There’s an old axiom that says you never want to know “how the sausage gets made,” meaning that some of the most delicious, beautiful or beneficial things are made from unsavory components and can be a nasty mess to produce. I’ve heard the saying applied to laws, restaurant kitchens, clothing and, of course, sausage itself.
I can’t help but be intrigued by the taboo, though — especially when it comes to the process behind the saying itself. At the risk of falling victim to yet another enduring cliche about curiosity and cats, I decided I wanted to pull back the curtain on how the sausage is made.
Sausage-making is a traditional meat preservation technique that, depending on the style of sausage, can involve curing, drying, culturing, smoking, freezing or a combination of processes. Over time, different cultures around the world have created the diverse array of sausages we have today: smoky Polish kielbasa, spicy Mexican chorizo and salty pink bologna, just to name a few.
There are several reasons to make your own sausage that go beyond general curiosity. Odds are, your sausage will taste better because you can control the cuts of meat and the blend of spices and seasonings you use. Since you can also manage the fat and salt content, your homemade sausage can be better for you than store-bought counterparts that are kept shelf-stable with additives and preservatives like butylated hydroxyanisole, butylated hydroxytoluene and propyl gallate.
Knowing how to make your own sausage can be especially useful for hunters. Processors often don’t process one animal at a time, so finding a trustworthy processor that doesn’t mix the meat from your catches with others can be challenging.
I’m not a hunter, but I am an avid kitchen experimenter, and making your own sausage opens up a whole new world of flavors, meats, casings and fillers like cheese, breadcrumbs or even vegetables to try. With a little expert guidance, maybe I’ll be able to bring sausage-making into my own kitchen lab.
Learning to try
Of course, I had to call up trusted meat expert Colt Knight, state livestock specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Previously, Colt taught me how to smoke meat (specifically — and importantly — bacon) using his personal, hand-crafted smokehouse in preparation for one of his many workshops at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. This upcoming season, he is planning a series of sausage-making workshops (stay tuned for more information on that), so he wanted to give it a test run with his favorite guinea pig.
When I got to Colt’s house, he showed me the equipment we would be using aside from the smokehouse: the grinder and stuffer. Colt has a fairly nice and expensive grinder that he said cost a couple hundred dollars, but he said it is possible to grind meat for sausage in smaller batches with a stand mixer with a grinder attachment.
Pro tip from Colt: keep your attachments in the freezer until you are ready to use them to prevent the meat from warming up and gunking up the equipment.
Another pro tip: Colt recommended making larger batches of sausages whenever you embark on a sausage-making endeavor.
“I have to clean as much for five pounds as I do for 20 pounds,” he explained. And clean-up, he warned, is the hardest part.
Then, true to his word, Colt pulled out 20 pounds of meat — a combination of brisket and pork butt, which he said were the best bulk deals at Sam’s Club when he went shopping — in two food-grade plastic tubs. I balked, but there was no time to waste: it was time to see how the sausage gets made.
A trying experience
Colt explained that we would be making smoked sausage snack sticks, because they are popular with hunters and he is frequently asked how to make them. He also said inexpensive cuts are generally better for making sausage, and he generally uses a mix of meats for the sake of cost and flavor. In some butcher shops, sausage is made from whatever is left over after the animal is otherwise processed — ears, lips, guts, organs and the like. Our sausage would be slightly more artisanal, though I do like the sustainability aspect of using all parts of the animal.
First, we separated the excess fat from the brisket. The sausage we were making was going to be about 80 percent meat and 20 percent fat, and Colt wanted to be precise with weights and measurements because we were curing the meat with sodium nitrate. After weighing the meat and fat, we sliced it into manageable chunks for the grinder, about one inch thick, and tossed it with the seasoning and curing salts.
Colt and I carried the tubs of meat to the grinder. He explained that we would pass the meat and fat through the grinder twice for the sake of consistency. Colt said his grinder does the equivalent of a double grind with each pass through, but if he had a less expensive grinder, he may even do it three times.
The first round of grinding was fast-paced and fun. You just drop the meat in the grinder in strips, hold down on the foot pedal and watch it squelch out the other end. You have to do it fairly quickly because you don’t want the blades scraping up against each other too much. It took me a moment to get into the groove, but soon, I was practically dancing while my meat turned into a chunky pulp. (Yet another Colt tip: run ice through the grinder between passes in order to clear out the last of the meat while cooling down the machinery.)
The second time passing the meat through was a little more labor intensive than the first. Instead of just plopping cut strips of meat through the top of the machine, you have to stamp the already-ground meat through using a funnel at a rhythmic clip. My arm got tired fairly quickly. (Colt joked that maybe we should try “Sam tries to go to the gym” next; pathetically, I yelled “I do cardio!”)
Then, we had to push our ground meat into the casing using the stuffer. Colt had two kinds of casing to try: an artificial cellulose casing, and a natural casing made of sheep intestines. Colt said that the natural casings generally taste better and have a nicer “snap” when you bite into them, but in his experience, they are also more difficult to use because they are fragile. The sheep casings also needed to be soaked before stuffing, so we started with the cellulose.
Stuffing sausage is generally a two-person job: after loading the meat into the machine, one person stamps it down while the other guides the sausage along so that the meat is distributed evenly and doesn’t burst through the casing. Between Colt’s quality equipment and the durability of the cellulose casing, the first round of stuffing was nearly seamless. We took turns at the two tasks and eventually ended up with a beautiful coil. Colt couldn’t even find any air bubbles to pop along the tube of meat with his piercing tool (another essential step in the process to prevent the casing from spilling when the sausage is heated).
The sheep casings, on the other hand, were difficult to load onto the stuffer, and once we finally started putting the meat through, they kept breaking. Colt tried to salvage a few ruptured sausages by tying off the ends, but some of them were burst beyond repair and we had to start over with a new casing. Eventually, though, we were able to get a few whole, successful sheep casing sausages.
Colt helped me tie off the ends and we brought them outside to hang in the smokehouse. He pointed out some of the points of uneven meat distribution where I had been distracted in my sausage stuffing duties. It wouldn’t affect the flavor, he reassured me, but those sections may shrivel up in the smoking process.
Colt let the sausage set overnight. Then, the next morning, he got the smokehouse going and smoked the sausages for about eight hours, and by then, they were fully cooked and safe to eat. I stopped by in the evening after work. Colt opened the door to the smokehouse and let the scrumptious smell fill the crisp evening air. The sausage was a beautiful red color, and I tried to snap a picture, but we lost light quickly — welcome to winter in Maine.
We pulled the sausages out of the smokehouse and cut them into six-inch long links. Colt set a cellulose and sheep sausage side by side so I could sample them and compare. The lambskin was, indeed, superior in taste and texture, but I couldn’t help but think back to all the broken casings. If I were to make sausage again, I would probably use the cellulose casing, or experiment with a different brand of natural casing (Colt said the quality can vary greatly between producers).
All in all, though, the sausage was delicious. No matter which casing, the snack sticks tasted smokier and fresher than store bought sticks. Before bidding Colt farewell, I ate four snack links and smelled like a campfire for the rest of the night.
My tried-and-true takeaways
Sausage making is a fun and delicious adventure. The upfront capital costs can be steep between the grinder, the press and the smokehouse (though all of those can be made more affordable with a little creativity for smaller batches), but if you have access to a lot of meat and you think you might enjoy the process of experimentation, it might be worth the investment.
Besides finagling with the natural casing, the hardest part of sausage making was the clean up. The equipment has lots of tiny parts, and the ground meat gets shockingly sticky as it warms. Overall, though, sausage making isn’t as gross as the axioms would have you believe.