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With little equipment or time, you can make fresh sausage at home

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
If you don't have a meat grinder, a food processor will work if you do it in small 1-pound batches.

Sometimes, you really do want to know how sausage is made.

I'm afraid to know all the details of what goes into the gray links of mechanically separated and preservative-filled meat or the plastic-wrapped tubes of salty breakfast sausage or "taco-seasoned beef," but it's worth knowing how to make freshly ground, chemical-free sausage from scratch using tools you probably already have in your kitchen.

Now, when it comes to smoked sausage, I leave it to the pros: The charcuterie masters, if you will, of the smokehouses in Elgin and Taylor, who make very nice, fast-cooking smoked sausages sold in grocery stores that keep longer than fresh sausages.

But fresh sausage — made with pork, beef, venison, bison, lamb, chicken or fish or some combination thereof — has its own purpose: In patties or links with breakfast; browned for tacos, spaghetti sauce or chili; rolled into spheres and loaves for meatballs and meatloaf. (The primary distinction between sausage and meatloaf or meatballs is the bread crumbs or egg to bind the meat.)

From the blank canvas of ground meat that is salted and bound with liquid and fat, you can use any combination of herbs, spices, aromatics, cheese and liquids like beer and wine to create a sausage as simple or complex as you'd like.

Using recipes for spicy garlic sausage and chorizo from Michael Ruhlman ("Ratio," Scribner, 2009) and Victoria Wise ("Sausage," Ten Speed Press, 2010) for reference, I set out into my garden and into my pantry for inspiration.

Cilantro, sage, oregano, thyme are in their prime right now, so I chose two of them (cilantro and sage) to mix with finely chopped green garlic — the young, scallionlike garlic plants from my garden that I thinned out — to make a sausage that tasted like a fatty burst of spring.

Fresh chorizo from Mexico, not the cured kind from Spain, is usually a little too intensely flavored for my liking, so I took a lighter approach. By combining ancho chiles with figs and spices, including pumpkin pie spice, I created a smoky sweet chorizo that I prefer over maple-sweetened sausage.

Even though you'll find low-fat sausage on grocery store shelves, sausage traditionally is made with three parts meat to one part fat. The fat binds the meat and keeps it from drying out. Because you're striving for a 75/25 mix of meat to fat, if you buy a lean cut of pork shoulder or pork butt, which is usually closer to 85/15, you'll need to add fat in the form of salt pork or its slightly more well-known cousin, bacon. Tasso or chicken schmaltz are also good sources of flavorful fat.

Now comes the tricky part that usually prevents home cooks from attempting to make sausage: Grinding the meat.

Manual or electric meat grinders are the preference of butchers like Bryan Butler, one half of the Salt and Time charcuterie team that sells both fresh and smoked sausages as well as aged and cured meats like prosciutto at the Barton Creek and HOPE farmers' markets. (To watch a video of Bryan and Salt and Time founder Ben Runkle breaking down a hog, go to austin360.com/food.)

Home meat grinders cost between $30 (manual) and $100 or more (electric) and can often be found in stores that sell restaurant, hunting or outdoor cooking supplies, but you can use a food processor or even a knife, if you're using easy-to-cut proteins like chicken and fish, to reach your target texture. (Some fresh sausages, like chorizo, are more finely ground than the meat used in a breakfast sausage.)

Or you could skip the tools and cleaning required to grind meat and use meat that has been preground at the store or farmers' market, but you certainly have more control of the meat-to-fat ratio and texture of the final product if you grind your own.

With store-bought ground meat, you don't need much more than a bowl and your hands to make sausage, and it also allows you to make smaller batches of sausage to experiment with different flavor combinations. Just be careful when scaling up if you use teaspoons and tablespoons as your measuring tool, Butler warns. "Scaling up regular recipes is a recipe for disaster," he says. "No pun intended." Because spices and salt take up wildly different amounts of space or volume, measuring by weight is a more accurate. The rule of thumb is 0.25 ounce salt for every pound of meat and fat, which works out to be about 1½ teaspoon of kosher salt, but test to be sure. Everyone's palate for salt is different, and you might find this ratio to be too salty for your liking.

In addition to fat and salt, the other key is keeping the meat and the tools you use as cold as possible so the fat doesn't soften too much while processing. "Friction is your enemy" Butler says. "Even your hands will break down lipids, and you don't want to overmix or else you'll end up with a brick of meatloaf."

Ginger, nutmeg, fennel and caraways seeds, rubbed sage, thyme, red pepper flakes and white pepper are the usual suspects in your average breakfast sausage, but your homemade version can reflect your own preferences for more or less anise flavor or pepper.

Fresh herbs work nicely in sausage, but if you're using dried or dehydrated herbs, spices, onion or garlic, rehydrate them in a little bit of water first to wake up the flavors, he says. (Beer works, too, he quickly notes.)

Butler's last piece of advice had to do with the quality of the meat you use, which takes us back to the question of wanting to know what goes in your sausage in the first place. Ask your butcher a lot of questions about how much fat is in the meat, how easy it is to grind and where it came from. "If your butcher can't tell you about the meat, go somewhere else."

abroyles@statesman.com

Green Garlic and Herb Sausage

Depending on how fatty your initial cut of meat is, you might have to add a few slices of raw bacon or salt pork that have been chopped up. If you add salt pork, don't add any additional salt. Taste the sausage as you go by frying a small patty to sample.

3 lb. pork shoulder or butt with plenty of fat (I used a cut labeled as 'grilling strips for carnitas,' and it had plenty enough fat for this sausage)

31/2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

2 Tbsp. green garlic shoots, finely chopped, including bulb (can substitute 11/2 Tbsp. minced garlic cloves)

11/2 tsp. red pepper flakes

2 Tbsp. cilantro

1 tsp. fresh sage, finely chopped

Using a large chef's knife, cut pork into 1-inch cubes and place in a large bowl or dish. Mix in salt, pepper, green garlic, red pepper flakes, cilantro and sage. (This is less salt than the traditional ratio of 60 parts meat to 1 part salt that most charcuterie makers called for, but I found the original ratio too strong. Always undersalt first. You can add more later.) Cover with a towel and place in the freezer for 30 minutes or in the refrigerator for at least an hour to chill. (Place food processor parts in the fridge, too.)

Once meat is thoroughly chilled but not frozen, reassemble food processor and add 1/3 of the meat mixture. Pulse eight to 10 times, for 20 to 30 seconds in total, until meat is in small pieces. (Continue processing if you want a smoother texture for patties, links or stuffing into casings.)

Process the rest of the meat in batches and put all the meat in the same large bowl. Add 1/2 cup ice-cold water, which can be replaced by beer, wine or vinegar if you choose. Combine with a large wooden spoon, your hands or a large stand-up mixer until well combined and sticky, about a minute or two (just 30 seconds or so if using a mixer.)

Roll into meatballs, shape into patties or leave loose and sauté, until well browned on the outside. (For adventurous cooks, you can also stuff sausage into hog casings using the stuffer attachment on your stand-up mixer or a commercial stuffer. See austin360.com/relishaustin for a how-to guide.) Store in the fridge for up to four days and in the freezer for up to six weeks.

— Addie Broyles

Fig Ancho Chorizo

Traditional chorizo relies heavily on cumin, chipotle powder, paprika, oregano and the acid of a vinegar for its intense flavor. I took some of those influences and created a lighter but still strongly flavored version that can be served crumbled up or in patties in a taco, spring roll or pita bread or with couscous or rice.

1 lb. pre-ground sausage

6 dried figs

1 ancho pepper

1/4 lb. salt pork

2 tsp. fresh thyme or oregano, finely chopped

1 tsp. achiote powder

1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice

Put sausage in the freezer minutes before beginning the rest of the steps.

In a small saucepan, brings a few cups of water to a boil and add figs and ancho pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes and let soak for another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove pepper and figs from water and pull off stems. Remove seeds of pepper by brushing off with fingers. (Note: You can replace the step of rehydrating the figs and peppers if you use 1 tsp. dried ancho powder instead. Just process salt pork and fig as is.)

In a food processor, process peppers, figs and salt pork until well combined, about 30 seconds. Add 1/2 cup ice-cold water and the rest of the spices. Pulse a few more times to combine.

Remove sausage from freezer and place in a large bowl. Add fig and spice purée. Mix together with hands or a wooden spoon until thoroughly mixed and sticky. (You also can use a stand-up mixer if you don't mind the extra dishes.)

Cook over medium-high heat and break up into crumbles or shape meat into meatballs, links or patties and sauté or bake. Use within five days or freeze. Serves 4.

— Addie Broyles

Stuffing fresh sausage into casing

In your own kitchen, you can stuff the sausage you make into casings, which is relatively easy to do if you have a stuffing attachment on a Kitchen Aid or other powerful stand-up mixer, but it adds a number of steps to the process. If you are going to grind and stuff the sausage with an attachment on a stand-up mixer, grind the meat first and then use the stuffing attachment. It's a tedious way to get the job done, but you also can use a pastry bag to stuff the casing.

Casings are hard to find in grocery stores, so you'll probably have to order them online. Make sure the casings, which are heavily salted in storage, have been soaked in water for at least 20 minutes and rinsed several times with fresh water before using. Cased sausages also need to be hung in the fridge overnight so the outside of the casing can dry out and the meat inside can set up. Butler recommends "Bruce Aidells's Complete Sausage Book" for fresh sausage recipes and techniques, including how to use casings.

The good news is that grocery store meat departments have gotten smart about selling a variety of fresh, cased sausages in addition to the prepackaged kind. Almost all mid- to above-average grocery store chains now carry everything from hot and sweet Italian sausages to boudin, the link of rice and pork or crawfish that has become the darling sausage of the South.

— Addie Broyles

Butcher competition

Bryan Butler is one of 20 butchers in the country invited to compete in the Cochon 555 heritage pig butcher competition next month in New Orleans. Salt and Time is hosting a pork-filled happy hour at Hotel Saint Cecilia from 5 to 8 p.m. on May 4 to raise money for the trip. Go to www.saltandtime.com for more info.