There was an annoying moment a couple of weeks ago in Top Chef Canada during the supermarket challenge when the smarmy prick Rob made a disparaging comment about Connie making sausages for the challenge. He said something to the effect of why would people make sausages at home when they can just buy hot dogs. Now, Rob is full of stupid kneejerk comments and it isn’t worth dwelling on them, and it seems like the problem with her puff pastry-wrapped chicken sausages was that they simply weren’t good enough to convince home cooks to attempt such a dish, but there was the general sense in the episode that homemade sausages maybe weren’t the most appropriate dish for people to cook at home.
Michael Pollan has written at length about the way in which food television has become about the spectacle of cooking rather than about cooking itself, and that it has lost the instructional and educational quality that early TV cookery shows, like Julia Child’s, had. And isn’t this in part what was going on in that episode of Top Chef Canada? That sausage, which isn’t an especially difficult food to prepare if you have the time and right equipment, was condescendingly seen to be beyond the grasp of the average supermarket dweller. Or what about the way in which charcuterie plates have become trendy at upscale restaurants? I have nothing against this, and there are few things more pleasing and satisfying than well-prepared and expertly seasoned cured or otherwise processed meats, but it does show the way in which charcuterie has travelled far away from its humble origins.
I started making sausage from scratch about a year and a half ago after my parents and Anna conspired to get me a meat grinder and a copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie as a gift for Christmas. If you’re thinking of making sausages at home, I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. They cover the vast array of ways you can prepare charcuterie–curing, smoking, dry-curing, confit, sausage-making, and so on–all in a way that is practical for the home cook. I have really only scratched the surface of the book and made sausage and pâté from it, but there’s easily enough material in here for years of exploration and experimentation. The book is beautifully illustrated and the step-by-step instructions are clear, easy to follow, and will have you making excellent sausage on your first attempt.
Making truly great sausage is the reason why this is worth doing at home. There are some fine sausages available to buy in this city, but I prefer mine. They’re much more flavourful, and as a nice bonus, they’re inexpensive to make. Twelve or so feet of sausage usually costs around twenty dollars to make, and the quality of them is unmatched. I know that the meat in them is great and isn’t just the sweepings from a butcher’s floor, I can adjust the flavourings and seasonings to exactly my taste, and best of all, they’re super fresh. They take a bit of effort–it usually takes me about an hour and a half to make a batch of them–but because you’re making them in quantity, that effort will feed you for several meals.
My most recent batch was the sweet Italian sausages from Charcuterie. I’d made the spicy version a couple of times and they’re great for putting into sauces or baking with pasta, or just frying up and eating, but I thought that I would try the sweet ones for a change. I might even like them more than the spicy ones: unlike a supermarket-style “mild” Italian sausage which is mainly just bland, these sausages have a beautiful depth of flavour. They grill well and I used some of the leftover loose meat in a lasagne which turned out super well.
Sweet Italian Sausage
Adapted from Michael Ruhlman & Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie.
Makes 5 pounds of sausage
4 pounds/1800g boneless pork shoulder butt, diced into 1-inch cubes
1 pound/450g pork back fat, diced into 1-inch cubes
1.5 oz/40g kosher salt
2 tbsp/32g granulated sugar
2 tsp/12g minced garlic
2 tbsp/16g fennel seeds, toasted (I like to coarsely crush these in a mortar and pestle to better distribute the fennel throughout the sausage)
2 tsp/6g coarsely ground black pepper
2 tbsp/16g sweet Spanish paprika
0.75 cup/185 ml ice water
0.25 cup/60 ml red wine vinegar, chilled
12 feet/4 meters hog casings, soaked in tepid water for at least 30 minutes and rinsed
Note: these are the basic instructions given in the book, though it deals with the steps in a much greater depth in the book. Making sausage isn’t especially difficult, but it does require an understanding of the process if you are to make great sausage.
1. Combine all the ingredients except the water and the vinegar and toss to distribute the seasonings. Chill until ready to grind.
2. Grind the mixture through the small die into a bowl set in ice.
3. Add the water and vinegar to the meat mixture and mix with the paddle attachment (or sturdy spoon) until the liquids are incorporated and the mixture has developed a uniform, sticky appearance, about 1 minute on medium speed.
4. Sauté a small portion of the sausage, taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
5. Stuff the sausage into the hog casings, and twist into 6-inch/15-centimeter links. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to cook.
6. Gently sauté or roast the sausage to an internal temperature of 150 degrees F./65 degrees C.