How to Make a Classic Summer Sausage

How to Make a Classic Summer Sausage

Summertime, summertime sausage.

There are two cliches to invoke when writing about sausage.

Dick jokes get the top billing, of course, followed by that aphorism often misattributed to Otto von Bismarck: that it is better to avoid seeing how laws, like sausages, are made.

In truth, watching sausage get made is pretty gross. A trip behind the charcutier's counter involves seeing whole slabs of muscle and fat cubed and forced through a meat grinder, all of which then gets jammed into a piece of old intestine that looks like a wet, used condom before getting tied off into links and dried, smoked, roasted, or grilled.

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But despite all that gore, sausage is delicious. Whoever had the imagination to invent sausage was a fucking visionary, to say the least.

Yet the craft of charcuterie still eludes most people, and not for no reason. Poorly prepared sausage can land you in the hospital or worse, and that's why the average eater leaves the mystery of sausage-making to professionals.

Elias Cairo of Olympia Provisions. All photos by Matthew Zuras.

But MUNCHIES is always here for a challenge, so we invited Elias Cairo of Olympia Provisions in Portland, Oregon to drop by our test kitchen to show us how to make a simple summer sausage to win friends and influence people. Meat can do that, you know.

Cairo brought along The Meat Hook's sausage man Mike Manes, an Olympia salumi alum, to help him behind the grinder.

RECIPE: Homemade Summer Sausage

The initial steps are the same for many sausages. First, dice the meat—in this case, pork shoulder.

"Every pork shoulder has a gland right in the middle," Cairo says, cutting away an eyeball-ish glob of tissue, "and it tastes like cat pee."

So, be sure to remove that.

You'll also need enough pork fatback to reach the 30 percent fat content that all good sausage requires. This isn't just for flavor but for moisture and structural integrity. Salt draws out of the meat a sticky protein called myosin, which binds to the fat and creates the stable emulsion required for proper sausage snap. "It just makes it moist," Cairo says, adding that the 30-percent rule holds for hot and cold sausages, regardless of the type of protein you're using.

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"When we're talking about fat, we use a term called titre, and that's the hardness of the fat," he says. "The fatback has the hardest titre on the pig and this [blade fat, on the shoulder] has the second hardest titre. And then you go belly fat, and its titre is very low—it's going to be mushy. This fatback, when you bind it and cook it, it's still going to stay solid."

After the meat and fat has been cubed, Cairo sticks it in the freezer to chill it. One of the cardinal rules in sausage-making is keeping everything cold in order to avoid what's known as fat "smear," resulting in a crumbling texture.

Next up is the fermentation starter, which will bring down the pH of the meat to safe levels.

"We use a lactic starter culture to get the fermentation started," Cairo says. "Usually I strongly suggest that people use distilled water, no matter how clean your water is, because any chlorine will kill it and stop the fermentation."

While the culture activates, Cairo mixes up a spice blend of white pepper, black pepper, coriander, chili flakes, marjoram, mustard powder, and cayenne in a mortar and pestle. After that, he minces a handful of garlic cloves and plumps up some whole mustard seeds in a hot vinegar solution for even more kick.

Cairo pulls the chilled meat out of the fridge and tosses in all of the other ingredients except the starter culture and mustard seeds, along with some sea salt, dextrose, and Insta Cure #1.

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About that: The curing salt is not optional, hippies. Although Cairo switched to a so-called "natural" nitrate product at Olympia, he doesn't recommend people do that at home. Many natural nitrates, he said, can be "so inconsistent."

The meat gets another chill-out session in the freezer, along with all of the sanitized grinder parts, and then it's time to grind. In order to keep everything cool, Cairo keeps his receiving bowl resting on a bed of ice.

Once that's done, Cairo beats in the starter culture and mustard seeds with the ground meat and fat mixture. The paddle attachment on the stand mixer helps the sausage to form a solid emulsion.

Finally, the sausages are ready to stuff. Working in tandem, Cairo and Manes thread cleaned hog casings onto a nozzle attachment and feed the ground sausage through the stuffer, diligently avoiding air pockets and twisting links as they go.

Mike Manes of The Meat Hook assists with stuffing.

With all of the meat properly encased, it's time to ferment. Cairo suggests placing a pot of boiling water in an oven with the pilot light on, to keep things nice and warm for the lactic acid bacteria to do its job. After about 12 hours, it should have a slight tang and register 5.3 or less on a calibrated pH meter. (Yeah, you'll need one of those.)

At that point, your sausage will be cured, but smoking adds yet another layer of shelf life extension and flavor. Cairo smokes this summer sausage for about two hours at about 175 degrees Fahrenheit over apple wood chips. Once the internal temperature is up to about 155 degrees, your sausage is done. Let it cool down in the fridge, and then slice and serve.

It might be more complicated than going down to the butcher and buying your sausage already made, but for those who are up to the challenge? "I always tell every chef to make summer sausage," Cairo says. "Get used to your pHs, watching it dry and ferment and making goods binds—all that fun stuff."

And considering the season, there's no better time than now to dive face-first into summer sausage.