Friday, November 20, 2015

The Beginner's Guide to Sausage Making

The Down-Sell Promise:
Sausage making and especially meat curing projects such as dry curing sopressata or making your own cured ham can be intimidating when first starting out. The last thing you want is a company telling you that you NEED equipment or tools that you actually could have done without. 90% of the time, specialized equipment is for making a job easier, not necessarily making a better or tastier finished product. If there is minimal effect on product quality, we will recommend what is most economical... because that's what Sausage Buddies do, buddy.

So put the wallet away and let's talk sausage:

Intro to the Intro
If you're doing your homework then you've probably already read about Homer's Odyssey mentioning sausagewhat is actually in hot dogs (spoiler: not eyeballs), statistics on worldwide consumption of sausage and somehow ended up in the weird part of YouTube. None of that matters anymore... because you ended up in our comforting, sausage-finger embrace. Welcome home.

Pick a Recipe, Any Recipe
There are so many sausage recipes its downright crazy. Before getting into the more complex preparation, curing and cooking methods, lets get a foundation in fresh sausage. This is a sausage that is going to be eaten the day-of, refrigerated for a few days or kept in the freezer before thawing, cooking and eating later. Fresh sausage is not smoked, it is not fermented, and not dried/aged (AKA dry cured). It is the ultimate basic recipe. Trouble deciding? Check out our recipes page! All fresh sausage recipes will be titled so you can identify right away which to pick from. Or see our seasoning list for ideas.

Spices or Seasoning?

Once a particular recipe has caught your attention, check that the key components are listed: 1.) main ingredient (usually meat), 2.) spices, 3.) casing. These are the 3 components that make up sausage recipe. Nothing more, nothing less. Remove the casing and you have burger. Remove the meat and you have chitlins. Remove the spices and... I dare you to call that sausage. Spices are often blended together to create seasonings. We currently carry over 70 recipe seasonings that you can make without buying individual spices and making the blends yourself, usually in the $8-15 range and they make 50 pounds! BUT, if you are feeling daring and want to make your own sausage recipe blend, we love and support your tenacity! Before carving into your savings at the grocery store for a shot-glass of ground mustard, see our spice list and prices... just be sure you're sitting down. If you want to use that 4-year-old jar of ground paprika in your cabinet, first check for spice bugs (it happens...), then taste a small amount on your finger. If you don't make a funny face, they probably lost their flavor. Don't even think about using it in your batch; garbage in, garbage out. Don't use less than 2% salt... meaning if you're making 5 lbs sausage, you should have 0.1 lbs (approx. 1.5 oz or 3 TBSP), and not more than 3% (which is 2.5 oz or 4.5 TBSP) fine salt. And the salt should be non-iodized, if possible. It won't have a significant impact for a small fresh sausage batch, but it is best practice to use non-iodized. Stay away from sea salt and the magic pink Himalayan stuff for now. Trace minerals in sea salts can affect the taste (not in good way) and the only pink-colored salt you should have nearby if making sausage is Insta Cure #1 (more on cures in an advanced lesson). If you already have limited edition Tibetan monk-mined salt, please take care to label and separate from Insta Cure or other curing salt.

Meat Selection!

We've heard it so many times: "I wanted to make great sausage, so I bought pork tenderloin (or beef sirloin), but it came out dry, flaky and tough!" Don't make this mistake. Sausage needs fat. Plain and simple. It needs at the very least 20% fat content. If you have dietary restrictions, there are fat alternatives, but certainly no substitutes. With sausage, pork is king, and every Sausage Maker's cut of choice is pork shoulder (AKA Boston butt, AKA pork butt). Before you have a giggle-fit, the "butt" is referring to the front end of the animal... not the rear. Ask or look for "untrimmed." This will have a what is referred to as a "fat cap," which is a layer of fat on one side. You can use this layer to add fat to your grind if the muscle is not well marbled (too lean). For beef, use beef chuck, which is also the shoulder portion. These cuts will give you between 20-30% fat content, which is perfect. For chicken and turkey use at least 1/2 thighs in recipe and remainder use breast. 

Ye Olde Meat Grinder

Same basic design for over a century, chops big pieces into little pieces that can more easily be stuffed into casings or worked into a fancy-ah meat-ah ball. The grinder is explained in depth in our Equipment Explained post, which gives you tips on choosing which is right for you. We carry both manual (turn-crank) meat grinders and electrics. If your house has electricity, save yourself and use the electric style. For brevity's sake, let's just focus on the grind. Essentially, there are fine, medium and coarse grinds. These grinds are dependent on the size of the grinder plate's holes. Fine (1/8-3/16"), medium (1/4-3/8") and coarse (5/16" and up). Typically you want a grind that is not too coarse or you'll get chunky bits, and not too fine and paste-like. The all-around best and naturally the most common grind is 1/4". You can buy plastic-wrapped ground meat that is 80/20 too (meaning 80% lean meat and 20% fat), a bit less fun but perfectly fine in a pinch. OR you can use a sharp knife and chop, chop, chop until you have your "grind"... this is the pre-industrialization way, also the lose-your-fingertip way, not TSM recommended. A grinder is one of those necessary pieces of equipment, especially because it does the work FAST, and when handling/processing raw meats, time out of refrigeration needs to be minimized. Also a great-to-have item is a spacer plate - if you aren't on market for a sausage stuffer (...yet) then you will need this for sausage making with your grinder. It just creates a larger opening for ground/seasoned meat to pass through easier, prevents the auger from falling out and does not re-chop/cut your meat. 

Bringin' It All Together

Spices/seasoning? Check. Ground meat? Check. Water, beer, wine? Not just for human enjoyment... When mixing the spices together with the ground meat, it is important to also add liquid at about 1 oz per pound of meat. Anywhere from a cup to a pint per 10 pounds of meat. This will help in two ways: 1.) disperses your spices much better into the ground meat than dry pouring and 2.) adds moisture. The juiciness comes from the fat content, but a little water can go a long way as well. Get your mixing gloves on and mix enthusiastically for 5-10 minutes (like kneading dough, it will begin to set into what is called the "primary bind"). You'll know when it is ready because all the water is absorbed, the meat has become very clingy (difficult to mix), will either change color (typically much duller) or develop a sheen... AND if you look closely it will have little mountain-like peaks when pulled apart (more about Myosin protein extraction saved for advanced lesson). Before moving on, take a tablespoon's worth of your mixed meat onto a small dish and microwave for a few minutes... exact time is tricky, but start with 4 minutes and increase if not ready. This will give you an idea of what the sausage will taste like; missing a that garlicky zip you wanted? Not too late to add some. How about spiciness - more cayenne, maybe more salt is needed? This should be your only time tampering with the recipe and mixing in extra anything. Adding a few ounces of water with the additions will help it better disperse, but don't add more than a few ounces of water. 
oncerned about undercooking? Use a trusty rapid-read thermometer when removed from microwave spear the center and if 180F, give it a moment to cool and eat.


OK. Great work! Almost there... at this point, if meat has been out for over 20 minutes in room temperature, wrap it in plastic wrap or food grade container and place it in the fridge for an hour. There is no reason to cut corners and take unnecessary risks here. Take this time to do some cleaning while the meaty bits haven't dried to the equipment yet. Also... take a look down. In the fun of it all, a meaty bit may have hit the floor while you were grinding and wiping sweat from your brow. This is prime time to open, rinse (inside and out) and soak your natural casings (hog home packs used for this guide, beef collagen available for pork restrictions) in tepid water until ready for stuffing. **Fast Forward in Space-Time.** 

Intro to Stuffing
Okay, so we're ready for stuffing. Apply the casings on the tube of your choice. Casing should be loose enough to easily pull off, and you can get quite a bit on a standard tube. Stuffing can be accomplished one of 3 ways. The Crazy Way: with your hands and a funnel/horn, thumbing the meat into the casing... yikes. The Economical Way: putting the ground meat through the meat grinder again, this time with the spacer plate (mentioned earlier) attached and knife removed. If this is the path you have chosen, place the meat and grinder assembly (plate/spacer, knife, auger, head/housing and tray) in the freezer instead of fridge for an hour prior to stuffing. The Best Way: The sausage stuffer is an investment that you will find invaluable for future sausage making endeavors. It will keep your grind the consistency you want, prevent air from being forced into casing and make stuffing a quiet, efficient and fun part of the process. But for your first batch, you can give 'er a go with your meat grinder. It's good to have knowledge of the different options you have available. 

Taking Shape!

In simple terms, you are going to feed meat through a tube and into a casing. Here are some tips on the stuffing phase of the operation:

For Grinders: It is best to do this fast. Grinders can warm up in a few short minutes and we can't let the meat quality be impacted (this is why the components were in the freezer). Once your grinder is ready, apply the casings. Typically you won't be able to get MUCH on the tubes because often stuffing tubes are conical for grinders. This is supposed to lessen backups but it really limits the amount you can apply. A kitchen grinder should not be running for more than 30 minutes at a time, and neither should you... take a break, you both earned it. When stuffing and making links, fill to about 3/4 to allow for more tension later when twisting into links. You will notice a significant amount of air is forced in with the meat. This is normal and can be annoying - it is a drawback of grinder-stuffing but manageable. When your rope, loop or links are done, you can pop the air pockets with a sterilized sewing needle or sausage pricker.
For Stuffers: Fill the cylinder with your seasoned burger meat (yes, you absolutely should set some seasoned patty-making ground meat aside for burgers). With every dual handful, pack it down into the cylinder. I like to make softball-sized meatballs and forcefully slam-dunk them into the cylinder with a loud Splat! This is not only a fun exercise that baffles new observers, but also has the effect of forcing out trapped air by squeezing it out on impact. When the cylinder is full, leave head-space (2") for the piston at the top, and base secured to your table with C-clamps. Apply casings to stuffing tube. When stuffing links, leave some room to relieve tension when linking by stuffing about 3/4 full. If making rope, fill to about 90% capacity. Filling to 100% will quickly be followed by the popping sound of a burst casing and sausage meat ending up on the table instead of in the casing. If this happens (and it will, happens to us ALL), simply place the bursted amount of meat into a little bowl and refrigerate for restuffing or cooking later. Don't forget to prick out the casings with a needle or pricker.

Trouble Applying Casings? Take an end and open it with your fingers. Before sliding it over the tube, with a casing end pull about 8-10" of it out of the container, open the end with your fingers and dip it into the container of water, allowing some water to enter. This will create a constant source of lubrication by creating a little pool inside the casings, so as you apply/slide more onto the tube, it will keep lubricating. A neat trick that helps 9 out of 10 times when casing sticks and seems immovable on stuffing tube.

Cooking, Storing, Eating

Far be it from us to tell you HOW to cook the sausage... It's up to you if you want to pan-fry, deep-fry, boil, broil, grill, smoke, steam, shoot microwaves at it or any other creative way you envision. Just be sure to cook the sausage to an internal temperature of 165F, that's it. Storing is best done with vacuum seal (tip: Place sausage in vacuum bags, then into freezer for an hour before vacuum sealing. This will prevent smushing/flattening of links). 

That's All, Folks!
Lots of text but, we promise, there is really nothing to it... Making your FIRST batch you will encounter and learn the best way that works for you. Just remember to keep the meat below 41F during handling and bring it over 165F when cooking. It is absolutely like riding a bike. You will be able to recall all the steps involved in a clear and systematic way, and it only gets easier and more fun and rewarding. Speaking of rewarding, you will be amazed at home cheap you can make better-than-store-bought sausage at home. It will pay for itself in dollars and smiling faces. Enjoy!

If you have ANY ANY ANY questions, don't hesitate to ask! We are waiting with our ears in the ON position and are ready to help. There are no silly questions. Better to ask than to wonder, right?



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  3. HELP!!!!!1 When I make ring sausage (Keilbasi) the several of the rings kink in the middle. (Do not stay round). I am guessing that I am not stuffing the casings full enough but I am not sure. This has happened several times. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank YOU

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  7. Thanks for your helpful post. Now I think I can make it my self.. Read more

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  9. I begen making sausage a month ago. I keep buying pork tenderloin to make sausage and as you said, it's really tough! But I didn't know how to solve it. Now after reading your post, I got it. I'll try to make more sausages...Read more

  10. I make a lot of venison and pork breakfast sausage pattie meat and it never keeps its reddish color in the freezer for more than 3 days why is that? I mix all my spices in ice cold water and mix into meat and the taste is grest but the appearance sucks to me. Need help thanks