amazing and cool shit, Fat, horrific mistakes, lovely things, potentially useful information

…sausage…

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The interesting facet of life and the experiences it offers, is that eventually you wind up with tastes that are honed in certain ways.

I enjoy this aspect of cooking, that it offers up a such a simple parallel for life at large; if you take a few risks eventually you’re rewarded with a certain knowledge about how things really work. You gain wisdom and appreciation for things done well and thoughtfully. You also see through things, sometimes, and realize that they’re not quite what they should or could be.

I have an aversion to critics. I’m happier to lead by example or at least know that someone who’s compelled to point out a fault or flaw at least have the grace to explain why and offer what they think could have made it better…

While it’s never been the point of this blog to venture into that territory, sometimes the heartbreak of experiencing something so poorly done by somebody who should know better makes it impossible to not fixate on it… I had dinner one night recently at a French restaurant I love. I still do love it, in spite of the experience I had with a house made duck and pork sausage. I didn’t like it at all, which is surprising given the degree of quality I’ve experienced with other house made charcuterie there… It was over seasoned. I know that’s a matter of taste, and that alone wasn’t the deal killer. It was also low on fat – not moist enough inside – again, that’s not the reason any sausage is necessarily awful or even bad. The thing that killed it for me was the texture – it was grainy and flecks of it spilled out of the casing as I tried to slice it.

I’m forgiving of seasonings. Maybe there’s a perfectly good reason why the chef chose to mask the flavor of duck and pork with so much allspice. Maybe he thought it tasted better than the actual flesh of such wonderful animals – I don’t know – it’s a point one can debate forever and never come to any satisfactory resolution. Maybe it made it go better with the potatoes and the sauce it came in. Maybe. Perhaps… I’m forgiving of moisture, too – I’ve eaten and enjoyed dry sausages – landjaeger comes to mind, though I know this wasn’t meant to be that sort of dry cured style. It was just inexplicaply fatless, in spite of pork and duck being the source of the two best tasting and mouth-feeling fats known anywhere… Maybe the chef had a reason for being so stingy with it – maybe he took it home and is roasting potatoes for his family with it. A grainy textured sausage however, is an error allowable only to amateur sausage makers. It borders on the unforgivable for an accomplished chef.

There’s no mystery to the process of making sausage. People shy from it and regard it as something they don’t want to watch. It’s easier than assisting in the amputation of a dog’s leg. I’ve done both before and I can attest to the validity of such a claim. Actually there’s nothing gruesome or strange or about it at all – sausage making that is. The Veterinarian I assisted, who thought it would be good way for me to experience the inner workings of his practice as a part of my working on the architecture part of expanding it, didn’t care to make sausage or see how it was done. It’s nothing compared to what he does…

There are basic steps in sausage making and they’re sequential. They’re easy little rules – things that you do to a certain completion before moving to the next one. It reminds me, somewhat, of a Far Side cartoon with a dopey looking guy sitting on the edge of his bed staring at a large, poster sized note on his wall that read ‘pants first, then shoes’… Sausage making is very much like that.

First is grinding the meat, then grinding the appropriate amount of fat. I keep them separate, though I’ve seen others who don’t and still made adequate sausages. It’s one less way to ensure it doesn’t turn to shit in the end – keeping them separate, that is – so why not? Keep the fat and the meat chilled – at least in the refrigerator. Meat isn’t as critical, but chilled, if not semi frozen fat is. If you’re going to go for a bungee jump or spend a while doing something else in the middle of sausage making, plan on freezing the fat while you do.

Second is measuring out salt, and then the seasonings. I keep the salt separate, too, though I’ve seen others who don’t and still have adequate results. Again – it’s another way to ensure you wind up with better results, so why wouldn’t you?

Third, and easily the most important; mixing. There is no other definition to really good sausage other than the texture, as I think of it. It doesn’t matter the meat, the fat, or whether it’s stuffed into casings or not – texture matters most. I start with the meat and the salt and I begin to work it. If you have a large stand mixer – something like a KitchenAid perhaps – you can use the paddle attachment. If you don’t have a mixer, you can use a large tub and your hands, or golf clubs and a garden rake (provided they’re clean…). The reason for the salt is that it draws moisture out of the meat – not just water, but liquid laden with myosin and other proteins. And mixing it around is the same as kneading bread. It doesn’t matter how you do it – it matters only that you DO do it. If you don’t your sausage will never be anything other than ground meat with seasoning. It will be grainy and the fat will weep out of it. There is no style of sausage that is meant to be grainy, and no style is improved by such a texture. You’ll know when you’ve begun to get things right when the meat becomes tacky and sticky. It’s a strange transition. It only takes a minute or two in a mixer, about 5 or 6 minutes if you’re using your hands. At this point I work in the remaining seasonings, depending on the recipe. Mix to incorporate evenly. Finally, I add the fat and work that into to whole matrix until evenly incorporated. I add the fat last because usually you’ll be using pork fat. Pork fat melts at a pretty low temperature – about the same temperature as your mouth, actually, which means a slight bit of friction and heat can turn your sausage mix into a mass of smeary meat.

Fourth, a quenelle test. Form up a small patty and cook it in a pan to test the texture and the seasoning. This is, by far the second most important step. You need to know that the seasonings, spices and texture are all correct. This is the only chance you get to adjust anything that might be wrong. If it’s over seasoned, you can add more meat and fat. If it’s grainy you need to mix it longer… Until it’s tacky. If it’s tacky and sticky, it will never be grainy…

Fifth – you can stuff it into casings and twist it into lengths – or you can form it into patties, or just keep it in bulk, unless it’s a blood sausage…

There’s nothing scary or awful about how sausage is made. It’s a beautiful craft really. Sausage is only scary or awful when it’s been made poorly.

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