Pork butt. Are you done giggling yet? Good, because this rectangular cut of pork from
high on the shoulder is all business. Also called "Boston butt," and "pork shoulder
butt," the name comes from the casks in which they used to store and ship valued
cuts of pork, not so much from the location of the pig itself.
And that's right: "valued cuts of pork." The ideal cut for making Italian Sausage
(or any other sausage, for that matter), the butt naturally has the perfect 70
30 ratio of meat to fat, which makes for deliciously meaty and moist sausages -
either free-form or in casings, options which will be discussed later. Most butchers
and grocery stores already take care of this, but if you do buy a pork butt that
has the skin on it, you want to use your sharpest knife to shave off the skin until
you get to the creamy white lard layer beneath it. Also, if you have to do this,
you probably want to check the narrow end of the cut - on the pig, that's the side
where the head was - for a large, brownish gland. It's easy to locate, and easy
to remove; the bad news is, it just as easily ruins a sausage, too, so get rid of
So, now that you've got this hunk of pig meat on your counter, what next?
PREPARATION IS KEY
First off, if you're going to make Italian Sausage, you're going to need a lot
of space and a lot of equipment. Any counter space is fine, but everything else
needs to be as cold as possible both before and during your sausage making event.
And it is an event, as it can take some two-and-a-half to three hours for your sausage
to go from hunk to link.
Keeping your equipment and ground meat cold serves two purposes: one, bacteria
hate cold weather, and two, cold meat and cold fat bind better to one another. If
your ground pork comes to room temperature, the meat and fat will separate, and
when you cook your sausage - especially if you put it into links - you will get
a dry, crumbly texture. If it's cheap sausage and you don't care, that's one thing,
but if you're going to put some effort into making this, you may as well make the
best you can, right?
And one last thing: you're going to make a lot of sausage here. Don’t panic;
it freezes well, and is delicious in so many applications. When it comes to sausage
making, you get just as many things dirty making one link as you would a hundred,
so why not make five pounds at a time? If you can’t possibly fathom eating that
much sausage, give it away to friends and family; it sure beats socks!
Below is a list of the things that you will need to have ready before you begin
making your sausage (much of which is not an absolute necessity, but will make this
endeavor a little more convenient and enjoyable):
Meat Grinder with a 1/8" die attachment
Standing Kitchen-Aid (or similar) kitchen mixer with paddle attachment
A large mixing bowl in an ice bath of water, ice, and salt
Salt-preserved hog casings, rinsed thoroughly, and resting in warm tap water (optional)
Remember: you're dealing with raw meat and lots of dishes, so keep everything
as cold and as clean as possible. Don't be in a rush, or you could get careless
and make a mistake around a meat grinder. In Spanish, they call that "no bueno."
First things first: put your grinding knife, cutting plates, and grinding worm
(that thing that drives the meat to the blades) on a plate and shove them into the
freezer until ready for use.
Using your sharp knife, cube your meat to a good size, small enough so that you
don't have to mash anything through the feed tube of the grinder. Yes, most meat
grinders come with that broomstick handle (a.k.a. "the stomper") that lets you push
meat through, but "encouraging" it through is far different from "forcing" it through.
You can do that, sure, but why risk any injury?
Weigh out five pounds of the meat onto your scale, add your seasonings (typically
fennel and coriander seeds, red pepper flakes, hot paprika, salt, pepper, and dried
oregano and basil), lightly toss everything with your hands, and then shove the
mixture into the fridge for about forty-five minutes. Again, we want to keep everything
as cool as possible to keep bacteria at bay.
(If you are adding fatback - that brilliant white layer of hard fat from just
beneath the back skin of the pig - then cube that up as well. It will help you to
cool it for about an hour before cubing; cold fat back is easier to cube than room
temperature fatback. In this case, cube four-and-a-half pounds of the meat, and
then add eight ounces of fatback to complete the five pounds.)
Utilizing what counter space you have, get a large stainless steel or glass mixing
bowl, and set it in either a larger bowl or bucket with enough ice, water, and salt
to come about halfway up its sides. Then, get your meat mixture out, assemble your
grinding parts and begin grinding.
If it's an electric grinder, get ready for what sounds a little bit like a song
playing on a radio with no bass. If it's mechanical, prepare to do some cranking;
it's tougher to push that meat through than you'd think. Either way, unless you
have one of those super grinders they use in processing plants, it can take a good
bit of time to get all five pounds of meat through the die and into the bowl. In
any case, feed the meat slowly through the feed tube, allowing it to come to the
top, but not cram up at the top. Again: no forcing this stuff down the hole.
Work in small batches if you must; all those turning parts cause friction, and
friction creates heat... the very heat you're trying to avoid. If the moving parts
begin feeling warm, take them off the grinder, rinse them, and re-cool them in the
refrigerator for half an hour, along with the meat itself (both ground and unground).
This is a labor of love here; you may have to work like this until you get the hang
of your grinder and the sausage making process.
Now that you've gotten all your meat and seasonings through the grinder, add
the meat to the mixing bowl of the mixer you plan on using. Using the paddle attachment
(that thing that looks like the head of a shovel, but with holes), mix on medium
speed for one minute. This not only helps disperse the seasonings evenly throughout
the meat, but it helps develop the proteins in the meat so that they can stick to
This point - when the meat actually looks sticky - is known as the primary bind,
and it is here when you can add wine, red wine vinegar, or water to the mixture.
Wet ingredients - added ice cold - not only help distribute the spices, they help
ensure a more moist finished product. Also, if using vinegar or wine, the liquid
itself functions as a seasoning and - in the case of red wine - a coloring agent
as well. If adding wet ingredients, add them and mix at medium speed for an additional
minute, until everything looks well incorporated.
Once you've achieved the primary bind, you can sample it. Take a spoonful (refrigerating
the rest) and throw it into a skillet over medium heat with a little olive oil.
When cooked, taste it, but remember to busy yourself with checking for seasonings,
though, and not patting yourself on the back, Big Guy.
Encasing your Italian Sausage is completely up to you. There are many very traditional
Italian recipes that call for free form sausage that has never seen the inside of
a hog's casing; sauces and pizza toppings come to mind. But if you insist on feeding
your mixture through another machine and into some hog casings, that works, too.
You'll need roughly two feet of hog casings per pound of sausage meat, but it
is a good idea to have a few extra feet handy in case you need them. Just be sure
that your casings are clean and void of any color or foul odor. Without getting
too disgusting, they're hardly from an area of the animal someone would deem "clean."
And buy the salt-packed casings. Salt kills bacteria, and though it dries out
the casing, the casing itself is easily reconstituted after some serious rinsing
under running water. Hold the casing up to the water and fold back the opening to
let the water run through. This not only washes excess salt and debris from the
casing, it gives you a chance to check for holes. The last thing you want when feeding
your sausage into the casing is to have that casing break, and have sausage spill
out all over the place.
Whatever meat stuffer you choose to use, be sure to wet the stuffing tube first,
slide over the wet casings, and then slick the work surface so that as the meat
fills the casings, it slides across the counter effortlessly. You want the sausage
coming out of the stuffer to push the already-made sausage along with as little
resistance as possible.
Measure off however many inches you want your links to be, and twist in opposite
directions to tie off each link, working your way from the front (first-out sausage)
to the back. If any air pockets present themselves, make a slight incision with
a sharp knife to let the air out.
Refrigerate or freeze your sausages, wash and sterilize all your counterspace,
and call it a day: you're done making your Italian Sausage.
DO NOT COOK YOUR SAUSAGE ON A GRILL UNTIL THE SKIN BURSTS. This is a major problem;
instead of treating your sausage as an afterthought, treat it as though it were
a finer cut of meat. Sure, you paid a lot less money for it, but you put a lot more
effort into it than you would had you, say, went to the supermarket and just bought
yourself a tenderloin from the meat department.
No. Cook your sausage to an internal temperature of 150 - 155 degrees F,
checking with a meat thermometer on occasion. This will keep the meat moist and
not crumbly, and it will kill any microbes it may have picked up along the way.
Serve with grilled onions and peppers, and a little bit of rustic bread or some
al dente pasta, and you will be in hog Heaven!
Article contributed by SimpleItalianCooking.com - a website featuring
meat slicer reviews, grinders, and other equipment. The site also offers easy to prepare featuring Italian recipes.