Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sausage Casings 101: Casings FAQ

It's time to wrap up our series on sausage casings with a few FAQs. Below you'll find solutions to some common problems our customers run into when they're stuffing casings for the first time, or when they're trying out a new kind of casing. Think of it as a troubleshooting guide from the experts.

Of course, if you have any remaining questions about your casings or stuffing techniques, feel free to contact us! We're excited to help you try new things and explore all the different types of casings we offer. Read on for more info!

Our easy tips will make you an expert in no time!

Why does my casing burst or split during stuffing?

1.) The casing may have been overstuffed. When making links, you should only stuff sausage about 3/4 full. You know the sausage is being overstuffed when you press gently with your thumb and there is no indentation left, which means there is high pressure/tension pushing back. There should be some give and indent left if pressed.


2.) Casing is dry or has lost elasticity. If you're using natural casings, after rinsing the salt off, be sure to allow the casings to soak in warm/tepid water for at least 15-20 minutes prior to stuffing. If not enough water is absorbed, there will be less elasticity (or "give") when the sausages are being stuffed. Strand or flat collagen casings may burst when under pressure or if they have been dried due to less than ideal storage conditions. Keeping collagen casings in vacuum-sealed or zipper-sealed bag with the air removed will greatly increase shelf life and prevent stuffing bursts due to material integrity. 


3.) Casings are stored improperly. Natural casings should never be frozen. Although they are packed in salt, they are considerably moist, so when they are frozen the water inside them will turn to ice and expand, which will cause small tears. These small tears, although usually imperceptible to the eye, will diminish the integrity and elasticity of the casing material and will inevitably cause bursts. Always store natural casings under refrigeration temperatures (36-40F).

Why did my casing wrinkle during smoking or cooking?

1.) The casing was under-stuffed. If the sausages are loosely stuffed, there is more casing material than is needed for adhering. So when casings naturally shrink and adhere to meat, if there is excess, it may cause wrinkling to appear.


2.) Sausage was not cooled fast enough after cooking. Typically, right after cooking, sausage should be rapidly cooled under cold water to a meat temperature of 110F (but less is even better). This rapid cooling, usually no longer than 5 minutes under cold water, prevents the casings from shriveling/wrinkling in the cold, dry air that it is exposed to when removed from heat source. 


3.) If you're smoking sausage (or cooking in low/slow smoker) for prolonged periods of time (over 8 hours), the moisture from the meat escaping through the casing and into the air will become evident by wrinkling casings. This can be prevented by either smoking sausage with a bowl/pan of water inside (but away from heat source) or by cutting down on time exposed to air/smoke in the smoker. Often smoking is done in the first 3-4 hrs. At this point sausage may be taken inside and finished in an oven, or temperatures should be increased in the smokehouse to 170F in order to reduce cooking time.

Why did the casing separate from the meat?

1.) The casing was not properly soaked. This is especially true for flat collagen and fibrous casings. Collagen, being a natural but semi-dehydrated product, needs moisture to reactivate the "meat-clinginess" of the proteins in the material. They should be soaked for 3-5 minutes. Longer than this may cause it to be over-soaked, less durable and more prone to breakage under high pressure. Fibrous casings, being made of mostly vegetable protein, do not have as strong meat-clinginess, so they need to be soaked for about 15-20 minutes in order to adhere much better, and stay adhered.


2.) Casing was understuffed. Simply put, if the sausage was stuffed so loosely that there is space between the meat and casing, then the lack of contact will appear as separation, or what we call air pockets. If you see air pockets and the sausage is well-stuffed, be sure to prick them out using a sterile sewing needle or sausage pricker.


3.) The temperature in the smokehouse was too high during smoking/cooking. This is a common cause of separation due to moisture being released from meat during long/high-temperature smoking or cooking. Fat is a vital component of sausage and it can/will melt under high temperatures; when this happens, it could cause air pockets to appear where there weren't any before. Keeping temperatures low and smoking times to the recommended duration will help minimize this effect.

Why are my casings tough?

Naturally... natural casings can sometimes be tough. Rinsing and flushing help make a casing tender, and you can read more about proper preparation for natural casings in a previous blog post. However, here are some more suggestions from our sausage specialists:

1.) Casings are past their prime. Natural casings that have been sitting in the refrigerator for over 6 months can become stiff. After rinsing, let them soak for 20 minutes in warm water to rehydrate and tenderize. If they are questionable: When in doubt, throw it out! Casings are not expensive and certainly not worth making anyone we care about ill. Keeping collagen casings in vacuum-sealed or zipper-sealed bag with the air removed will prevent them from drying out to the point of them losing their ability to rehydrate. If they are pliable then they are still okay, but if extra stiff then they will likely crack/break/burst. 


2.) When smoking sausage, do not put a stuffed sausage from the refrigerator into a hot smokehouse. The sausage should sit at room temperature for a couple of hours and then be put into a warm, pre-heated (appr. 130F) smokehouse, gradually increasing the temperature until the desired smoking temperature is reached. Too much heat (over 180F) and/or leaving in the smoker too long (>8 hrs) will almost guarantee that the casings will be tough.


3.) You may have skipped the tenderizing cold shower after cooking. Sausage, especially when smoked, needs to be treated to a rapid cooling/hydrating period, best done under cold running water. This actually tenderizes the casings as well as bringing the meat temperature down to prevent it from continuing to cook. 

Never put a sausage into boiling water. Instead, start cooking in cold water, bringing the temperature up gradually. The water should be brought to a simmer until the sausage is fully cooked.

We hope you've enjoyed and benefited from our series on sausage casings! As always, we encourage you to explore our huge selection of casings and other sausage making supplies on our website, and feel free to contact us with questions!