by Zack Northcutt • Photography by Jenna Noel

Sausage recipes and techniques are ubiquitous on the web and in cookbooks. And though making sausage might sound complicated at first, all that’s really needed are quality ingredients, a grinder and a good handle on the grinding process. Here are a few guidelines and helpful hints for those just starting out.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when making sausage is the fat. Fat is necessary to keep the sausage juicy and flavorful. Pork fatback works best, and maintains the texture of the sausage if emulsified correctly. Even when making a beef or venison recipe, I always add pork fatback. I usually adjust the amount of fat added according to how lean the meat is. For around five pounds of meat, I use about a half pound of fat. But never go over 25 percent fat, no matter how lean the meat. If you can’t find fatback, pork butt has a ratio of 80 percent meat to 20 percent fat that works well for basic sausage recipes. 

Another essential element is keeping the fat cold so that it doesn’t break or “smear” during the grinding process. Smearing happens when the fat begins to render (usually because of a rise in temperature). Keeping the meat and fat as cold as possible will produce a consistent texture in the final product. If making a large batch of sausage, consider putting a plastic zip-close bag full of ice directly on the grinder. I’ve even frozen small cubes of fatback before putting them through the grind.

I like to toast the whole spices prior to grinding them in the coffee grinder. Cut the meats and fat into about 1-inch cubes so that they’ll go through the meat grinder easily, then mix the cubes with the ground spices and salt. If adding vegetables, such as garlic and peppers or fresh herbs, rough-chop them first, then mix with the cubed meat and spices before running it all through the meat grinder. Remember not to overwork or heat the final mixture to avoid a smear. For the beginner, an attachment-style grinder that fits on a stand mixer works okay, but for the price, consider buying a small electric grinder, or even a large manual one for not much more money.

Form the ground sausage into any shape you’d like before cooking, or if you’re adventurous and want to stuff the sausage, purchase a bundle of casings, also known as a hank of casings (check with your local butcher or order online). Follow the package directions, which will include soaking the casings in water overnight to help with elasticity and to avoid breakage. A stand mixer sausage stuffer attachment works fine for the novice, but a canister-style stuffer produces better results. (Also, the auger on the attachment incorporates more air into the mix, which tends to warm the mixture and increase the risk of smearing.)

Just remember to go slowly when stuffing, and to fill the casings full but not too tight—you don’t want them to burst when you’re twisting them into links. Practice and patience are all that’s needed to find the perfect stuffing technique.

To cook the sausage, whether it’s stuffed or in patties, I suggest “slow and low.” Cast-irons are my favorite pans to use, but a regular aluminum or nonstick will work just as well. Start the pan on medium to low heat and add just enough oil to coat the pan—this will help protect the casings from burning. If you are grilling, again, low temperatures are best, because sausage will leak fat and cause flare-ups if the heat is too high. I like to start on a medium-heat fire and cook the sausages for a few minutes on either side, then place them on a raised warming platform and cook the vegetables underneath. This technique automatically bastes the vegetables in delicious seasoned pork fat.