Diner: Hog Heaven

Making sausage at home ... and loving it

Oliver Meinerding

It's a Sunday evening, and I'm trying to maintain my grip on 3 feet of wet and slippery hog's intestines. Pale, translucent loops of it float in a large mixing bowl, which sits in the kitchen sink.

I have some of it draped over my wrist and a few loops of it clutched tightly in my fist. I've already dropped it twice and rescued it from the plughole once. I am making sausages.

A simple admission: I love sausages. I love them all. I love stubby English pork bangers, perfect for mashed potatoes and thick brown gravy in the winter; and chipolatas and hot dogs and frankfurters; and spicy andouille sausage, chopped into generous chunks for jambalaya; and German bratwurst, bockwurst and knackwurst, grilled over charcoal with onions; and fiery Filipino longanisa, sliced thin and laid on top of fried rice; and solid lengths of Mexican chorizo; and thick, U-shaped hoops of Polish kielbasa, cooked slowly with potatoes and sauerkraut; and Italian sausage; and little links of sweet Vietnamese cha lua.

I love them all. And so I knew it was only a matter of time before I tried making my own.

First, I spent hours surfing the Internet looking for easy sausage recipes. I spent a great deal of my spare time on a Web site called sausagemaking.org, which includes useful health and safety advice for food preparation and an online forum for sausage makers.

One thing immediately becomes apparent: There is a sausage-making world out there. While we all sleep at night, curled up tightly beneath our comforters, sausage makers in Thailand are swapping recipes and techniques with their fellow sausage makers in England and Germany and Indonesia. It's like the United Nations of Sausages, click-clacking away about the best cuts of pork and whether kosher salt is really the best kind of salt to use.

Threads posted on the forum carry headlines that vary from the poetic ("To Incubate or Not?") to the playful ("Salami Virgin") to the downright terrifying ("Help: Maggots in My Bacon"). And there are recipes for every type of sausage imaginable — from Romanian Jewish beef sausage to pork sausage with pistachio nuts to duck sausage with green apples and chestnuts. Members have screen names like Porker and Big Guy and Franco and The Fat Man, and they use them, it seems, without a trace of irony.

Next, I bought a copy of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. Published last year, Charcuterie could be considered something of a bible for meat lovers, with chapters dedicated to salt-curing, dry-curing and smoking meats to making hams, terrines, confits and, of course, making your own sausages.

I looked in my well-used copy of The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and found sausage recipes there, too. I bought an old-fashioned cast-iron meat grinder for around $50 and a five-pound manual sausage stuffer from eBay for around $30. The sausage stuffer is little more than a metal funnel with a disc-shaped plunger that sits inside it, attached to a hand-operated lever that forces ground sausage through a funnel and into sausage casings. It's the Kia of sausage stuffers.

For $10,000, sausage makers can log onto eBay and purchase the Rolls Royce of sausage stuffers — a Food Machinery of America H52 PAS hydraulic sausage stuffer, which weighs 726 pounds and converts 114 pounds of ground meat into sausages. This baby rocks. For $10,000 I'd like to be able to drive my sausage stuffer to work and back, but this thing comes with an independent oil reservoir and a piston-extracting wrench, which is more than I can say for my Saturn Ion.

The next day I buy 5 pounds of country-style ribs and ask the butcher to dice it for me. I decide on the kielbasa recipe from Charcuterie, simply because it's one of the easiest recipes in the book. To my pork, I add minced garlic, freshly-chopped marjoram, kosher salt and black pepper. Packing it into Tupperware containers, I marinate it overnight, allowing the herbs and spices to infuse the meat.

The single most important factor in sausage making is to keep the ingredients as cold as possible through-out the entire process. Allowing the ground sausage to get too warm causes the fat to separate from the protein, which affects the texture of the finished sausage, making it dry and crumbly.

After the mixture sat for 24 hours my sausage-making companion and I set a bowl in ice and begin grinding our mixture into it. Next, we load one end of the sausage stuffer and thread our hog casings wetly onto the funnel at the other end. Half an hour later, we stand proudly over the results — a slightly battered-looking row of thin and mismatched sausages, their casings bulging outward with pockets of trapped air.

The next night, we stand over a grill and watch our links of kielbasa slowly shrinking in the heat until they each measure no more than an inch in length. Undaunted, we each put three links on a hot dog bun and take a bite, declaring ourselves successful sausage makers.

We have made a clutch of mini-kielbasa. And, in the same way that an ugly child is beautiful to its parents, they taste delicious to us regardless of their size and their unusual texture.

The following night we try again, threading hog casings onto a larger funnel this time. I finely chop fresh chives, sage, thyme and marjoram until I have an aromatic green pile of herbs heaped on the chopping block in front of me. To this mixture I add a few generous splashes of double bock beer. I carefully lean on the lever of the sausage stuffer, forcing the mixture through the funnel and my helper cradles the casings as they fill with fragrant herb sausage mix, twisting every 8 inches or so to make thick, plump links.

We lay them out reverently on the countertop, as if they are our catch. It's as if we tracked these sausages in their own habitat and hunted them down.

Unstoppable now, we make Mexican chorizo, dumping heaped tablespoons of ancho chile powder, chipotle chile powder and paprika onto our diced pork, adding a dash of ice-cold tequila to moisten the mixture. The result, an orderly chain of spicy bright-red links, sits in the refrigerator overnight.

Finally, after almost a week of preparation and failed attempts, we have succeeded in making sausages that look like sausages. We wait another day and throw our herb and beer sausages and our spicy chorizos on the grill, watching them brown and sizzle over charcoal. Their surface a little charred, the casings tightened by the heat, our sausages have a satisfying snap to them as you bite down through bun, ketchup and onions.

As with so many things prepared in the kitchen, they taste better for us having made them. They taste of the time we spent planning them and the care we took in making them. They taste of Porker's and Franco's advice and The Fat Man's words of encouragement.

And it seems I didn't need a Food Machinery of America H52 PAS hydraulic sausage stuffer after all. ©