Introduction to Sausage Making

Okay, let's address this up front: if you foul up food processing, it can kill you. Having said that, though, there are some simple things that you can do to avoid such a nasty fate. To borrow another trite phrase, "follow the rules and nobody gets hurt." Now, Papa says,go wash your hands, dry them, sanitize them, wipe down your keyboard, and let's move on.

The following material was developed by Barry Bryner.

Basic Sausage Makin’: Basically, there are only four groups of sausages when they are classified according to curing options:

  • Fresh Sausage - This type ground meat is “fresh” (meaning not cured) and must be refrigerated and eaten within three days, or frozen for use later. Add all the seasonings you may, stuff it inside casings or mold it into patties, but it must be used up quickly (or frozen) as it is not cured and never smoked. This is the famous “breakfast” type sausage containing pork and sage. Other favorites include fresh Italian, fresh Mexican chorizo, and of course, fresh Polish kielbasa. Once again, fresh sausage is never smoked (without cure being added).

  • Cured, Cooked, And Smoked Sausage - This sausage is cured with an actual chemical cure, (most often sodium nitrite - Prague Powder #1) to destroy clostridium botulinum and other pathogens. Whenever meat is placed inside casings, oxygen is cut off, just as it is whenever oxygen is replaced by smoke inside a smokehouse. Following drying, they are partially or fully cooked, depending upon the type of sausage, while being simultaneously smoked if desired, to destroy possible trichinella spiralis and retain moisture. Cook ‘em on the grill or in a pan. These are the famous Bratwurst, Bockwurst, Knockwurst, and emulsified sausages known as hot dogs or “wieners”. Also included in the emulsified category are bierwurst, Vienna sausage, and bologna. Cooked Italian mortadella, salami, Chinese “lop chong”, Cajun boudin (blood) sausage, smoked Polish kielbasa, and German Berliner, are other popular favorites.

  • Semi-Dry Cured Sausage - These are tangy, fermented, sausages, cured, cooked and dried during preparation, but not further cooked before serving them upon a fancy plate at a party, or simply sliced with a pocketknife while you’re in the saddle. Favorites include varieties of summer sausage and “slim jims”. These sausages are usually cured using Prague Powder #1 (nitrite).

  • Dry Cured Sausage - This is the only sausage that may not be cooked during its preparation, and is not cooked before serving or eating. This is the only type sausage safe to eat without being refrigerated and it is always made with Instacure #2 containing nitrates as well as nitrites. Special precautions are taken with pork sausage in this category, as the destruction of possible trichinae becomes vital. Favorites include German landjager and plockwurst, Mexican chorizo, Italian sopressata, pepperoni, and salami. A hygrometer with initial refrigeration is necessary to produce dry cured sausages.

Choosing Meat: Unless you butcher your own livestock, it is probably best to purchase untrimmed Boston butts from a reputable grocery-meat cutter or specialty meat supplier for making all around well-balanced pork sausage containing about 25 – 30% fat. Beef chuck, are good choices for high-quality beef sausage. Do you need fat inside a good sausage? Absolutely! Yes, fat adds flavor and creamy moisture. In the appropriate amount, it is entirely necessary and must be included in good sausage - cold or nearly frozen so it does not “smear” into the meat. This is very important for good texture. The USDA limits fat to 30% although we’ve found that about 25% fat makes a pretty good product. Some specific types of sausages may require more or less fat in their recipes, for instance, the “fresh” type pork breakfast sausage we are all so fond of may legally contain up to a whopping 50% fat legally! If you are like me, I’ll pass on that much fat packed into a sausage by a large meat corporation. I’ll make my own, thank you – with only about 20% fat

Does pork blend well with beef? Completely! Sausage products include all sorts of ground meat, in proportions and varieties usually mixed with spices. Before carving up ten pounds of pork (two five-pound butts), you may want to prove your recipe by making only a few pounds initially. Cook and taste a small patty before adding more spice.

Beginners tend to use too many varieties of spices as well as excessive quantities of spice, trying to improve grandpa’s old time secret recipes, only to discover their own hodgepodge doesn’t taste anything at all as had been anticipated. Nor is there a constant flow of neighbors knocking at the door with hopes of getting their mitts on the stuff. The truth is, beginners using too much spice, or too many types of spices, trying to improve a recipe, usually toss out ten or more pounds of otherwise great pork, not to mention the loss of labor and time spent grinding and stuffing the meat. The best sausage recipes are very simple and often contain only a sprinkling of spices. Many sausage makers use only salt and pepper for seasoning.

Grinding Meat: Use an ultra sharp boning knife and closely carve the flesh from the “Y” shaped bone of a pork butt. Trim the fat and reserve it. Remove the gristle, gland, blood veins, and any clots, cutting the meat into two-inch chunks for the grinder. Place the chunks inside a clean container inside a freezer for a while to firm up the meat, being careful not to freeze it solid. Use the time to weigh spices and additives, including the cures (nitrite or nitrate) mixed with water, and process them in a food processor. What do you do with the bones? Simmer ‘em of course, to make great stock for soups and stews.

As a grinder’s blade friction against its plate creates heat, fat will begin to liquefy as it approaches 160 degrees, where it separates from muscle (called “smearing”) rather than achieving a good emulsion by remaining solid. As the fat cools having exited the grinder, it will solidify anew - into unappetizing, greasy, orange, clusters scattered throughout the meat! This is called “breaking” the fat, and leaves lean meat having the texture of sawdust while tasting of something I step in once in a while. Rather than having sausage containing locked-in tasty solid fat, you’ll end up with a burger or sausage leaking greasy “ninety-weight”, burnt-tasting, oil all over the place as it cooks. MMmmm…just the stuff for the crankcase in your ‘57 Chev.

Ground meat will have a better finished texture if the meat is initially prepared by cutting it into inch-and-a-half chunks, spreading them onto a sheet tray or large plate, and placing the chunks into a freezer for five or ten minutes, until they almost start to freeze. It’s also a good idea to place the grinder’s blade and plate (not the housing) into the freezer at the same time. As these parts begin to heat with use later on, keep them cooled by adding crushed ice or ice water to lubricate the meat during grinding. Never try grinding solid ice cubes inside your meat grinder.

Preparing Sausage Casings: If you’re using fresh casings, rinse the casing under cool running water to remove any salt. Place it in a bowl of cool water and let it soak for about half an hour. While you're waiting for the casing to soak, you can begin preparing the meat by cutting it into chunks. After soaking, rinse the casing under cool running water. Slip one end of the casing over the faucet nozzle. Hold the casing firmly on the nozzle, and then turn on the cold water, gently at first, and then more forcefully. This procedure will flush out any salt in the casing and pinpoint any breaks. Should you find a break, simply snip out a small section of the casing and tie the new end off with string (cotton string only).

Place the casing into a bowl of water and add a splash of white vinegar. A teaspoon of vinegar per pint of water is more than sufficient. The vinegar softens the casing a bit more and makes it more transparent, making your sausage more pleasing to the eye. Leave the casing in the water/vinegar solution until you are ready to use it. Rinse it well and drain it before placing it onto the stuffing tube. Use a tapered tube for stuffing fresh casings. If you’re using edible collagen casings, there’s no need to soak or flush them. They are sterile. Simply place them over a non-tapered stuffing horn (tube) and go to work. The one drawback in using collagen casings is that they cannot be “twist linked”. They simply will not hold a link and must be tied off using string.

One exception is when you are stuffing small-diameter breakfast sausages. If the mixture is not too moist, a sausage maker may stuff a long “rope” then simply use a pair of scissors to cut 3” sausages to length. If you have used vacuum sealing bags, you’ve probably experienced smashing sausages that have lost their shape. A simple solution is to place them into a deep freezer an hour before placing them into vacuum sealed plastic bags for longer storage. The quicker the meat is frozen, the smaller the ice crystals will be which will rupture meat cells affecting the texture of the sausage.

Adding Spices And Salt: Remember, if you are making Cured-Cooked-Smoked Sausage, you need to add 2 level teaspoons of Prague Powder #1 to each 10 pounds of meat. This “pink powder” was developed by Griffith Labs. They recommend 4 ounces mixed into 100 pounds of meat. Since most modern home recipes are only about ten pounds, they recommend merely 2 level teaspoons for ten pounds of meat.

Since “Semi-Dry Cured” sausage is initially (during preparation) cooked or smoked, it also requires 2 level teaspoons of Prague Powder #1 (sodium nitrite) for each 10 pounds of meat.

Note that “Dry Cured” sausage is not cooked during preparation and usually not cooked before consumption. This is the only sausage that is safe without refrigeration. This type sausage requires Prague Powder Cure #2 (sodium nitrate). The same volume is required (two level teaspoons per ten pounds of meat) but… it becomes vital that you use only type 2 Cure (pink salt) for Dry Cured products. Also, while making hams or bacon, you will notice large amounts of pink salt specified - much more that ordinary sausage requires. This is because the meat is injected and soaked in the brine, then most of the brine is poured off and discarded, the curing salt (nitrite) having done its job.

Whenever making any type sausage, it is most important to use only sterilized spices and only kosher (not iodized) salt. Unsterilized spices or herbs from your own garden can turn sausage rancid overnight. Thawed frozen meat is acceptable for making sausage if it is kept below 38 degrees F throughout the grinding process. Frozen meat will extract blood and exudates as it is thawed. This is part of the sausage making process and should be placed back into the mixture.

Binding: In order to bind meat in a sausage having a proper texture, it must be mixed well until it actually becomes sticky. Ground (comminuted) meat particles just naturally do not combine well until their proteins are developed – actin and myosin in particular – (called “actomyocin”). As mechanical agitation develops actomyosin, a desired sticky “meat paste” forms, known as the “primary bind”. In making sausage, it is just as important not to over-develop actomyosin, as the texture may become too mushy and fine-grained, producing a “rubbery” texture in the final product. Its best to mix sausage meat just past the “sticky” stage where “peaks” develop when the meat is pulled apart. Depending upon the particular sausage recipe, the “primary bind” may require a bit of help. Many people use non-fat milk powder as a binder in sausage but most do not realize they should look for “dairy fine” milk powder from a supplier, as grocery stores do not carry the superfine textured milk powder required in good sausage. The product actually resembles cornstarch in texture.

Another favorite binder is soy protein concentrate. It not only helps bind meat together, it helps meat retain its natural juices, and prevents shrinkage during cooking. Soy protein concentrate contains 250% more protein than meat! It has one shortcoming only - when used in fresh sausage, the meat becomes a little more difficult to “sear” or brown while cooking. In a cooked patty, it gives the meat a greasy appearance although it tastes just fine. However, adding a little powdered dextrose or corn syrup solids (contributing their own flavors as well) usually help brown the meat.

In the United States, both non-fat milk powder and soy protein concentrate are limited by the USDA, to 3.5% in commercial sausage. Corn syrup solids also provide binding quality in sausages that are cured at lower temperatures. Powdered dextrose is another favorite additive in sausage. It is simply glucose made from cornstarch, but is only 70% sweet as sugar. Its weight readily forces itself into the cells of the meat for complete distribution. Please note all these products are natural and are used in most commercial sausage kitchens today. Don’t be hesitant to use them in sausage making as they are completely safe in recommended amounts and contain no additives, preservatives, or foreign chemicals. However, as with any other substance, there are limits set for their use and common sense should prevail.

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