When you are making sausage at home, start with fresh (not frozen), cold meat. Have "all your ingredients ready to go once you grind so your meat doesn't warm up too much," says Ryan Farr, co-founder of San Francisco's 4505 Meats and author of Sausage Making.
David Leite: If a cook wanted to start making sausage, what are those essential tools that he or she would need to be able to do it?
Ryan Farr: A lot of the tools are not so much the actual physical tool as it is preparation, thinking about what you're going to be doing.
Then obviously you're going to need cold meat and sharp knives.
When you're grinding meat, you really want to make sure that your grinder doesn't have a dull blade or a dull die because that's really going to smash the cells of the meat. You really want to retain that cell structure as much as possible because that's what is going to hold that fat and juice in there to give you as much flavor as possible. But to go back to your question, it's really simple: a good grinder.
If you don't have a grinder, then you can go to your local butcher shop, preferably a butcher shop where you have a good relationship with the butcher and you know the meat is nice, fresh and preferably not frozen. Then really you just need meat and salt.
You really need to have a little liquid when you're making sausage; that could be anything from water, a little water and wine, or just beer.
DL: What does the liquid do?
RF: Liquid helps the protein suspend the fat in the sausage. You want to think of sausage as an emulsified product. Water really helps that protein hold that fat and suspend that fat. The more water and protein you have, the more fat you can put in, to a point.
DL: In your book you have a very good, step-by-step, master technique that takes you through, with photographs, how to make sausage. What are the essential steps that go into making a great sausage?
RF: It's key to have nice, good, cold meat. When you grind it, it's nice in the clean grind. Then having all your ingredients ready to go once you grind so your meat doesn't warm up too much.
You put all your ingredients in that sausage and just mix it lightly with your hand. If you don't want to mix it by hand, you can use a KitchenAid; you just set it to about 50 rotations.
Once you make your sausage, the key thing is you want to go ahead and try a little bit -- cook a little patty on a nonstick pan so you can taste the salt level. Once you taste it, if it's good, then you're good to go.
You can go ahead and put it into the sausage casing. You have choices of sheep casing, a hog casing, and then it goes up to different sizes depending on what type of sausage you want to make.
Or you could just make a patty. There are some sausages that are better, like a maple-bacon breakfast sausage. That's a killer sausage that's great as a breakfast patty. Then there's a hot dog recipe that you could make into a patty, but it's more designed to be inside of a sheep casing -- it's nice and snappy.
DL: You want a hot dog to look like a hot dog.
DL: In making sausages, what I've noticed is that I will add all these spices when I make my breakfast sausage; there's ginger, hot pepper, thyme and coriander. I notice that when I refrigerate it for a day or two, it doesn't have the same kick it has right after I've made it. What am I doing wrong? Or what can you do in order to keep that kick to your sausage?
RF: You're not doing anything wrong. Basically the meat is absorbing the salt and the spices, so it's going to dull it a little bit.
When you taste it right away after you make it, it's going to be a little saltier. Then in the next day as the meat absorbs that salt, it'll be that kick that you're looking for. Be a little more aggressive with the spice and the salt than you'd normally be, and that will level it out.
DL: What are some tips for using casings? Some people find them very hard.
RF: They are pretty challenging, especially when they get knotted up and tangled.
Hopefully you have a local butcher where you can go, or a source where you can get these casings pretty easily.
Once you do receive them, let them sit in water in your fridge overnight. That's really going to help them pull some of that salt out -- they are cured in salt, so they're preserved. It'll help pull some salt out and be more pliable.
When you're about to use them, go ahead and let them sit in some room-temperature water. That warms them up a little bit, and that also makes them a little bit more pliable.
Once you have them on the nose of your stuffer, you want to use a fair amount of water. I just use a cookie tray, a marble countertop or a stainless steel table. Use a lot of water -- sprinkle it on the casings and on the table because that's going to allow it to move freely and not get sticky.
DL: That's as it comes off the nose and you're starting to make the links?
RF: That's correct.
Once I do have a coil after I stuff, I look around. If I see some air pockets, I'll go ahead and just poke those pockets. I'm not a fan of just randomly poking all over the sausage; I like to just go ahead and poke wherever I do see air pockets.
DL: One of the things I've noticed when I've made sausage is that a lot of times when they're sliced, they explode out of their slice of casing. Is that because there wasn't enough pricking going on -- there wasn't enough letting the air out of the sausage when it was made?
RF: That actually is a result of cooking the sausage too fast at too high of a heat.
There are a couple of things that you can do. Say you're grilling it, you just grill it on a cooler part of your grill. You can go ahead and sear it and get a good color on it on the hotter part, but then move it to a more indirect heating spot on your grill and just let it slowly cook.
Something else you can do that's really fun is a poaching technique. You can take a six-pack of beer, put it in the pot with a bunch of onions and bring it to a simmer. Go ahead and carefully lay your sausages in that beer, bring it back to a simmer, cover it and let it sit for about 15 minutes. Then you can go ahead and just char it on your grill and it's good to go. You take those onions out, put it on a toasted bun. It's a really great way. You can do that about an hour in advance too.
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David Leite is the publisher of the website Leite's Culinaria, which has won two James Beard awards. He is the author Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression, as well as The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe's Western Coast, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. Leite also won a 2008 James Beard award for Newspaper Feature Writing Without Recipes, a 2006 Bert Green Award for Food Journalism, and Association of Food Journalists awards in 2006 and 2007.