The Sausage is found in virtually every region and ethnic tradition in America. From the simple and satisfying pork and sage sausage of the Midwest, Cajun chaurice and New Bedford Portugese linguiça to Italian sweet fennel sausage and Coney Island franks, sausage in one shape or another has long been an important part of American cooking. Sausages can serve as main dishes or as accompaniments and flavorings with vegetables, pasta, or beans. Whether you make them yourself or buy them ready-made, you can use sausages in dishes that range from traditional specialties like red beans and rice or cotechino with white beans to creative new combinations with vegetables, poultry, pasta, and seafood.
The origin of sausages dates back even further in culinary history. The art of salting, curing, and smoking meat goes back to the beginnings of domestication and agriculture in the Near East, and perhaps even earlier. As soon as mankind was able to achieve a regular surplus of meat, we began to look for ways to preserve it. Cutting up scraps of meat, salting them, and sealing them in casings made from the intestines and other organs of animals was one of the first discoveries of early pastoralists. The pig, the main source of most sausages, was domesticated quite early, in about 5000 B.C. in Egypt and China, and pig-raising spread quickly throughout the Near East, Europe, and Asia.
Since then, virtually every society has developed its own version of sausage. The name derives from the Latin word for salted, salsus, and salt for preserving meat, fish, and cheese has been an important commodity from Roman times to the present. Sausages are found in virtually every region in Europe, giving flavor and substance to dishes that define the style and flavor of its varied cuisines. Try to think of German, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese cooking, to name a few, without traditional sausages like knockwurst, salami, kielbasa, and linguiça
There are as many types of sausage as there are cooks and cultures, offering a tremendous variety of flavors, textures, and uses.
The most basic way to define sausage is: a combination of chopped meat, fat, salt, and spices. Over the years, sausages have been made from an ever-widening array of ingredients—beef, poultry, game, seafood, even vegetables—but pork has been the constantly recurring favorite. Pigs are easy and economical to raise, and their bland and succulent meat combines well with spices and flavorings. Pork also has a mild-tasting fat that binds well and gives a rich and juicy flavor to the sausage.
The most common and easiest-to-make sausage is the standard American breakfast patty consisting of freshly ground pork seasoned with salt, sage, and black pepper. Virtually every culture has some kind of similar, easy-to-make fresh sausage. Many Italian sausages are simply made of freshly ground pork that is flavored and then stuffed into casings of hog or sheep intestines. Cajun boudin, spicy country sausage, fresh bratwurst, kielbasa, and chorizo are all popular and easily made fresh sausages. Fresh sausage is perishable, however, and will keep in the refrigerator only for a few days, but it freezes well for 2 to 3 months. Fresh sausage, in bulk or in casings, can be one of the most versatile and helpful ingredients in your freezer.
Having some country ham in your refrigerator is like owning one good black dress. You are always prepared, no matter what the occasion. The same could be said of sausage, fresh or smoked. With a stash of sausage in the freezer, you can always turn the most meager leftovers, dried beans, or pasta into a feast, whatever the circumstances or no matter how many guests drop in unexpectedly.
Many sausages are dried and/or smoked to aid preservation and enhance flavor. In the days before refrigeration, householders discovered that hanging pieces of salted meat, poultry, or fish above the hearth preserved them for future use. Smoked sausages, where the meat is mixed with salt and spices and then hung for a time in smoke, have long been a source of protein through the cold winter months. Air-drying sausages, such as salami or Lebanon bologna, dehydrates the meats, discourages bacterial activity, and helps to preserve them even more. Drying and smoking also concentrate flavors and add a special tang to these sausages, which makes them very popular as seasonings in dishes. Care must be taken when using these techniques, however, to prevent spoilage. In our section on smoking, we describe how to air-dry and smoke sausages safely.
There is another major type of sausage in which the meat is emulsified with the fat and spices to provide a smooth texture and subtle flavors.
America’s most popular sausage, the hot dog, is the most common emulsified sausage, but knockwurst, bologna, and other smooth sausages are also widely appreciated in the United States. Emulsified sausages are generally tricky to make in the home kitchen.
The Traditional American Sausage
When we reminisce about thick patties of sausage frying in black skillets, it’s country sausage we’re dreaming of. Just about every farm family had its own variation for sausage made fresh at the fall hog-killing time. Most sausage recipes share the basic mixture of fresh pork and pork fat with seasonings that usually include salt, sage, and red and black pepper. After this, variations abound. Spices such allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger are often added, along with aromatics like lemon peel or garlic. Fresh or dried herbs that range from mild hints of parsley to the more powerful flavors of thyme, rosemary, marjoram, or savory add color and complexity. Amounts of pepper, red and black, vary considerably, depending on the heat tolerance of local palates.
“Take the tender pieces of fresh pork, chop them exceedingly fine, chop some of the leaf fat, and put them together in the proportion of three pounds of pork to one of fat, season it very high with pepper and salt, add a small quantity of dried sage rubbed to a powder, have the skins nicely prepared, fill them and hang them in a dry place. Sausages are excellent made into cakes and fried, but will not keep so well as in skins.” (The Virginia Housewife, 1824).
Tips & Techniques on Making Sausages
Homemade sausages have real advantages over most commercial products. There are no additives, extenders, or other ingredients to cause worry or concern. If you choose to cold smoke or air-dry your homemade sausages, you need to add curing salts for safety’s sake , but the amount of curing salts required will be at the absolute minimum to retard bacterial growth if you follow our directions. And you certainly don’t have to cold smoke or air-dry sausages; you can hot smoke them or leave them fresh.
An added plus is the lesser amount of fat used in sausages made in the home kitchen. Some fat is necessary for flavor and juiciness in all sausages, but you can keep it to a minimum, and well below most store-bought sausage. Amounts vary for each type, but in general the fat content of homemade sausages is significantly lower than most commercial products.
Equipment For Making Sausages
No special equipment is necessary—a sharp knife or a food processor will do—although if you really get into sausage making you might want to acquire some specialized tools of the trade, such as a meat grinder or sausage stuffer.
For a simple sausage, all you have to do is mince the meat and fat to the desired texture, mix in the spices, form the meat into patties, and fry—as easy as making hamburgers. Or you can go a step further and use a long funnel to stuff the sausage meat into casings and tie off links. You just slip the casing over the end of the funnel and push the chopped meat in by hand or with the end of a wooden spoon. It can be a bit slow for large quantities, but you’ll be making sausage the same way Italian or Polish grandmothers have over the centuries, and they get very few complaints.
A meat grinder, however, will make your sausage making a lot easier, if you want to make up any quantity. If you add a sausage horn attachment for the grinder and a small kitchen scale, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a bona fide sausage maker.
Many prefer to use a meat grinder, hand-operated or electric, equipped with plates of differing hole sizes (⅛ inch, ¼ inch, and ⅜ inch) to allow for varied textures, along with a sausage stuffing attachment, or horn. With the various-sized plates, you can grind the meat as fine or as coarse as you like. Then, after the meat is mixed and seasoned, just attach the horn to the grinder, slip the sausage casing over the tip, and use the grinder to feed the meat into the casing simply by turning the handle. Hand grinders and some electric models are relatively inexpensive; an electric grinder makes sense if you are going to put up large batches of sausage. Keep the blade and plates clean and dry, and lubricate the moving parts of the grinder with vegetable oil each time you use it. The meat grinder attachment and sausage horn available for the KitchenAid mixer work well and are easy to use. Incidentally, food processors are all right to use for grinding meat occasionally, but they don’t produce pieces of consistent size and texture.
If you make sausage on a regular basis or in large lots, you might want to get a sausage stuffer—a long cylinder with a piston that pushes the ground meat into the casings. For sausage-making equipment, visit a hardware store or butcher-supply house in an Italian, German, or Polish neighborhood.
Any good kitchen scale should work fine for measuring ingredients. If you don’t have a scale, remember that 2 cups of ground meat weighs about 1 pound. If you are fortunate enough to have a friendly butcher, you might be able to buy the meat and fat and have him grind it for you. Tell the butcher to use the “chili” blade, so the meat is not too finely ground. Be sure to have the meat ground fresh and use it the same day you buy it.
Ingredients For Making Sausages
Meat for sausage making should be as fresh as possible and kept refrigerated right up to the time you use it. It is all right to use the tougher and cheaper cuts because the meat is going to be ground or chopped. Shoulder cuts are best, as they are cheap, flavorful, and easy to bone. Pork is preferred for most types of sausage, and the shoulder, sometimes called Boston butt, provides juicy, tasty meat. Beef chuck and lamb shoulder are also popular. If you are using venison or other large game, the shoulder is the best for sausage, although loin or leg can be used. For poultry sausage, we prefer chicken or turkey thigh meat.
When boning and cutting up meat for sausage making, be sure to remove and discard any gristle or connective tissue. Meat trimmings are sometimes used to make sausage, but sufficient amounts of trimming are usually available only in a butcher shop or large restaurant kitchen.
Sausage needs fat for juiciness and flavor. Commercial products can contain from 30 to 50 percent fat, while sausages made in the home producers use between 15 and 25 percent. (For comparison, lean hamburger contains 15 to 22 percent fat, regular up to 30 percent.) The amount of fat you consume will be significantly less if you follow our usual practice and drain off the excess after browning the sausages.
Pork fat is preferred for its mild flavor and high melting point. Lamb fat has too strong a flavor, while poultry fats are too soft and melt too easily. Beef is acceptable, although a bit too grainy for some sausages. Pork back fat with the skin removed has the best texture and is favored for most sausages. Belly or bacon fat is too soft, and kidney fat too hard. Most butchers will be more than willing to sell or give you the type of fat you need for virtually any sausage.
If the meat is coarsely ground on a ⅜-inch plate and the fat on a finer plate, ⅛-inch or ¼-inch, much less fat can be used. Finer-ground sausages tend to need more fat because they have a mealier texture, while chunky meat stays juicier with less fat added.
Since you will be using less fat than commercial sausages, you should be careful not to overcook the sausages. An internal temperature of 155° to 160° when you insert an instant-read thermometer into the end of the sausage is more than adequate to produce a safe and juicy result. Commercial sausage makers are required to cook pork sausage to an internal temperature of only 144°, so you will be well beyond the minimum.
The spice blend is what gives each sausage its unique flavor, and fresh spices are essential to fine sausage making. Throw out spices that are on the shelf for more than 3 months, and buy fresh ones. We prefer to grind our own black pepper, usually coarsely, although we do call for a fine grind in some smoother sausages. In general, it is best to grind most other spices, such as nutmeg, coriander, cloves, etc., just before using—it makes a difference you can taste.
Fresh herbs can be used in place of dried (in the proportion of two parts fresh to one part dried), and amounts of cayenne and other hot peppers depend on the heat levels you prefer. Herbs and spices vary widely in flavor and potency, so you should always fry up a small portion of the sausage meat and taste it, then let your taste buds be your guide.
Salt is an important element for preservation and flavor. It discourages the growth of unwanted bacteria and other organisms and enhances the impact of the other spices. People use less salt in homemade sausages than most commercial sausage makers, and prefer kosher salt for its purity and milder flavor. If you don’t have kosher salt, use a little less pure table salt (2½ teaspoons instead of 1 tablespoon) than the recipe calls for.
To test salt for additives, dissolve a couple of teaspoons in a glass of water. If the solution remains cloudy after stirring, the salt has too many impurities and should not be used.
The average commercial sausage is often loaded with extenders, MSG, binders, preservatives, sugar, and water. They provide a pretty good argument for making your own sausages or for seeking out the small artisan producers of authentic sausages. You can occasionally add a little bit of sweet wine or sugar if a recipe calls for it, and use small amounts of water or wine to moisten the meat and help blend together the ingredients. Add curing salts if you are going to cold smoke or air-dry sausages, for safety’s sake. They are not necessary for fresh sausage or if you choose to hot smoke sausage.
Casings are not necessary for home sausage making (unless they are to be smoked). Use bulk sausage, and you can wrap and freeze meal-sized portions of any sausage for future use.
But a juicy link hot from the grill is so toothsome and delicious that you’ll most likely want to stuff at least some of your homemade sausages into casings. Most authentic sausages are stuffed into natural casings of hog, lamb, or beef intestines, thoroughly cleaned with the soft tissues removed. These thin membranes are dried and packed in salt for storage. Many commercial sausages use artificial casings made of collagen or are sold “skinless.”
Casings are usually sold in bundles called “hanks.” Depending on the type and size of the casing, a hank will take care of 50 to 150 pounds of meat, but don’t worry if that sounds like a lot. Packed in salt, casings can last several years in the refrigerator. They can be purchased from custom butchers and butcher-supply houses.
Hog casings are the most versatile and popular, and range in size from 1¼ to 2½ inches in diameter. They are relatively tender, not very expensive, and easy to work with. If you were to pick one casing to buy, we would recommend a medium hog casing (32 to 35 mm or 1¼ inches). This is the size, for example, of the standard Italian sausage, and most of our sausage recipes can be made using this size casing. One hank will hold 100 to 125 pounds of sausage meat.
Lamb or sheep casings are the narrowest and most delicate; they are also the most expensive. Typically used in breakfast links and old-fashioned hot dogs, they range from ½ inch (lamb) to a little over 1 inch (sheep) in diameter. One hank should hold about 50 to 60 pounds of sausage meat.
There are two popular types of beef casings: beef middles and beef rounds. The rounds, which are used for sausages such as ring bologna or ring kielbasa, range in diameter from 2 to 3 inches and will hold between 75 and 100 pounds of product per hank. Beef middles are often sold sewn and are used to make large, semidry sausages such as summer sausage, as well as liverwurst and braunschweiger. An individual sewed middle will range in diameter from 2 to 4½ inches and will hold 2 to 3 pounds of meat. Beef casings can be tough and are most often peeled away before the sausage is eaten.
Caul fat is a membranous fat that can be used to wrap patties of meat called crépinettes. This membrane helps to keep the juices in and gives the patty a nice appearance. Caul fat can be stored frozen, and unused caul fat can be refrozen. It can be difficult to find, although specialty butchers and wholesale meat distributors often carry it.
Handling and Storage
Fresh meat and proper storage and handling are very important for quality sausage making. Meat should be purchased from a reputable butcher and used the same day. You can use frozen meat, but it should be frozen at its peak of freshness. For best results, meat should be thawed as slowly as possible, for 1 or 2 days in the refrigerator, depending on how big the pieces are. Frozen meat should not be kept for more than 3 months; otherwise it can develop a rancid flavor. You may use frozen fat, as this is often the only way to find it. As long as you don’t let the fat warm up to above 45°, you can refreeze it.
Ground meat will spoil sooner than whole cuts, so keep sausage meat cold and use it as quickly as possible. We suggest you cut the meat into pieces and put it into the freezer for 30 minutes before grinding. After you’ve ground the meat and fat, put the mixture back into the refrigerator until you are ready to stuff the casings. If you are making more than one type of sausage at one time, grind and season all the mixtures, refrigerate, and then stuff them into the casings all at once. When making sausage, the temperature of the meat should not get above 50° for any extended period of time.
Just as important as the use of impeccably fresh ingredients is the need to practice good sanitation when making sausage.
- After washing the grinder and stuffer with hot water, cool them in the refrigerator or freezer before use. Have all your cutting boards, tables, equipment, and knives scrupulously clean. Periodically sterilize wooden cutting boards with a solution of ¾ cup bleach and 1 gallon warm water. Let stand for 5 minutes and rinse with clean water. Wash hands frequently with plenty of soap and hot water during sausage making.
- When making several varieties of sausage, preweigh the meats and fat, and store them in labeled bowls in the refrigerator until you are ready to grind them. Work on only one batch at a time, and keep the other batches refrigerated. After the meat has been ground and the spices mixed in, store it in the refrigerator until ready to stuff into the casings.
- Make your sausages during the cooler times of the day, morning or evening. If possible, the room temperature should not be above 70°.
- Have all the ingredients ready to go and the spice mix made in advance.
- Don’t let the grinder or stuffer sit with meat in it. If you are going to take a break or move on to something else, take the grinder apart, and remove and discard any residual meat or fat. Wash and dry the grinder and reassemble it when you are ready to use it again. Meat should not sit in a grinder or stuffer for more than 15 to 20 minutes at 70° room temperature, less time if the room is hotter.
- When smoking or air-drying sausage, do not dry them in too warm a place. Always hang sausage on clean sticks.
1. If you have a meat grinder, hand-operated or electric, attach the size plate (with holes of ⅛ inch, ¼ inch, or ⅜ inch) that the recipe calls for. Cut the meat and fats into ¾-by ¾-inch-wide strips (no larger than the mouth of the grinder), 1 to 6 inches long. While cutting up the meat, take care to remove any gristle and connective tissue. Grind the meat and the fat together into a large bowl. The mixture should come off the grinder plate in “worms.” If the meat looks mushy, it means the grinder knife is not making good contact with the plate or the knife is dull. Remove the plate and knife, clean away any gristle, and reassemble, making sure the plate is reasonably tight against the knife. If you continue to have this problem, you might have to buy a new knife.
If you are using a food processor, cut the meat and fat into ¾-inch cubes to get reasonably consistent chopping. Process in very small batches of 1 pound or less by using the pulse switch or turning on and off until the desired consistency is reached. Do not overprocess the meat. For 3 to 4 pounds of sausage you will probably need to process 3 or 4 batches, depending on the size of your food processor. Mini food processors or blenders should not be used to make sausage.
2. Add salt and spices, and mix in any water or liquid and optional curing salts (cold water from the tap is fine). Knead the sausage meat with your hands, squeezing and turning the mixture. Do not overmix, as this could cause the fat to melt and might give the sausage a white, fatty appearance.
3. Make a small patty of the sausage meat and fry it. Taste and adjust the salt or other seasonings. Cover and refrigerate the meat until you are ready to stuff it into the casings or use in a recipe. You should try to stuff the sausage meat into the casings on the same day it was ground, since it gets quite stiff and difficult to handle if refrigerated too long.
Preparing and Stuffing the Casings
4. You will need about 2 feet of medium hog casings or 4 feet of sheep casings for each pound of sausage mixture. If you are using salt-packed casings, remove a length of casing from the salt and place it in a bowl of warm water. Put the bowl in the sink and attach one end of the casing to the kitchen faucet. Gently run warm water through the casing to wash out the salt. Continue to soak the casing in warm water for 1 to 2 hours, or until it is soft and pliable. If you are using preflushed, liquid-packed casings, you have to soak them in clean warm water for only 15 to 30 minutes, and flush them briefly as above.
5. Attach a sausage-stuffing horn to the front of the grinder or stuffer. Don’t forget to remove the plate and knife. Spread open one end of the casing and shake a drop of water onto it. The water will help lubricate the casing as you gently pull it over the end of the horn. Carefully push the whole casing onto the horn, leaving 3 or 4 inches dangling.
6. Fill the grinder or stuffer with the sausage meat and feed it through the grinder until it begins to enter the casing. Tie the end of the casing into a knot. With a skewer or hat pin, prick any air bubbles that appear as the casing fills up. A second pair of hands is very helpful when stuffing sausage. Continue to stuff the casing, using your thumb against the tip of the horn to control the rate and tightness of the filling. Do not fill the casings too full, or the sausage might burst during linking or cooking, but do pack them firmly.
7. When you have filled all but 3 to 4 inches of casing (still attached to the horn), remove the horn from the grinder and push any remaining sausage meat through the horn into the casing with the handle of a wooden spoon. Slip the casing off the horn.
8. Drain any leftover casings, salt with kosher salt, and refrigerate for later use.
9. Depending on the type of sausages, links should be 5 to 8 inches in length. Starting from the knotted end of the casing on your right, measure the desired length and pinch the casing between your right thumb and forefinger. Move the same number of inches down the casing and pinch again to form a second link. Holding the second link in both hands, twirl it clockwise so that it twists the casing at both ends and seals both links. Measure to the left the same length again and pinch the casing, then measure and pinch off again to form link number four. Twist the fourth link to seal it and link number three. Continue to twist alternate links until you reach the end of the casing. Knot the end to seal the last link. There should be approximately ¼ to ½ inch of twisted casing between each link. Cut through the middle of the twisted casing to separate each sausage and seal the ends.
If the sausage bursts while linking—and this happens to even the most experienced sausage makers—cut through the casing at the break and tie off or knot both ends and continue linking. You can either restuff the leftover meat or make patties out of it.
Maturing and Storing Sausages
10. The meats, spice, and other flavorings need time to mature in the sausage mixture. This maturation will contribute to a mellow flavor and better texture. Place the sausages, uncovered, on a rack in the refrigerator overnight or suspend them by a hook from a rack in the refrigerator. If the sausages do not contain curing salts, we don’t recommend maturing them unrefrigerated unless you have a very cold garage or basement that does not get above 40°. Use a thermometer to be sure, since fresh sausages are basically raw ground meat and can spoil easily. Unsmoked raw sausages should be kept for no more than 3 days in the refrigerator. If you want to keep fresh sausages longer, wrap them well in freezer paper or foil, and freeze them for up to 2 months. Smoked sausage will keep refrigerated for a week; frozen, it will keep for 2 months.
Many like to panfry raw sausage in a dry heavy skillet over medium heat. Put the sausages into a cold pan and cook them in their own juices, turning them until they are browned on all sides. This should take 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the sausages. When panfrying smoked sausages, add about ¼ inch of water to the skillet to help soften the casings. Cover and cook until the liquid evaporates. Continue to cook until the sausages are evenly browned, about 10 minutes.
Grilling is a wonderful way to cook sausages. You can grill them raw or precook them by poaching in hot (180°) water for 15 to 20 minutes for sausages in medium hog casings. If you intend to grill sausages directly over a charcoal fire, it’s a good idea to prepoach them to reduce the amount of fat that will drip onto the fire and flare up. We prefer to cook poached sausages in a covered kettle-style barbecue, turning them frequently until they are evenly browned, which takes 7 to 12 minutes, depending on the diameter of the sausages and how hot your coals are. The internal temperature of the sausages should reach 155° to 160° when measured by inserting an instant-read thermometer 2 to 3 inches into the end of a sausage. Don’t use extremely hot coals, which can cause excessive flaming and will burn the outside of the sausages before the insides have cooked.
The trick to poaching sausages is to cook them very gradually so that the moisture stays in the sausage and they don’t become too dry. (This is why you shouldn't prick sausages beforehand.)
To poach 3 pounds of sausage stuffed into medium hog casings, bring 2 to 3 gallons of lightly salted water to a temperature of 180° to 200°. An accurate instant-read thermometer is useful here. The water should not be boiling. Put the sausages in the hot water and poach them over very low heat. The water should stay between 160° and 180°. Depending on the thickness of the sausages, they will take 15 to 40 minutes to cook to an internal temperature of 155° to 160°. Sausages stuffed in medium hog casings should take about 20 minutes; thicker or thinner sausages will take more or less time. Remove the sausages and eat at once, or cool in a colander under cold running water and refrigerate or freeze. Reheat them later by panfrying, grilling, or poaching.
Country people have long known that meat hung in the smoke of hearths and chimneys lasts longer and often tastes better than fresh meat. Smoking, drying, and salting were the main means of preserving meats in the days before refrigeration.
In early America, salted and smoked meat and fish were the mainstays of rural householders. Farmhouses and plantations, from the poorest prairie sod huts to the rich estates of the Tidewater, all had their smokehouses to preserve the summer’s harvest of flesh through the cold, hard winter. Virginia ham or smoked hog jowl, Nova Scotia lox or kippered herring, andouille or kielbasa—the products of the smokehouse became an integral part of the flavor of American cooking.
Today, with modern refrigeration, we are not so concerned with smoking as a means of preserving meat, poultry, and fish. We don’t need to hang hams or sausages for days or even weeks to keep them from spoiling over the winter. Rather, we are looking for the fragrant smoky flavors of hickory or oak, applewood or mesquite.
With very little equipment or effort, the home cook and sausage maker can achieve the taste and aroma of traditionally smoked foods. Whether it’s done in a kettle-style barbecue, a water smoker, a semiprofessional commercial smoker, or a converted old refrigerator, home smoking can give a flavor of the past and that special tang of hearth or campfire that brings back a hint of an ancient, savory feast.
The type of smoking most common on plantations and farms in America over the last two centuries is called cold smoking. The term “cold,” however, is misleading since it’s not very cool in country smokehouses. In general, cold smoking takes place at temperatures that range between 90° and 120°, not enough to cook most foods, whereas hot smoking uses higher temperatures to cook the food as it smokes. Cold smoking is used to produce country or Virginia hams, most commercial smoked sausages, and bacon, all of which are then cooked before eating. Since uncooked food absorbs flavor more quickly, cold-smoked sausages are generally smokier in flavor than hot-smoked. Cold smoking can be done successfully at home using a homemade smoker, water smoker, or small electric smoker. Cold-smoked sausages must include sodium nitrite curing salts for safety.
If you have ever eaten texas-style barbecued meat, then you’ve eaten food that has been hot smoked. This type of smoking is done at temperatures high enough to cook the food while imparting a mild and pleasantly smoky flavor. Hot smoking is really a type of smoke-cooking. Again, as with cold smoking, the world “hot” is a relative term. Usually hot smoking takes place at temperatures that range between 170° and 250°, the aim being to slowly roast the meat or sausage while it absorbs a smoky flavor. Because it is cooked slowly and evenly, the meat or sausage comes out tender and juicy. With the advent of the covered kettle barbecue and the water smoker, hot smoking has become quite popular with home cooks. Hot-smoked sausages do not require the addition of sodium nitrite or curing salts, as at the hotter temperatures the food cooks before unwanted bacteria and other organisms can multiply. Hot-smoked food has the same perishability as any roasted meat. It will keep for about 5 to 7 days in the refrigerator.
Smoking is not an exact science, and no recipe can be absolutely precise. The many variables make exact instructions impossible. The temperature, density, and thickness of the meat or sausage, the outside air temperature and humidity, the type of smoke, the amount of food in the smoker, and the smoking temperature all make a difference. Don’t worry, though; you will get good results if you pay attention to temperatures by using an instant-read thermometer to monitor the food as it is smoked.
To use an instant-read thermometer, insert it into the meat or sausage from time to time to determine when the proper temperature is reached—for hot smoking, 155° to 160°. For cold-smoked meats, follow the directions on this page. If your model does not have a built-in thermometer, a second instant-read thermometer can be set into the top vent of a smoker to keep track of the smoking temperatures. Do not use a traditional meat thermometer that is left in the meat while cooking, as they are often unreliable.
Some home-smoking enthusiasts keep a smoking journal to record information like temperature, type of wood, length of smoke, etc., for future reference.
Hardwoods are best for smoking. softwoods, such as pine, fir, cedar, and spruce, are not suitable because they produce smoke so full of pitch and resin that it gives food a turpentine flavor and coats everything with a black, sticky film. If you can’t positively identify the wood, don’t use it for smoking. Never use backyard clippings, which may contain noxious insecticides or poisonous plants, such as oleander or poison oak. The most popular woods for smoking sausages are hickory, alder, mesquite, oak, and fruitwoods, such as apple or cherry. Dried corn-cobs also make a good smoking fuel. Different woods impart different flavors; some work better with fish or poultry, while others are more compatible with beef or pork. Try experimenting with your own combinations of wood and sausage to see what suits your taste. For hot smoking, you should use chunks of wood, soaked first so that they’ll smolder and not burn. You can use wood chips, but you’ll have to replenish them more often. For cold smoking, use hardwood sawdust or wood chips.
Gas or electric smokers. These are small versions of commercial smokers, usually consisting of a metal box with a gas or electric heating element on the bottom. Wood chips or hardwood sawdust are placed in a pan over the heat. Sausages or meat are put on a rack or suspended on hooks over the fragrant smoke. If you pay careful attention to the temperature and heat source, these smokers can be used successfully for both cold and hot smoking. They can be purchased from camping, hardware, or sporting goods stores and are also available by mail order.
Homemade smokers. These may be as simple as a converted 55-gallon drum, a metal garbage can, or an old refrigerator, or as elaborate as a custom-built brick smokehouse. Designs abound in do-it-yourself journals and books on country living. Like commercial smokers, they usually consist of a heat source such as a hot plate, a pan to hold the wood chips or sawdust, and racks or poles to hold the meat or sausages. Depending on the design, they tend to work well for cold smoking, but are often inadequate for hot smoking because consistent high temperatures are hard to maintain. Generally, with most homemade smokers, it’s a good idea to smoke the food first, and then finish it by cooking in a slow oven at 200° to 250°. We built our own smoker out of an old refrigerator and have used it successfully over the years to smoke sausages and other meats. We followed the basic design set forth in Jacques Pépin’s The Art of Cooking, Volume II (Knopf, 1988).
Water smokers and kettle barbecues. In recent years, these versatile barbecue-smokers have become quite popular and are now widely available. Most use charcoal as the heat source, but there are also gas or electric models. Most water smokers have a domed top and look like an elongated kettle barbecue. At the bottom, there is a fire pan for charcoal and aromatic wood. Above the heat source is a water pan and one or two grills to hold the food. Water smokers are quite versatile and can serve as a covered barbecue, steamer, open braiser, dry roaster, and hot or cold smoker. Kettle barbecues can also be used to grill, roast, or smoke-cook meats, poultry, and fish.
Step-by-Step Method for Air-Drying and Cold Smoking
(for sausages with curing salts only)
1. When the sausages have been filled, hang them from a stick in a cool place (under 70°). Have a fan going on slow speed about 5 feet away. Air-dry overnight to create a dry surface, which will help the sausage absorb smoke better.
2. Set up your smoker outside. Place 6 cups hardwood sawdust in a pan or cast-iron pot on the bottom of the smoker or on the heat source.
3. Put 1 cup hardwood sawdust in a 6- to 8-inch frying pan over high heat on a portable hot plate or burner set up outside. This must be done outside; never indoors. After a minute, the sawdust will begin to smolder and smoke.
4. When all the sawdust in the pan has turned black, with tiny glowing embers and areas of gray ash, remove the pan from the heat and dump the burning sawdust on top of the sawdust inside the smoker.
5. Arrange the sausages in a single layer on a rack or suspend the sausages from a smoke stick.
6. Partially open the vents of the smoker and insert an instant-read thermometer into one vent. The temperature should stay between 90° and 120° throughout the smoking process.
7. About every 3 to 4 hours, gently stir the sawdust in the pan. Be sure that smoke is gently rising out of the vents of the smoker. Throughout the smoking period, add more sawdust as necessary, making sure to stir the old ashes over the new sawdust.
8. Consult the individual recipe to see how long to smoke the sausage. Most recipes recommend smoking overnight. You don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to add more sawdust, though. Make sure the pan is full of sawdust and just give the sawdust in the smoker a good stir before you go to bed, and another as soon as you wake up. If the fire has burned out, restart as described above.
9. As long as the temperature inside the smoker does not exceed 130°, it won’t be necessary to check the internal temperature of the sausage. Cold-smoked sausage will require further cooking before eating, however.
Step-by-Step Method for Hot Smoking or Smoke-Cooking in a Water Smoker
1. At least 1 hour before you plan to start smoking, soak at least three or four 2- by 3-inch chunks of wood in water.
2. Set up the smoker outside. Put a layer of charcoal briquettes in the bottom of the smoker. Remove the top and center rings. Open all vents. Start the fire with a fire chimney or electric starter. Don’t use liquid charcoal starters, which can impart an unpleasant taste to the smoke. The coals are ready when they are coated with a light gray ash, usually after about 30 minutes.
3. Spread the coals evenly and set up the smoker. Put the water pan in position and fill with hot water or other liquid. Carefully put the middle ring in place on top of the bottom section. Set the cooking racks in place and arrange the sausages on them in a single layer. Leave an inch or two between sausages so the smoke can circulate. Open the side door of the smoker. Add 3 or 4 chunks of soaked wood. Shake off any excess water before placing them on top of the coals, using tongs to keep from burning your hands. Using mittens or hot pads, partially close all the vents while hot smoking. Insert an instant-read thermometer in the top vent.
4. After 30 minutes, check the temperature inside the smoker. The thermometer should read at least 170°; the ideal range for hot smoking is between 170° and 250°. If the smoker is not maintaining sufficient heat (more than 170°), open the vents. If the fire is dying out, open the side door, and the additional oxygen will get the fire going again. If the smoker is still not hot, add more charcoal. If the temperature gets too hot (above 250°), try closing the vents. If this doesn’t work, add some cold water to the water pan, or remove some of the briquettes.
5. The water smoker functions best when not opened frequently. Add a dozen or so charcoal briquettes every 1½ hours. You may need to add more hot water to the water pan, which should always be at least half full of liquid. For long periods of smoking you’ll have to add more charcoal, and possibly more wood.
6. It should take roughly from 1½ to 4 hours to hot smoke sausages, depending on the diameter and type of sausage. Remember to rely on your instant-read thermometer—155° to 160° is the desired internal temperature. Insert the thermometer 2 to 3 inches into the end of a sausage. Hot-smoked meat is often bright pink just below the surface, so don’t rely on the appearance in determining whether sausages are done or not.
Step-by-Step Method for Hot Smoking or Smoke-Cooking in a Kettle Barbecue
1. Soak 3 to 4 cups of hickory chips or 4 to 6 chunks of hardwood in water for at least 30 minutes.
2. Mound 10 to 15 charcoal briquettes to one side of a covered barbecue. Once the coals are hot, allow them to burn down to medium-low. This takes about 30 minutes, and they should be covered with gray ash.
3. Spread the coals in a single layer on one side of the barbecue. Sprinkle 2 cups of soaked hickory chips or 2 to 3 chunks of soaked hardwood over the coals. Place a drip pan with a little water in it on the opposite side from the charcoal. Replace the grill and spread the sausages on it over the pan. Cover the barbecue, making sure the vent in the lid is directly above the sausages. Open the top and bottom vents about ¼ inch.
4. Smoke the sausages at 170° to 250°. You can measure the temperature by inserting an instant-read thermometer into the partially opened top vent. Add more chips and charcoal as needed.
5. After 30 minutes, turn the sausages over and continue to smoke for another 30 or more minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted through the end of a sausage measures 155° to 160°. Sausages in medium hog casings will take about 1½ hours to smoke-cook; in wide beef casings they may take as long as 4 hours. You should turn the sausages occasionally as they cook.
Safety Tips and Helpful Hints
- Smoking should be done outside only. Never smoke anything indoors as the fumes produced can be lethal. Do not use gasoline, alcohol, or any other highly flammable liquid to ignite charcoal. Read all manufacturer’s instructions provided with your smoker for any safety information.
- Don’t use commercial fire starters.
- Never pour water directly onto hot coals. Dust and soot could coat the food.
- Because of the variables in smoking, always allow extra cooking time. Use an instant-read thermometer to test for doneness.
- The smoker can become very hot during use, so set it up away from the house and out of the way of general traffic.
- Always smoke with the cover on.
- Use mittens or hot pads when handling the hot smoker.
- Turn food with tongs to prevent piercing the sausages and losing juices.
- Look at the food only when absolutely necessary. Every time you lift the lid, you add 15 minutes to the cooking time.
- Close all vents when finished to allow the fire to burn out. Do not use water to extinguish the coals, because it can damage the finish of the smoker.
Note on Nitrites: Curing Salts
Sodium nitrite, long used in curing meats and sausages, became a bad word in the 1970s because it was thought to produce cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines. The National Science Foundation investigated and found that nitrites did not cause problems in most cured meats and sausages (bacon was the exception). Current scientific opinion holds that the use of sodium nitrite within legal limits causes no significant health problems and prevents the growth of botulinums and other noxious organisms.
On the other hand, we’d just as soon not use sodium nitrite or any other additive unless we need to. Raw sausages and hot-smoked sausages do not require the addition of curing salts, because they are kept refrigerated or frozen and are cooked at high enough temperatures to arrest bacterial activity. If you decide to air-dry or cold smoke sausage, however, curing salts must be used to prevent any possibility of botulism. During cold smoking and air-drying, the temperatures are ideal for the growth of bacteria, so the protection offered by curing salts is necessary for safety.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires 6.1 grams of sodium nitrite to cure 100 pounds of meat. Since these are very small quantities to measure accurately, home sausage makers rely on professionally mixed curing salts that contain nitrite mixed with other substances, such as salt or sugar. Instead of 6.1 grams, 4 ounces by weight of one of these premixed curing salts is used for 100 pounds of meat. Purchase brand-name curing salts such as Prague Powder, Ham Cure, or Morton Quick Cure from butcher-supply houses or by mail order (this page). Follow manufacturers’ directions.
Do not use saltpeter (potassium nitrite) as a curing salt, since it is no longer recommended by the USDA.
Sausages Add Lots of Flavor
Sausages have an uncanny ability to flavor even the blandest ingredients. All over the world, sausage is used to add spice and excitement to virtually every kind of starch, staple, and vegetable. Rice, potatoes, beans, pasta, and vegetables of all types gain new dimensions with the addition of sausage. And just about every cuisine has its own sausage, its own flavor signature. From the lamb- and garlic-infused merguez of North Africa and the peppery Sicilian salsicce to the mild and aromatic American breakfast sausage and the sweet and savory lop chong, sausages are used in every way imaginable in soups, stews, and salads, as snacks and pick-me-ups, as flavorings, and often as main courses in themselves. Chicken and turkey sausages can also deliver all the flavor of these traditional sausages, but without the high fat and salt content of many commercial varieties.
Sausage has the added advantages of being quick and easy to use and is an inexpensive source of protein. Peasant cooks from northern Europe to Peking have always known that a bit of sausage can be fried up quickly to flavor large quantities of the everyday staple. Sausage often contains all the spice you need for rice or pasta, for example, and you don’t have to spend a lot of time preparing and cooking other ingredients. And a little bit of sausage goes a very long way.
Recipes with poultry keep fat to a minimum needed for flavor, and most recipes using our low-fat poultry sausage suggest that it be browned in a little oil before adding to the dish. If you really want the fat levels low, you can brown the sausage in a nonstick pan without adding oil, and then drain off and discard any fat remaining. You’ll lose some flavor, but if you are a fanatic about cutting the calories, that’s the way to do it. For salads and pastas where the oil is part of the dressing or sauce, you should use at least half the oil and not drain off the pan juices. A good way to remove fat from soups, sauces, and stews is to blot it up by laying a paper towel briefly on top and then removing the towel with the fat it has soaked up. Use as many pieces of paper towel as you need until all the fat is gone.
Meat loaf is everybody’s favorite comfort food. After a hectic day, there’s nothing like sitting down to a plate of hearty meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and a savory gravy. But too often the meat loaf is bland and uninteresting, and then there’s the fat and cholesterol question. Traditional recipes tend to be on the heavy side, with old-fashioned gravy loading up the fat even more.
Using chicken and turkey sausages combined with either ground turkey or lean ground beef, you can turn out a great variety of different types of meat loaf with a maximum of flavor and a minimum of fat.
The basic ratio of 1 pound sausage, ½ pound ground meat, 1 cup fresh bread crumbs, 1 egg, and about ½ cup sauce stays the same. The type of sausage and flavorings can vary as you like.
Be sure to make plenty of meat loaf, as leftovers are never a problem. Think of cold meat loaf as “poor man’s pâté,” and use it for delicious snacks, appetizers, and sandwiches.
To make the basting sauce, combine the sugar, vinegar, and mustard and mix thoroughly. Divide between two bowls and set one aside. Using the sauce in the other bowl, brush the sauce generously over the meat.
Bake the loaf for 1¼ hours, until it is firm and the top is nicely browned, basting 4 or 5 times with the sauce remaining in the bowl.
Slice into ½-inch slices and serve each slice with a generous amount of sauce from the reserved bowl on top.
Cooking with Sausage
Sausages of all types have long been used to flavor a wide range of foods. They add zest to starches and vegetables, and sausages are the basis of many classic country dishes from all over the world. Steamed Clams with Linguiça, Pennsylvania Dutch Schnitz und Knepp (Braised Sausage, Apples, and Dumplings), and Bigos (Polish Hunter’s Stew, this page) are all regional favorites that use sausage to provide an added element of spices and flavor.
Sausages are also paired with beans, grains, and other starches, adding life and character to often bland ingredients. Cotechino with Lentilsand Braised Sausage with Polentaare traditional combinations from northern Italy. Moroccan Game Hens Stuffed with Rice and
Fruit, Puerto Rican Chicken, Rice, and Sausage Stew, and Chicken or Turkey Pozoleall show how sausage can provide a country’s characteristic flavors in a dish and liven up regional staples.
The great advantage of using sausage in cooking is its ability to act as a kind of “flavor bomb.” Add Italian sausage to lentils and you have an Italian dish, Moroccan sausage to rice and it’s North African in an instant. And sausage not only adds flavor but, when you make it yourself or buy from an artisan producer, it is a good source of protein with very little fat—just what you need for a main course when paired with starches and/or vegetables.
Creative chefs these days are also using sausages in new and exciting ways, often departing from traditional recipes and combinations—Salmon Sausage in Champagne Sauce, for example, or Fish Sausage en Papillote with Mustard and Tarragon Butter. The possibilities are endless here; use your imagination to create new sausages or try out combinations that appeal to your fantasies and taste buds.