The Missing Links: Sausage Making
When Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck said, “The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they’ll sleep at night,” he wasn’t far from the truth. Historically, sausage making was a way to preserve every bit of an animal: scraps of meat, fat, offal and even blood—everything but the squeal.
Like many of our culinary delights, making sausage was born out of necessity and economy. Sausage insured nothing went to waste and solved the problem of transporting meat from one place to another without spoilage. In culinary history, sausages date back to ancient Egypt and even get a mention in Homer’s The Odyssey. Almost every country has at least one sausage to its name and some countries, like Germany with over 1,000 varieties, have far too many to list. In many cultures, sausage making is a family tradition and the recipes are lovingly passed from generation to generation.
In my family, my grandfather was the sausage maker. Every year, without fail, the traditional Romanian sausages that he’d learned to make as a boy would grace our holiday table. For him, making sausage was a meditative process and he went it alone. He would disappear into the basement and, hours later, emerge with thick coils of sausages. After he died, our family was so taken with grief that we didn’t even realize that we’d lost a part of our cultural identity until we’d eaten the last of the sausages he’d left behind in the freezer.
When I embarked on my sausage making adventure, I wanted to learn more than just how to make sausage; I wanted to recreate the family recipe that had been lost for so many years. I didn’t know what ingredients my grandfather had used, but I knew that my palate would remember.
Whenever I mentioned my quest to someone, it seemed they had their own sausage memory to share. Friends from Spain spoke fondly about their beloved morcilla, a blood sausage, while those from South Africa reminisced about boerewors, a sausage made predominantly of beef, but also with either a small percentage of pork or lamb. And it wasn’t just friends with roots in other countries—I came across so many local folks who literally became teary-eyed talking about a favorite breakfast sausage or a cherished Italian link. While others might have been embarrassed by this emotional outpouring, I was used to it. My own husband often spoke lovingly of the boudin and Andouille sausages of his Louisiana childhood.
I wanted to make sausage, but I wasn’t prepared to make them from scraps. Thankfully, sausage making has evolved from its humble roots of economy and now is a lot like winemaking: A good sausage is crafted from discrimination—choice ingredients and spices make for the best finished product.
There are several methods for making sausage, some more complex than others. The easiest sausages for the novice or home cook to tackle are fresh sausages, such as breakfast sausages and Italian sausages, which can either be used in bulk or stuffed into casings. The most diffcult sausages to make are the dried sausages such as salami, summer sausage and pepperoni. These require more knowledge and carefully controlled processes to keep bacteria at bay, including a specialized area where the sausages can hang in cold, circulating air.
Making sausage requires few ingredients: meat, fat, salt and spices. It’s best to grind your own meat to lessen the risk of contamination, and it allows you to select your own cuts of meat and control the fat ratio. Salt not only adds flavor but kills bacteria and acts as a binding agent during the cooking process. Interestingly, the word “sausage” is derived from the Latin word salsus, which translates to “salted.”
Fresh sausages can be stored in bulk, or stuffed into hog or sheep casings. These can be purchased at a butcher shop, or special-ordered through the meat department of most grocery stores. Casings are sold in bulk and packed in salt; they need to be soaked and rinsed before using. Stuffng sausage into casings is definitely a two-person job, so you’ll need a partner to help—preferably one with a good sense of humor.
It took minimal coaxing for my husband to agree to join me in my quest to solve the family sausage mystery. After a day spent grinding and seasoning meat, we had half a dozen different sausages ready to taste. While we didn’t hit the exact combination of flavors, we came pretty close. In fact, I’m certain that the next batch will yield the recipe for the missing links.
Visit edibleSLO.com for sausage-making instructions.