Four decades ago, before there were any books available on sausage for the home cook, I became interested in sausage-making. Having discovered that there was little written on the subject, I began researching the topic myself, converting commercial-scale recipes to manageable size, and participating in every part of the process — from slaughter (yes, even cleaning out pig intestines for casings — which, as you can imagine, was not one of the more pleasant parts of the research) to finished dishes. This was before I was a writer, so no book ever came out of it. While working on that first book, every dinner guest at my home was subjected to one sausage dish or another. In the course of writing this book, the process has been repeated. Perhaps — according to dinner guests, who were too polite to say so — ad nauseam. It’s probably impolitic to refer to those long-suffering diners as guinea pigs, but I am, nonetheless, grateful for their sacrifice.
What makes a sausage a sausage? What doesn’t? These are fundamental questions — and the answers are, at once, as simple — and as varied and complex — as anything in the entire gamut of world foods. It’s the opposite of the famous remark, often misattributed to Otto von Bismarck, “… the making of laws is like the making of sausages — the less you know about the process the more you respect the result.”
Exactly what sausage is can be difficult to state precisely. The broad category of charcuterie includes many sausage-like foods, and many that are not sausage at all. When we try to parse the exact details that make, or do not make, something “sausage,” we are stymied by contradictions and exceptions. Like American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of obscenity, he couldn’t define it, “but he knows it when he sees it.”
Sausages may be simple patties of chopped, seasoned meat. In fact, one of the oldest specific sausage references was to the Roman insicia — a name derived from the Latin word for chopped meat (that was, in turn, derived from the Greek isikion, that referred only to chopped meat; their generic word for sausage was alla).
Commonly, forcemeats are stuffed into casings (though some are formed into patties or used loose). Is a skinless frank less sausage than a traditional hotdog that snaps when you bite into it? Is a casing even an essential part of the definition of a sausage? Couldn’t meatballs be considered a form of un-encased sausage? After all, they’re formed of well-seasoned forcemeat, just like sausage. What about quenelles? For that matter, what about the vast variety of forcemeats that come encased in dough, like Chinese dumplings, Italian ravioli, Latin-American empanadas, etc.? The only reason for not including them all in the sausage tribe is a matter of space.
This is the simplest possible recipe… the starting point for any kind of sausage. You need only decide on kind of protein, seasoning, texture, size, casing or no casing, smoking or not, fresh or dried, fermented or not — there are infinite variations!
Yield: 5 pounds (2.25 kg)
4 lbs (1.8 kg) meat, fish or poultry
1 lb. (450 gr) firm fat (pork or beef), nearly frozen
1 oz. (27 gr) Kosher salt
herbs or spices of your choice*
casings, if desired, soaked and well rinsed
1. Cut meat and fat into one-inch (25 mm) cubes, discarding any bits of gristle or bone.
2. Mix meat with salt and desired seasoning in non-reactive bowl, cover and chill in refrigerator for at least four hours or over night. Chill grinder at the same time.
3. Grind or chop meat to desired texture. Mix ground mixture if it has not become sticky (this is often unnecessary if the meat has rested with salt long enough — passage through the grinder mixes sufficiently to bind the sausage).
4. Stuff sausage, or form into patties.
5. If using sausage fresh, refrigerate until ready to cook. Otherwise, wrap tightly, in pre-portioned packages of plastic wrap and freeze — or continue with additional processes (like drying, smoking or curing — which may require the use of curing agents and/or preservatives).
*For Italian sausage, you would add: black pepper, fennel seeds, and crushed red pepper; for breakfast sausage, some combination of sage, black pepper, thyme, coriander, ginger, and nutmeg – heavy on the sage.
This savory sausage highlights the Greek taste for anise flavors, and the savory flavor of foods cooked on the grill. A sunny day, ice-cold ouzo, some pita bread, and a salad of chickpeas and red onion make for a great picnic.
Yield: four servings
1 1/2 lb. (680 gr) lamb
1/2 lb. (225 gr) pork fat
1/4 cup (25 gr) Kefalotyri cheese, grated
1 Tablespoon (12 gr) orange zest, grated
1 Tablespoon (12 gr) anise or fennel seeds
1/2 oz. (14 gr) kosher salt
1 Tablespoon (12 gr) Italian parsley, minced
to taste black pepper and hot pepper flakes
1/4 c. (120 ml) dry rosé wine (such as Roditys), ice cold
1. Chop lamb and pork fat into one-inch (25 mm) pieces, chill.
2. Combine next six ingredients; add to lamb and pork fat. Mix well, cover, and chill overnight. Put grinder and bowl in freezer.
3. Next day, add wine to seasoned meat. Mix well, then grind coarsely into chilled bowl.
4. Mix until meat becomes sticky.
5. Stuff into casings or wrap in caul fat.*
6. Broil until well done. Serve hot.
* Caul fat is a lacy tissue, enclosing tiny threads of fat, that surrounds the internal organs of the animals we eat. If your butcher has – or can get — it, try it. It not only holds the forcemeat together, it helps keep the sausage juicy.
This article is a kind of sausage in itself: scraps of text from Gary’s new book, Sausage: A Global History, (from Reaktion), have been ground, seasoned, and forced into a convenient shape.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us