Howdy, home cooks. How are you doing these days? Is the sourdough mother you started during the early days of the pandemic still alive? What did you end up naming your SCOBY? Have you hit your cast iron skillet with a TYFYS yet today? Go ahead, we’ll wait.
If you—like us and many, many others—got really into home cooking, fermenting, or baking during the pandemic, you’re probably on the hunt for a new culinary adventure to embark on. (After all, you haven’t had to explain a random kitchen purchase to your SO since you bought that air fryer a few months ago.) Whether you’ve already mastered preserving and pickling, or you’re just looking for a fun hobby now that you’re running out of people to foist your homebrew on, we’d like to introduce you to the thing that’s going to finally kill off the rest of your counter space: at-home sausage making.
Sausage-making seems like the kind of thing you want to research before diving into, so we asked our friend Elias Cairo—sausage expert, chef, salumist, and the guy behind Olympia Provisions in Portland, Oregon—for some help. And, like always, he delivered.
“Things changed during the pandemic,” Cairo explains. “Now people want restaurant-quality food and restaurant-quality charcuterie in their house.” And when he says quality, he means quality. At Olympia Provisions, he uses GAP 4, pasture-raised animals which he contracts out from ranchers he’s built personal and professional relationships with.
“That’s my plight—just getting people to understand that you don’t just have to fill the void with value-added meat products,” he says. “There are lots of delicious, responsibly made meat products out there. You just have to look.” Or, of course, simply make them at home.
Now, we know your brain is probably exploding at the thought of assembling charcuterie boards using your own meats—and bragging about it to literally everyone you know—so we won’t dilly dally any longer. Here’s how to get started on your sausage-making journey.
Step One: Gather Your Meats
The first thing you need to make sausage is, of course, meat. But before you go pick up some pre-ground mystery blend at the corner store, we have some tips.
“Best case scenario, you have access to a farmers market, where a rancher is bringing their products straight to consumers,” Cairo says. “You can develop a really good relationship with them, especially since the cuts that make the best sausages are definitely the ones that they’re going to want to move: the higher fat cuts, the belly, the trim, and the fat backs.” Going to the local farmers market also increases the odds that you’re getting healthy (and responsibly raised) meat. Which, Cairo explains, is key for not just quality and flavor, but for the wellbeing of the planet. “The vast majority of the meat industry is a miserable, dirty place that has a horrible impact on the environment,” he says. “That’s just a fact… To get away from that, you have to put in the effort to find audited, pasture-raised sources,'' he says.
If you don’t have access to a farmer’s market, try going to a butcher that has responsible sourcing practices and sells audited meats. “When you’re looking for sausage meat, you’re roughly looking for about 30- to 35-percent fat content to make a nice, moist sausage,” Cairo says. “There are lots of creative ways a butcher can get to that 30-percent mix. A good butcher will mix, say, a lean chuck roast from grass-fed beef with beef fat or a fat back from a pig to get to that ratio.”
No farmers market or local butcher? No problem. “You can go to a Whole Foods, if you’re fortunate enough to live near one, or a similar market, and go to their butcher,” he says. “Pork shoulder and pork fat are pretty commonly carried products everywhere. It’s a great place to start.” You can even find pasture-raised beef and pork online from sites such as Belcampo and Porter Road, and have it shipped straight to your house.
Despite much of the meat industry’s environmental shortcomings, Cairo still believes that “meat can beat a beautiful tool that can be used to better land when done responsibly," adding that "the peace of mind that you’ll get from sourcing responsibly raised meat is great, and the quality of meat that you’ll get from pasture-raised meat will make your sausage-making so much better and easier. It’ll be more flavorful, it’ll bind better, it’ll have more depth, and—you know what, you'll see.”
Step 2: Grindin’ and Stuffin’
OK, your meat situation is in order. Now, it’s time to get grindin’.
We can’t stress this enough: If you screw up during the grinding process, it’s all downhill from there. But don't stress—you don't necessarily have to buy a huge, dedicated meat grinder. If you own a KitchenAid mixer, there's a simple attachment that will help you grind away.
“If you’re going to [try making sausages] once to see if you like it, I'm actually fine with a KitchenAid sausage grinder attachment,” Cairo says. “That little attachment can actually create some great sausages, especially if you’re only going to be doing it a few times a year.” For mixing your ground meat, using a KitchenAid mixer bowl is totally fine, he explains. “You can also use your grinder to use the majority of the mixing, and then finish mixing it by hand.”
“If you’re looking to turn this into something you actually want to do all the time, like if you want to have backyard barbecues with 30 people and you need 20 pounds of sausage (or is that just a Cairo party?), you’re going to need a little bit bigger and better of a grinder,” he says.
Cairo recommends buying a table-top grinder with about three-quarters of a horsepower (at the minimum) and with stainless steel parts. “This allows you to freeze the grinder to make the sausage easier to work with,” he says. “It also pulls the meat through faster with sharp blades, and that’s going to make everything smoother.”
Westons are workhorses, fairly affordable, and they have a great return policy, Cairo says.
Let's talk casing. It’s a common misconception that for a sausage to be a sausage, it must be cased.
“Sausage-making without a casing is a very beautiful process to start with,” Cairo explains. “If you’re just starting, try making a breakfast patty with fresh sage and maple syrup, or an Italian meatball, or chicken sausage with apple—those are all really fun, really easy places to start.” From there, you can figure out what you like by playing around with texture and flavor without having to worry about casing it.
“Sausage doesn’t need to be on a bun. Think about Italian sausage gravy, or any kind of ground beef from Bolognese on down,” he says. “So good and so easy to make.”
If you do plan on getting deeper in the sausage game, casing is your next step. Cairo is a huge hog casing fan to start. Just go to your butcher, and if they’re sausage producers, they’ll usually sell you natural hog casings, he says. Hog casing is the easiest to form, as opposed to lamb casings, which are more tender and brittle, and tend to burst. Oh, and steer clear of synthetic casings when making fresh sausages. “It just doesn’t make a very delicious end product,” Cairo says.
“Some grinders have an attachment where you can stuff casings through the actual grinder in a pinch, but if this is something you’re going to do often, you can get a cheap hand stuffer, and that’s going to allow for more control and make an easier final product,” he explains.
If you’re trying to impress the in-laws, Cairo suggests investing in a F. Dick Stuffer. (We’re not joking, that is what they’re actually called.) “They’re bomb-proof,” he says. “You’ll have them for the rest of your life.”
Step 3: Smoke Your Meat
Alright, it's time to get cookin'. And while it may be tempting to immediately throw your gorgeous homemade wieners over a blistering-hot flame, Cairo says: Don’t sear the sausage.
“The number one rule with grilling sausages is indirect, low heat,” he says. Instead, warm them up in a beer and water mixture, then once they’re poached, pop ‘em on the grill to crisp up the casings. “What you don’t want to do with sausage grilling is take a raw sausage and put it directly over the fire like you would a steak, since it’ll cook like a steak,” Cairo explains. “You’ll get a really charred, ripped outside and a rare middle, which you don’t want. You want an evenly cooked sausage with a crispy, non-burnt outside.”
When it comes to getting that smoky flavor, use a proper smoker. “Liquid smoke? Get that shit outta here!” Cairo says.
Once you’re able to get the perfect texture on your bratwurst, Cairo says, then you can step up to actual smoking—none of that liquid, synthetic smoke cologne. He also likes Little Chiefs, and says that any small smoker will work great, especially if you’re just starting out.
“The other [smoker] that’s catching a lot of love out in the world—and I’m a fan because it’s getting a lot of people into smoking meats—is Traeger,” he says. “It’s a beautiful smoking machine and they come in all sorts of sizes.” Though Cairo, a self-proclaimed wood nerd, isn’t a *huge* fan of pellets, and likes to be a little more hands on. “I like playing with the fire a little more, controlling how hot and cold I want it, but it’s a great entry-level smoker for people that want to do smoked turkey, chickens, sausages, or pulled pork.”
If you don’t have a fancy smoker, don’t sweat. Any backyard grill, including Webers, will work just fine.
“I’ve smoked sausages on people’s back patios in New York,” Cairo says. “Make a perfect kielbasa ring, put it on the cold side of your Weber, start a small fire and put a little applewood on top of it, and slowly but surely get the smoke to permeate that sausage.”
Step 4: Reflect Upon Your Sausage
You can buy the fanciest grinders, the biggest and baddest smokers, and all of the stainless steel sausage toys you can fit on your countertop, but, Cairo stresses, it all comes back to the meat.
In Oregon, he helps farms and ranches get their GAP 4, pasture-raised certification. “We want to help [these farmers] get the credit they deserve,” he explains. “We have so many epic ranchers out here who are already doing it right, who have been doing these regenerative farm practices for so long.”
Elias and his team buy the entire animal, which reduces waste, streamlines their buying process, and allows the producers to focus on ranching and improving their properties. “This year we’ve moved to completely zero-waste on those animals,” he says. “We use the bones, skin, kidneys, everything.” While this might not be realistic to do for an amateur sausage-maker, it's a good reminder to do your research about what animal agricultural businesses you choose to support (and what you eat).
His final note? Relax, don’t worry, have a sausage. “Just make a perfect bratwurst or frankfurter and put it on a bun,” he says. “Add mustard and a cold beer—c’mon. Get outta here. That wins, every time.”
The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story.