Luke “Tomax” Gelman is a Chicago-based food writer, ManBQue member, and competitive BBQ competitor. His documented adventures in food, “Can I Smoke That?” run monthly.
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Every month I give myself a mission to find out more about a food item. This month, my mission was to a) master sausage and b) crack as many sausage jokes as possible. Both have thrilled my family, friends, and coworkers.
I’ve enjoyed working with my sausage, throwing sausage parties, giving people the opportunity to see my sausage, touch it. I’ve whipped out my sausage to surprise my friends. Oh, hey, want to put my sausage in your mouth? I thought you did. All my jokes were bad, but I bet you would giggle at most of them. If you don’t find sausage jokes at least a little bit funny, I don’t know why you’re reading this.
Here’s the deal; people love sausage. You may not have realized this, but sausage is basically any spiced ground meat. Meatloaf, for example, is technically sausage. You eat sausage on buns, as patties and links with breakfast; in sauces over pasta – it’s everywhere! Even a hamburger is technically a sausage unless the cruel bastard cooking it neglects the seasoning. Sausage is awesome.
I started my sausage journey last year with my chef friend Michael Ponzio, Director of Culinary Operations for Rosebud Restaurants in the Chicagoland area. He’s a guy who knows a lot about sausage and loves joking about it even more. I bought a pork butt and he showed me how he ground the meat, seasoned it, and stuffed it and BOOM, Italian sausage. I was blown away how simple it seemed to be. That said, I didn’t try to make it again for over a year.
Making sausage seemed so simple… like the time when I watched a plumber change a faucet and then tried fixing another one by myself. I had to call him back to fix my work. Fortunately for you, there are plenty of people who will make great sausages for you. But that’s not me, and that’s not what this is about. I want to be a master of sausage!
This is a step-by-step guide of my journey to be a sausage master!
Step 1: Throw a sausage party (insert dance music here).
Mike (my brother and co-pit-master with Black and Blue BBQ @blackandbluebbq) and my father came over. We left the ladies behind because we wanted an authentic sausage party. We ground two pork butts and one large piece of chuck roast. Using recipes I found, we made a variety of sausages that were pretty good. Not great by my standards. It took us about an hour to grind almost twenty pounds of meat but it took us almost four hours to stuff it in natural pork casings. That was way too much work for the reward. No one likes difficult sausage.
To grind, I used the meat grinder attachment on my KitchenAid stand mixer. It worked well, but the key is to partially freeze the meat before grinding. You can actually freeze the blade, discs, and auger as well. It is less stressful on the machine and makes the whole process go much smoother. The stuffer attachment didn’t work so well for me. That’s right; I had trouble stuffing my meat. It was very difficult to use and ended up changing the texture. Later I would learn trouble can come from the meat getting to warm; rookie mistake. Rule #1 of sausage making: keep your meat as cold as possible. This will be repeated often in this story. Don’t worry about your sausage suffering shrinkage; a cold sausage is a happy sausage.
Step 2: Ask the experts.
First off, Publican Quality Meats is amazing. I got there and they had a beautiful meat case filled with the highest quality meats. They had anything you would want to cook including beef bacon (steakon), duck, a variety of steaks and a whole lot more. But Publican Quality Meats also has lots of delicious sandwiches, salads, and soups and is a nice little spot where you can grab lunch too. If you’re a foodie, this spot should be on your hit list. I sat waiting for my meeting with manager Cosmo and his head sausage guy Sergio. I thought of that Seinfeld episode with (Cosmo) Kramer and Newman making sausage in his apartment to a Caribbean music soundtrack. This is kinda how I pictured things going at the Publican. I was wrong, it was way cooler. Turns out Zagat’s called Cosmo Goss one of “30 Under 30: Chicago’s Hottest Up-And-Comers.” He sure didn’t act like it.
Cosmo was a very nice guy who had a real love of his craft. I respected that. He led me downstairs where they do most of the behind the scenes work at the Publican Quality Meats below the restaurant. Walking in, I was blown away. It’s easily the coolest restaurant kitchen I’ve seen. It wasn’t a huge space but it was very well organized with different prep stations, butchering areas and a huge walk in cooler on one end of the room. It was buzzing with activity. Think Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory but instead of Oompa Loompa’s making chocolates it was cooks making meat candy of every variety. I was in heaven.
Sergio was eager to explain his process to me. I’ll be honest, my attention was split. As he was explaining things, three cooks were breaking down an entire pig behind him like a NASCAR pit crew changing tires during a race. So friggin’ cool.
Sergio quickly got my attention back on the track because I was so excited by everything I could see. Sergio could have shown me a wooden spoon and I would have talked about it all day. Instead, Sergio showed me their meat grinder. It was about the size of a chest freezer. It had about an 8” hole on top and a spout coming off the side where the meat comes out. He turns to me and says “with this, I can grind about 100 pounds of meat in two minutes.” Holy fuck that’s fast. I was floored. I pictured a wood chipper shooting meat out of it and me standing on the other end with a bucket trying to catch it all. I had to tell myself to focus.
He walked me through his process as he was making breakfast sausage. What I learned was that there are a few key rules to making good sausage:
1. The meat should stay cold the whole time. They freeze their meat between every step until it’s almost “crispy.”
2. They spice their meat before they grind it. This gives the meat the maximum time to absorb flavor from the spices.
3. After grinding they run the meat through a giant mixer with a paddle attachment until it’s sticky and bouncy. This is one of the most important steps. You want to mix the meat until it’s emulsified and the fat has bonded with the meat. This prevents it from being overly oily when you cook it. Adding water for moisture helps the whole process.
4. Sausage isn’t something you can rush. You’ve got to be patient.
5. Always take a small piece of sausage and cook it in a pan to taste it first and make sure it has your desired flavor before you stuff it. You can then add any missing spices if you want but once it’s in the casings, it’s not like you can go back and adjust the flavor again.
Side note: It took those guys breaking down the pig about 20 minutes in all. At least it seemed like it. I felt like high fiving them and doing chest bumps.
Another note; at this point I ordered a LEM 5lb sausage stuffer from Amazon. It was about $150 bucks. I was ready to really commit to the sausage.
The next stop on my list was meeting with Rob from The Butcher and The Larder. The Butcher and The Larder is a wonderful place. They should have a meat meditation area in there; it’s totally meat Zen. Before my meeting I must have watched twenty interviews online with Rob trying to understand his style and philosophy. He is a chill and laid back meat master that believes in sustainable meats. He doesn’t buy pork butts and cuts of beef, he buys pigs and cows direct from a farm. Rob truly respects the whole animal and the meat is the real star here. Checking out their small meat case, it had some of the nicest cuts of meat you’ll find. Secret tip… if you like giving your dog real bones, he will cut them for your pups.
They had a few standard sausages, but they also got creative with others, which I really found interesting. For example, they wanted to make a sausage marinated in beer so they made a 3Floyds ZOMBIE APORKALYPSE!! (pork, hot chilies, smoked pig head & Zombie Dust). They were gone before I got there. Bummer, I know.
Fun fact: I looked up what a larder is and it’s like a building used to store meat before meat coolers became the standard.
The Butcher and The Larder is a neighborhood butcher more than anything else. You can get some sandwiches there and a few other tasty items but go here for some of the best meat in Chicago that you know with confidence has been handled with utmost care and respect. You walk out of there with the feeling that you just helped the world by buying meat. Plus, I always like supporting the local guy.
What I learned from Rob was that again you have to go with high quality meat. I also I learned:
1. They go with a 70% meat to 30% fat ratio
2. The base to their seasoning is salt and they use 1% of the total weight of the meat.
3. They mix their meat by hand until it’s tacky. Not with a mixer.
4. Always taste it before stuffing it.
What I took away more than anything from The Butcher and The Larder was that sausage could be anything you wanted it to be. My sausage can be the master of disguise! If you want to make a traditional one like Italian, go ahead but if you want to go crazy and you can really use your imagination and go wild. Your sausage can be adventurous!
Step 3: Cooking your sausage.
Part of my mission was to find every way I could to cook sausage. There are endless ways but here are a few I tried. I really enjoyed experimenting with my sausage.
– Sous vide method; I found a super cool article http://goo.gl/bmFm of a cooking technique where you can use a beer cooler in place of a sous vide machine. I it worked out very well. A large pot on a stove or even a crock-pot can do the same thing. You don’t need a $500 sous vide machine for your home. If you don’t know, sous vide cooking is where you place your meat in an airtight zip lock bag (or vacuum sealed bag) and you slowly cook your meat completely submerged in water at the temperature you want the meat. You can leave it in there almost indefinitely. I left mine in a bath of water that was 165 degrees for an hour and finished it on a grill pan on my stove. Delicious and perfectly cooked. I felt like I was like taking my sausage on a spa date.
– Beer in the pan method; you can put half a beer in a pan with some sausages and cook them on medium high until the beer is gone and the sausages brown a little. It’s ok to get your sausage a little drunk before dinner.
– The sausage simmer; Toss your sausage into a pot of water and bring it to a simmer and then shut it off with the lid on the pot and let it sit for about 15 minutes.
– Smoked; Let your sausages dry out for a while before smoking them at 225 for about an hour. Drying them out prevents them from getting greasy.
– Grilled sausages; The key to grilling them is setting up your grill up for indirect grilling and placing the sausages on the side without the heat. Close the lid and depending on the temperature they could be done in 30 minutes to an hour. Then move them to the hot side for a little direct heat before serving.
Step 4: The results
I was ready to try to make sausage again. I got a fantastic pork butt and some leaner beef from The Butcher and The Larder. I also bought some beef fat and my natural pork casings for the sausage there. I took everything I learned and I was ready to make sausage magic.
My approach this time was to think about what I wanted my sausages to taste like rather than going off a recipe from a book. I wanted inspired sausage. I went with a breakfast sausage using salt, orange peel, sage, nutmeg, thyme, pepper, and honey. I made a riff on an Italian sausage with aleppo pepper (similar heat to crushed red pepper but with a slightly different flavor), garlic, fennel seed, dill weed, coriander seed, and onion powder marinated in beer.
My last one (my favorite of the three) was a beer, bacon cheddar sausage made from pork and beef. For that I included the complete recipe below. I would describe its flavor in one word: BOOYAH!!! I felt like taking my sausage and jamming it in everyone’s faces. HERE TAKE MY SAUSAGE, IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER!!! Well, maybe not, but it was fucking great.
Note; the LEM stuffer worked great and I got a tip if you want to buy a sausage stuffer… go to a hunting or outdoor store. There are lots of good options for grinders or stuffers. Hunters use this stuff all the time.
With my latest batch I cooked them every single way I could think of. I think I liked smoking them and cooking them in a pan with beer the best.
For my dish, I am recommending the Beer-Bacon-Cheddar sausage on a New England hot dog bun with grilled onions, a little cheddar cheese, fried egg and some jalapeño mustard. I used Woeber’s Sandwich Pal Jalapeño Mustard.
Secret tip for Chicago-based readers: Franks and Dawgs sells New England style buns- just call them 24 hours in advance.
Not so secret tip for New England-based readers: If you can’t find New England style hot dog buns there, you’re not very good at this.
Secret tip for Australia-based readers: Watch out for dingos, they steal babies.
So the moral of the story for you is to take a minute and go out to try a real sausage sandwich. Find a good butcher who can get you some quality meat. Hell, you don’t even need a meat grinder, a good butcher will grind it for you. You don’t even need a stuffer, a coworker described a method of using a funnel from the hardware store and just jamming the meat straight into a casing. Sounds ridiculous but it probably would work. The truth is you don’t even need casings. You can shape it like sausage and grill it, pan fry it, sous vide it, boil it and for sure, you can smoke that. That’s why sausage is so magical, it can be anything the heart desires.
If you have questions on any of this, feel free to hit me up. You can also send me your sausage jokes if you want. I find them all funny.
Here, enjoy my sausage… recipe.
Black and Blue BBQ’s Beer-Bacon-Cheddar Sausage
– 3.5 lbs ground pork
– 3.5 lbs ground beef
– 2 tbsp salt
– 4 tbsp garlic pepper
– 1 tsp onion powder
– 1 tsp Aleppo pepper (or crushed red pepper flakes)
– 1 tbsp lemon pepper
– 1 c cheddar
– 12 oz beer (Don’t cheap out and put something like Miller Lite in there, use a real beer.), two extra beers (24 oz.) for marinating the meat, and 3 beers to drink for yourself. Nothing goes to waste.
1. Slice the meat into thin strips or cubes, about an inch or less in thickness, small enough to fit in the hole of your grinder.
2. Marinate the meat in beer for at least 3-4 hours but you could let it go overnight.
3.Dry the meat off with a paper towel and put it in a large zip lock bag. Add the spices to the bag and shake. (you can split this into 2 gallon sized zip lock bags if you want) Let this sit in your freezer for 1-2 hours, until it starts firming up.
4. Grind the meat.
a. Note: If you bought ground meat
i. you can marinate it in beer,
ii. squeeze out the liquid,
iii. mix in the spices and beer until you get that tacky texture,
iv. freeze it again until crispy. You want it really cold, not frozen through.
5. Add the extra beer and mix the meat by hand or with a paddle attachment in a stand mixer until it’s tacky and sticky. I used a whole beer separated into two batches. The moisture from the beer adds flavor, but more importantly helps you get that texture you’re looking for. Like glue between the meat and fat.
6. Take a small piece of sausage and cook it in a pan on the stove and when its cooked, taste it. Make sure it has the flavor you are looking for.
7. Freeze the meat again to the point where it’s firming up, 1-2 hours.
8. Rise your natural pork casings in water and also run cold water through the casings. If you have extra casing in the end, you can store it in your fridge with a bunch of salt in a zip top bag.
9. Stuff the meat into casings.
a. Optional step: twist links into the sausage by pinching it and then twisting it switching directions after each link. Let it sit in the fridge uncovered for an hour or two so it dries out a little and separate with a knife.
You can then freeze your sausage and it will stay good for at least 3 months for future sausage parties.
I would like to thank Michael Ponzio and Rosebud Restaurants, the Publican Quality Meats and The Butcher and The Larder for helping me out with this.
Peace out and as always, keep it saucy.