to things in the kitchen, get the book. You won’t regret it. But not everyone cares to know the backstory details of a recipe and why it works (what can I say? I’m a nerd), so rather than echo the 13 pages of detailed, scientific information Kenji has provided on this subject, I’m grinding it down into three takeaway points and then I’ll share my own adventure in sausage-making. Here goes!
- Use a digital scale to determine how much salt and seasoning to use in your sausage; don’t make yourself crazy trying to do the math using cups or teaspoons.
- Let the meat chill in the fridge with the proper amount of salt and seasonings for about 24 hours before grinding; it changes the texture of the meat so it’s optimal when you grind.
- Keep it cold, cold, cold for best results; this means putting your grinding tools (and the meat, for a time) in the freezer, and working quickly to avoid a big mess.
I should disclose here that I did not go “all in” to the point of using casings for link sausages. Frankly, I’m not sure where to even buy them, though I might talk with our favorite local butcher about that in the future, especially before next summer’s grilling and smoking season rolls around. This experiment has been all about bulk sausage, and I have not had a bad batch yet!
If you have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, there’s a simple attachment that allows for grinding of food with a propeller-type blade that cuts the food chunks as they pass through a feeder tube. It takes practice, but works great. If you don’t have this device, I think you could probably begin with smaller chunks of meat and use the pulse function of a food processor to achieve a similar result. Kenji even discusses that in The Food Lab.
Here’s the basic technique that I learned from Kenji. Cut up the pork shoulder (best quality you have available, of course) into chunks about the size of walnuts. Weigh the raw meat, using the grams setting of a digital scale. Next, grab a calculator to determine what is 1.5% of the meat weight—that’s how much kosher salt you need. Not that this is kosher, mind you. It’s pork, so of course not. But un-iodized salt is recommended here, and kosher is what I use in the kitchen anyway. Sea salt would probably be fine.
Toss the meat chunks to evenly distribute the salt, cover the bowl and refrigerate it for 24 hours. After the rest time, you can see the difference in the texture of the meat. It looks darker, smooth and glossy, and is noticeably smaller in volume. This consistency change is what makes sausage different from regular ground meat, and it’s as easy as “salt and wait.”
My interest in making homemade sausage stems largely from repeated disappointment at the Whole Foods meat counter, where I used to buy a fantastic green chile and habanero pork sausage that was wonderfully spicy and perfect for my favorite green chili recipe. But, as with most “big box” retailers, Whole Foods only appeals to the masses now (even more so since they were bought by Amazon) and after hearing for the umpteenth time that “nobody wants to buy that spicy sausage,” I finally decided to get on with things and make my own.
Kenji’s tutorial in The Food Lab did not include suggested seasonings for a green chile-habanero version, but I trusted my instinct and put the flavors together myself. Two kinds of Flatiron Pepper Co. chile flakes, smoked paprika, cumin seeds, pickled garlic (which I ended up not using because I couldn’t get the darn lid off), Mexican oregano and black pepper.
For this batch, I waited to add the seasonings (2% of the original meat weight, per Kenji), but I discovered later that I could have added it at the same time as the salt. In subsequent batches, I’ve added my spices at the same time as the 1.5% of kosher salt.
I spread the meat out into a single layer on a baking sheet and slipped it into the freezer for 15 minutes while I set up the meat grinder attachment for my stand mixer. The meat and all the parts that touch the meat should be really cold, so I also put the cutter blade, the large-hole cutter plate and my mixer’s beater blade into the freezer. I took Kenji’s advice about this to heart and it paid off with an easy grinding process. I also put ice in my stainless steel mixing bowl to chill it down for the next step.
This part of sausage production moved quickly, and I couldn’t take pictures from every angle as I pulverized the very cold meat, but the action shots here tell the story pretty well. As soon as it was ground, I transferred it to my chilled mixing bowl and used the beater blade to whip it around for about 2 minutes. During this mixing stage, which essentially serves to make the meat mixture sticky and cohesive, I poured in roughly 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar. That acidity makes all the difference in flavor!
For my first batch of sausage, I passed the meat through the grinder a second time before mixing it, using the small-hole cutter plate included with my food grinder. This proved to be tedious and unnecessary, and my later batches were all done in one pass, using only the large-hole cutter plate. Sometimes the lesson is about what you don’t need to do, right?
The green chile sausage was fantastic, and I used it make a pot of this oh-so-comforting green chili for burritos. This is a favorite dish from my childhood, and I’ll share the recipe in January.
I also made a chipotle, ancho chile and maple sausage, which I used in a stuffing blend for a rolled pork loin roast that we enjoyed with friends a few weeks ahead of Thanksgiving. I’ll share the recipe for that lovely roast sometime in the next couple of weeks.
And I made an Italian fennel and Calabrian chile sausage, which became the big flavor enhancer for the sausage used in Les’s amazing Thanksgiving stuffing. It was his year for the bird, and though I said it was his best turkey ever, he declared the sausage made it his best-ever stuffing. We are a darn good team!
We have used up all the sausage I’ve made so far, but I already have a dozen ideas for flavors I want to make next. Here I go again, wanting to do everything at once! I can’t, of course. But homemade sausage is now definitively in the “done” column, with more variations coming your way soon. 🙂
Homemade Pork Sausage
Making your own sausage is not as intimidating as it may seem. All you need is the right meat-to-salt ratio, a good imagination for flavor, and a device to grind the meat. Use a digital scale to measure the ingredients and keep the meat and grinding device as cold as possible through the entire process.
- Good quality pork shoulder meat, with a decent amount of fat
- Kosher (or other non-iodized) salt, in 1.5% proportion to meat weight
- Non-salt seasonings of your choice, in 2% proportion to meat weight
- 1 to 2 Tbsp. vinegar for each pound of meat
- Cut the pork shoulder into chunks about the size of walnuts. Place a bowl on the digital scale and zero the tare weight. Add the pork and take note of the gram total weight.
- Calculate salt and seasoning measurements, using the notes above as a guide. Sprinkle both over the pork chunks and toss to combine. Refrigerate overnight, preferably 24 hours.
- Arrange meat in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place the sheet pan into a flat space in the freezer for about 15 minutes to partially freeze the pork chunks. Also place the metal grinder parts into the freezer for this time, as the meat grinds best when it is perfectly cold. Measure the vinegar into a glass or cup and put it in the fridge to chill.
- Grind according to manufacturer’s instructions for your grinder. Place ground meat immediately into the fridge again to chill it down.
- Add 2 cups of ice to the bowl of stand mixer (or bowl you’ll be using to blend ground meat) and swirl it around to chill the bowl. Dry the inside with paper towels.
- Add chilled ground meat to the cold bowl and beat for 1 to 2 minutes, adding vinegar a bit at a time until blended in.