Of all the popular grilling fodder, sausages are the most lively, both in terms of flavor and the fact that they spit at you as they cook. Hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken—they’ve long since surrendered. Coat them with barbecue sauce or mustard or any other marinade and they still taste like hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken. Sausages can surprise you.
Sausages also can surprise you with an ingredients list that notoriously led 19th-century attorney John Godfrey Saxe to liken them to law insofar as one should witness neither being made. And the fact that the meat becomes unrecognizable offers the sausage maker an easy opportunity to grind just about anything grindable into the mix, but even if your butcher isn’t a latter-day Sweeney Todd, it’s tricky trusting a person who has pig noses to get rid of.
Roll your own. The small investment required will be more than offset by the look on your friends’ faces as they witness the hilariously phallic spectacle of the extruded meat filling the condoms of casing.
Hardware needed: a meat grinder, which can be hand-cranked or electric. The grinding attachment is a must for your KitchenAid mixer, although you’ll be better served by the older, stronger, Hobart-made KitchenAids than the machinery manufactured by Whirlpool now.
There’s an inexpensive attachment for that grinder over which you can slip the sausage casings for filling. It’ll get you started, but you’re better off with a stand-alone extruder. I paid about $200 for a stainless-steel unit from Weston that holds seven pounds of meat and comes with four different-sized extruder tubes.
And you’ll need a good knife for cutting the meat into grinder-sized strips.
Software includes the meat, casings and seasonings. For Italian-style sausage, get a pork butt, which is actually a shoulder (“butt” was a term for a container in which it used to be packed), and cut it into small enough strips so as not to gag your grinder. Leave the fat with it. In fact, get extra fatback if it’s available. I have learned that it’s easy to hide this part of the operation from the fat-horrified rest of the family. Use the coarse grinding setting.
You can run garlic cloves through the grinder with the meat, although purists may insist that they be minced by hand. Having seen an Italian chef mince a pile of said cloves into a pulpy mass by hand in mere seconds, I know that I’m insufficient to the task and use machinery. Don’t skimp on the garlic.
Lay the ground meat out on a cutting board. Add lots of salt, typically one teaspoon per pound of meat. Per my family’s request, I’ve tried holding back on the stuff, and the result has been annoyingly bland. Fennel seeds give Italian sausage their characteristic flavor. Again, be generous; a tablespoon per pound of meat will work. A tablespoon of red wine vinegar per pound of meat jazzes the flavor and helps the texture of the assembly. Fresh parsley is a boon, which I usually mince in my food processor along with the garlic cloves. Black pepper is a must; cayenne pepper gives it a desirable heat. Mix it by hand until the components are well distributed.
You can find casings in the meat section of some area supermarkets—typically, the ones serving what we so tastefully term “ethnic” areas. The casings are packed in salt and will last for several years in the refrigerator. They’re not top quality, prone to wide variation in resilience per batch, but they’ll get you started. Once you’re hooked, you’ll find many mail-order sources online.
Untangle a couple of casings and rinse them until they’re pliant. Open an end and run water through the inside of it. The casing will prove amusingly uncooperative.
Set up your extruder, oiling the container and the outside of the extruding tube. Fill the container with meat; slide a casing over the tube. Don’t tie off the end until you see the tip of the meat emerge from the tube.
The challenge now is to guide the casing with one hand as you control the rate of extrusion with the crank in the other. The casing should be fairly tightly filled but with flexibility enough to let you twist the result into links. Should the casing reveal a hole along the way, cut it and tie off what you’ve extruded, remove (and eventually reload) the excess meat and continue. You’ll have a little sausage meat left over at the end of the process; that’s there to immediately cook and consume.
Long coils of sausage are perfect for party grilling. You can pretend you’re your own street fair, cutting of lengths for your hungry guests. But the classic look is the link, which you achieve by eyeballing the size and squeeze-pinching the ends until you can roll the link a couple of times. You’re actually rolling every other link, which will make sense as you move down the coil.
Having done all of which, don’t ruin them on the grill. Over coals that are too hot, they’ll burst and char to much. Too cold and they’ll shrivel. A slow roast over medium heat will do the trick, but you also can poach them beforehand, bringing them up to about 150 degrees, or you can cook them on the grill in a pan of beer or sauerkraut or other savory fluid, with the option of setting them over the flame at the very end for those crucial scorch-marks.
And then, when your discerning friends eagerly ask, “Where’d you get these?” you can smile and say, “I made them.” Adding, as I do, “Remember that old dog in the neighborhood that never stopped barking?”