There’s a way to make sausage; then there’s his way

Jim Athearn prepares the meat for grinding. The balance of meat and fat is critical to the flavor of sausage. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Sausage making is time-consuming and tricky business. It can also create marital tension when one is working with a spouse and the grinder starts squirting ground meat like a fire hose, causing the casings to herniate. I speak from personal experience.

So it was with great interest and a freezer full of venison that I attended a sausage-making workshop Saturday morning led by Jefferson Munroe of the Good Farm and sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society.

I laughed when Taz Armstrong, who assisted with the workshop, said that using an electric KitchenAid mixer and sausage attachment “can be stressful,” as opposed to the kindler, gentler hand crank model.

I recalled urging — I hesitate to use a more accurate word — my wife Norma to press harder in order to jam a glutinous mix of venison and pork into the whirring mixer as I tried to balance casing and sausage and embolisms on our small kitchen counter.

My mistake, I learned — one of several I made on my first untutored attempt — was to violate one of the cardinal rules of sausage making. I had failed to keep the mix chilled.

Our group of a dozen novice sausage makers was evenly divided between men and women. It was an interesting mix of foodies interested in adding to their kitchen skills, a couple looking for a winter diversion who had no intention of competing with Jimmy Dean, and two guys with pigs who thought home-grown sausage would be a tasty project.

I was interested in turning packages of deer meat into something other than hamburger, stew, and chili. Well-made venison sausage can be quite a treat, but in my first attempt I had failed to add enough fat to the meat, and it turned out tasty but dry.

I also lacked the deft touch it takes to allow the casing to slide off the sausage stuffing tube in direct relation to the flow of ground meat. Some of my sausages expanded to about the size of bananas. I wanted to do better.

Sausage school began with an emphasis on three critical points: time, temperature and the need to avoid cross-contamination. The meat must remain chilled, preferably below 40 degrees. Above that temperature, bacteria start to grow. The more time, the more bacteria. Working with a variety of ingredients also requires close attention to cleanliness.

The aroma of fresh sausage cooking on a stove is enough to make the strongest vegetarian wilt. The wonderful thing about sausage making is the infinite number of choices of ingredients. Number one on the list is fat, thick, rich, creamy pig backfat, available at several local farms and markets.

The mix of fat to meat needed to make pork sausage is about 30 percent. Pork is naturally fatty, so depending on the cut used it may not be necessary to add much fat to the meat. Venison is another story, it has no usable fat so it must be added.

Grinding the meat was straightforward. In keeping with the cardinal rule, the bowls and grinding tools were chilled prior to use. The home KitchenAid mixers have a very useful grinding attachment that does a fair job. But for bigger work, a commercial grinder makes quick work of big hunks of meat.

Home sausage makers have a choice of lamb or hog casings. Lamb casing is smaller and more delicate, and often used for breakfast sausage. I was interested to learn that hog casing comes in 300-foot lengths — some pig. Casings are available, I was told, in stock or by order from Tisbury Farm Market, Cash and Carry, and Shiretown Meats.

Once the meat was ground, the next step was to mix it so that the spices and meat would bind and create a uniform texture. Cold water was added to increase the moisture content. Red wine was added to one batch. The end product was flavorful and moist.

The first step in stuffing sausage is to load the casing onto the stuffer tube. It is not a good idea to start with 300 feet, but it is a good idea to have enough casing on the tube so you can make a solid first run.

Whatever the length, it is the point of no return and it’s wise to fry up a patty for a taste test before stuffing begins in earnest, so you can readjust spices if there is a need.

The most valuable lesson I learned Saturday was that when making sausage at home, manual beats machine. The team using the hand-crank 5-pound capacity Kitchener sausage stuffer was rolling out the sausage well ahead of the group jamming meat into the KitchenAid.

“Communication is the key,” Taz said as one man cranked, another stuffed, and another coiled sausage onto a tray.

Sausage making highlights

Most pork recipes call for pork shoulder or pork butt roast, an inexpensive cut that usually has 25 to 30 percent fat, which is the amount you want for a flavorful, moist sausage.

Be sure to have adequate salt. The ration is ⅓ oz (or 10 grams) for every pound of meat and fat.

Keep everything cold. If you grind at too warm a temperature then the meat “breaks,” meaning that the fat and protein will separate from each other when cooked.

Beat the meat in order to thoroughly mix the spices and create the primary bind.

Load plenty of casings onto the stuffing tube in order not to run out midstream. A sheet pan with some water on it allows the sausage to curl out easily.

Nearly everyone overcooks their sausages or cooks them too fast, bursting the skin and losing many of the juices. Poach, roast, grill or sauté, but cook any sausage over a gentle, uniform heat so that the exterior doesn’t explode or dry before it is cooked through. Cook to an interior temperature of 150 degrees for pork sausage.

Be sure to let your sausage rest before eating it as this will allow the juices to infuse the entirety of the sausage.

A highly recommended book is “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing,” by Michael Ruhlman, Brian Polcyn and Thomas Keller.