I have been making my own sausage for a few years now, ever since I picked up the book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. Charcuterie is probably my favorite cookbook, even though the only recipes from the book I have actually made are several of the fresh sausages (the Spicy Roasted Poblano Sausage is awesome) and smoked bacon. Those few recipes, however, have given me immense satisfaction, and I am always picking it up, flipping through it and planning on eventually branching out to more advanced projects like dry cured sausages, pancetta and bresaola.
My Fresh Italian Sausage recipe is actually a hybrid of the Sweet Italian Sausage recipe in Charcuterie and the Fresh Italian Sausage recipe from another book in my library, Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli. I like the combination of herbs and spices in Bertolli’s recipe but use the ratio of meat to fat and the measurements of the ingredients the two have in common from Charcuterie. Even though cayenne pepper is an ingredient in this recipe, I still consider it to be a “sweet” sausage, because the cayenne is not enough to make it hot, it just adds a tiny bit of spice.
There several keys to making a good sausage that both books share. The first key is keeping your meat and fat cold. If it gets too warm during the process, the fat will separate from the meat and you will end up with a crumbly sausage. Tips that I picked up from both books are putting the meat in the freezer after I cut it up until it’s almost frozen, putting the auger, dies, blades, etc from your grinder in the freezer to get cold before grinding, and grinding the meat into a bowl set in ice.
Also very important is the addition of fat. Fat makes the sausage juicy, and a good Italian sausage must have a certain percentage of fat. Back fat is not an easy ingredient to get a hold of, so you may be tempted to exclude it from this recipe and just use 5 pounds of pork shoulder, but trust me I have tried it and the results just aren’t the same. Talk to your butcher and see if they can special order it for you, or you can order it online from a source like Niman Ranch. Speaking of sources, you can get the hog casings from Butcher & Packer.
The last key to a good sausage is after it is made; cooking the final product. A lot of people have a tendency to overcook sausage. A sausage should be cooked to a temperature of 150 degrees. Charcuterie suggests using a meat thermometer to check the temperature. I would never tell you to stand there like a dork at your grill sticking a meat thermometer in individual sausages. Just use common sense and judgment, if it’s cooked a little over 150 it’s no big deal, but you can tell when you are absolutely killing it… just stop yourself.
As far as equipment goes, I use the meat grinder attachment for my KitchenAide stand mixer to grind the meat, into the mixer bowl, then mix the ground meat with the ice cold liquid using the paddle attachment. I initially used the sausage stuffer that attaches to the grinder, but was not happy with that for several reasons, not the least of which is that going through the auger heats it up and increases your risk of “breaking” the sausage. I ended up buying this 5 pound sausage stuffer and the process is so much easier. If you are intimidated by stuffing the sausage, or just not ready to buy the special equipment, you could start out by just making sausage patties and skip it altogether.
Fresh Italian Sausage
Adapted from Charcuterie and Cooking by Hand
Makes 5 pounds of sausage
4 pounds/800 grams boneless pork shoulder butt
1 pound/450 grams pork back fat
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons fennel seeds, toasted
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
1-1/2 tablespoons dried sage
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup ice water
10 feet hog casings, soaked in tepid water for at least 30 minutes, then flushed with running water
- Cut the pork and fat into roughly 1 inch dice, and mix together in a bowl. Cover the bowl and place it in the freezer for approximately 30 minutes, it will feel nearly frozen.
- Remove the meat from the freezer and combine well with the rest of the ingredients, except the water.
- Grind the meat through a 1/4 inch plate, the large die if you are using the KitchenAide grinder attachment, into a bowl set in ice.
- Add the water to the meat mixture and mix with the paddle attachment of the stand mixer for about 1 minute on medium speed. The mixture should be thoroughly combined and quite sticky.
- Immediately stuff the sausage into the hog casings, pinch and and twist to form 6-inch links. Alternately, you can shape the sausage into patties. The sausage can now be refrigerated or wrapped well and frozen until ready to cook.