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Sausage City: Butcher & Larder's Rob Levitt on How to Make Sausage

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[Photographs: Blake Royer]

This past weekend I had the good fortune of attending a gathering of chefs, farmers, business leaders called the Good Food Festival, right here in Chicago. Its mission—to "celebrate leaders, businesses, and individuals that sustain the burgeoning, locally-driven Good Food Movement"— is an admirable one. Besides plenty of educational workshops and discussions, there were also food and chef demonstrations. And the one that most intrigued me was hosted by Rob Levitt of Butcher & Larder, who would be butchering half a pig and giving a crash course lesson in the techniques of sausage making.

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I've already written about Rob's shop and the great sausage he's making over there, but thought it would be worth devoting an edition of this column for those curious about how sausage is actually made, taught by an expert in the art. I think many people left the demonstration on Saturday with a wonderful notion: making sausage at home isn't really all that hard.

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There's also an easy entry point. While putting your sausage into an actual casing is a big step, good sasuage is still possible if you stop short of that and just make patties. It's all the same technique up to that point.

Even if don't like to cook, understanding sausage making is good information for understanding why, for example, certain sausages in restaurants taste greasy or crumbly. (Hint: is has to do with whether the sausage was mixed for enough time to help the meat "glutens" bind everything together. More on that below).

Rob Levitt's Tips for Making Sausage

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Rob first hammered home a point we embrace, too: sausage is not made from what you'd normally throw away. "The meat you use for sausage is just as high quality as the pork chop we're also selling," Rob explained. It's inherent in the fact that we devote a column to sausage on Serious Eats: Chicago that we view it highly. Chicago has come a long way from The Jungle, but it's nice to hear it from Rob, too.

For good sausage, you want about a 70/30 meat/fat ratio at a minimun; more fat is sometimes preferable but rarely less. Luckily, pork shoulder tends to have just exactly that 70/30 ratio, and better yet, the fat you find in and around the shoulder is "the good kind" to use for sausages.

Which leads us to: not all pork fat is equal. The kind of fat we want for sausages is "back fat" (or "fat back") which is the subcuntaneous layer below the skin. Leaf lard, the kind that's softer, renders more easily, and has a less pronounced pork flavor, is what you'd want for a pie crust. Leaf lard is a little greasier, while back fat has more protein and is therefore firmer. So if you're adding fat to a sausage, choose back fat.

The KitchenAid grinder (the most common model used at home) is fine for home use, but you have to ensure that you clean the meat of any and all connective tissue and use very small pieces which are extremely cold, even half frozen. Because it's low powered and slow, grinding meat with the KitchenAid attachment involved a risk of the meat warming up too much, which will start to melt the lard and destroy the sausage's final texture. At warmer temperatures, the lipids in the fat will begin to separate from the proteins. So either put the meat (and the grinder attachments) into the freezer until it's half-frozen, or just ask a friendly butcher to do the grinding for you. As long as you're making the sausage that day, there's little to no loss of quality.

So you're ready to make sausage? It honestly is easier than you think, especially if you have a scale.

Step by Step Sausage Making Tips

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Step 1: Weigh the ground meat (Rob suggests using grams for better accuracy)
Step 2: Add in a 1%* salt by weight (so take the weight grams, divide by 100, and add that much salt)
Step 3: Add in spices and herbs as desired (Rob demonstrated a simple fresh Polish sausage with minced garlic, whole untoasted** mustard seeds, and chopped parsley)
Step 4: With impeccably clean hands, mix the sausage with the salt and spices thoroughly, continuing to knead until the mixture starts to get surprisingly sticky***. At this point the salt-soluble meat proteins have been extracted, which are kind of like "meat glutens" that will bind the mixture together. The process is something like kneading bread to release gluten.
Step 5: Cook a little piece and taste for salt and seasoning, then adjust.
Step 6: Form into patties to refrigerate, or stuff into casings.

*1% salt is very low, much lower than recommendations for many cookbooks I've seen, which suggest 2 or even 3%. But Rob stands behind it.

**It's not necessary to toast the spices you'll be using ahead of time, since when the sausage cooks, those spices will fry in the fat inside the sausage, releasing their best flavor. Better not to toast that flavor out so early in the process.

***The mixing stage (step 4), is the most common and biggest problem most people (and restaurants) have with the process. You MUST mix the meat long enough to make it sticky. The best test that Rob demonstrated is to take a little patty, stick it in your hand, and hold your hand out palmside down over the bowl. It should firmly stick to your hand without moving. Once it does, you've got sausage.

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