While sausagemaking might have started as a way to use the trimmings from butchering or to make the most of tough cuts of meat, for me it’s more about knowing exactly what’s in that sausage on my plate.
Perhaps in this case you’re not sold on going DIY just yet. What if I added, “No Casings Required”? Procuring casings can be challenging: They look otherworldly, and there is a daunting learning curve when it comes to stuffing them. All those worries disappear with two words: bulk sausage.
A sausage, in contrast to that other ground meat, the hamburger, is emulsified, with meat and fat binding to each other. That is why a burger is tender, while sausage has more tooth and resistance. For that reason, fat is an essential ingredient in sausages, particularly those made with pork and beef with strong muscle structure. Use pork fatback (not salt pork) that is dry and firm to the touch. A good proportion for all sausages, including poultry, is 75 percent meat to 25 percent fat.
Great sausage starts with excellent ingredients. Washington’s sausage maestro, Red Apron Butcher’s Nate Anda, uses meat from farmers he knows — pigs that forage and cows that graze. “They are looking for their food, walking to it, working for it,” he says. “That meat just tastes better.”
For pork sausage, buy whole-muscle cuts such as shoulder, Boston butt or picnic for their firm fat and strong muscle structure. To make beef sausage, look to chuck, eye of round and brisket. With turkey or chicken, choose dark meat.
What you need next is a way to grind it, which brings me to my other favorite thing about making sausage: my grandmother’s hand-cranked grinder. It’s made of cast iron and is surprisingly easy to clean and store. Similar, affordable models are available at the hardware store and at many camping/hunting stores.
When she clamped it onto her Formica countertop — on a corner that bore a permanent indentation — I knew a delicious dinner was on the way. She would grind together chunks of chuck roast, lamb shoulder or veal breast and make meatloaf, meatballs and griddled hamburgers. In the summer, turnips, apples and sweet black radishes went in; out came an earthy chopped slaw, which my grandmother finished with caraway seed and a sweet-sour dressing. Even cooked foods were put through the grinder. Leftover roast beef, potatoes and carrots became an ethereal hash for weekend breakfasts.
While at times I have opted to use the grinding attachment for my stand mixer as well as a standalone electric grinder that I borrow from a friend, this hand-cranked grinder is all I need for a small batch of sausage suitable for my household. You can use a food processor instead, although the texture of your sausage mixture will be less uniform, and you must work in small batches for the best results.
When you’re making sausage, cold is king. The meat, the grinder and the bowls should all be thoroughly chilled; the meat and fat should be nearly frozen. When you work quickly, a two-pound batch of sausage should take only about 10 minutes to grind. If at any time the mixture seems to be warming up, stop and place everything in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes, then keep going.
Because most sausage starts with the same simple ratio of meat to fat, the artistry is in the seasoning. Inspiration is as close as your spice cabinet. Look to the flavors of your favorite cuisine and go from there. Because the flavor of fresh herbs can vary widely, I turn to dried herbs and spices to ensure a more consistent result. Marjoram and fennel seed make a great start for Italian sausage, while sage, parsley and thyme provide the familiar flavor of breakfast sausage. It’s hard to go wrong when the meat is flavorful and the spices are applied judiciously.
I use the stand mixer to combine the ground meat, fat and spices, but a firm wooden spoon or silicone spatula and a large, chilled bowl work just as well. When both fat and meat are kept icy cold, the resulting mixture will emulsify. You can test for proper emulsification by pressing a large pinch of the sausage mixture into your palm. Once you turn your hand over, the mix should stay put for at least 10 seconds.
Chef Anda recognizes emulsification by the slapping sound a successful blend makes in the mixing bowl. “If it starts to sound like stepping through sludge — you know that sound? — that’s a bad emulsification. It’s all over then,” he says. Sadly, over-emulsified sausage is crumbly and unpleasant and cannot be rescued. Work carefully and check for that stickiness often. Some meat requires the addition of a little cold liquid to help bring the mixture together, but, Anda says, “be delicate when you add the liquid. Don’t over-mix.”
Before declaring the sausage ready to be cooked, or packed up for later, I cook a test patty thoroughly and taste it carefully. Your preferences for salt, pepper and seasonings are important here, so taste and adjust accordingly. It is possible to be bold with flavorings; just be sure to test along the way.
Most freshly ground sausage is ready to cook and eat, but chorizo benefits from a refrigerated rest. The intensity of the chili pepper combination grows, and the flavors meld after a day or two. Of course, I’ve been known to put that chorizo right into the pan, because sometimes I just can’t wait to crumble it into a taco.
Feel free to experiment once you have learned the basics of sausagemaking. Try lamb with harissa and cumin for spectacular merguez, or chicken with apples and sage, a kid-friendly combination. I’ve played with Korean chili paste and Chinese fermented black beans, with salty capers and fresh chili peppers. Even the very basic Toulouse sausage, made up of just pork, fat, salt and pepper, is truly divine.
Crumble sweet Italian sausage over your next pizza. Make a homemade egg, turkey sausage and cheese sandwich. As with any DIY project, the results will speak for themselves.
A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Red Apron Butcher’s Nate Anda.
Barrow is the author of “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving” (W.W. Norton, 2014). She blogs at www.mrswheelbarrow.com. She will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at live.washingtonpost.com.