When you’re on your way to another city on a Saturday morning to cater a friend’s baby shower, the last thing you want is to hit a giant pothole on the freeway that takes out a tire. This is where I found myself this Saturday, sitting on an off-ramp two miles from my destination, having caught the edge of a giant pothole that I’d managed to avoid every morning for weeks. Luckily, my friend’s husband was available to pick up the food and transport it to the party. I arrived ninety minutes late, deep in the weeds. Fortunately, the food was mostly ready to go.
Brunch food. Brunch food. It’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch. You don’t get completely what you would at breakfast, but you get a good meal. I’m not really a brunch person – usually there’s too much sweet stuff – but when I’m cooking, it’s a different story. Brunch in my book also should be heavy on the eggs. And there will be meat. And the meat should take the form of sausage.
We’ve made sausage before here, stuffing it into casings first. Breakfast sausage often has no casing – rather, you form a small patty and fry it up. The advantage to this kind of sausage is the nice brown crust that forms (thank the Maillard reaction for that). Also, fat renders from the meat as it cooks, resulting in a somewhat leaner sausage. Cook them too long, though, and they can be dry, unlike casing sausages, which are juicy and fatty.
I find that a ratio of 1 teaspoon of Morton’s kosher salt to each pound of meat provides perfect seasoning. If you use table salt (which I don’t recommend), use 2/3 teaspoon per pound of meat. If you use Diamond kosher salt, use 1 1/3 teaspoon per pound. Always form and cook a test patty after grinding but before cooking loose sausage or stuffing casing sausages – this is your only chance to add more seasoning.
Speaking of grinding, your job will be easier if you dice and freeze the meat first to about half-solid. Commercial grinders are sharp enough not to require pre-freezing, but most home grinders are not, and your meat – and especially your fat – will smear if it’s not cold enough. The dreaded smear yields a paste-like texture and will clog your grinder, so keep everything well-chilled while grinding.
Pork sausage, fennel, smoked peppercorn
I used a heritage Berkshire pork shoulder, with a creamy white fat cap. Normally I like somewhere between a 3:1 and 4:1 meat to fat ratio, and the pork shoulder filled the bill without any additional fat. If you elect to use a lean meat cut, supplement with additional fat from a fatty part of the animal, such as the belly, or fatback, to achieve the desired ratio.
2 lbs pork shoulder with the fat cap, or 1 1/4 lbs trimmed pork shoulder and 3/4 lb belly or jowl
2 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp dried thyme
3/4 tsp fennel seed
3/4 tsp sweet paprika
3/4 tsp hot paprika
1/2 tsp ground smoked black peppercorn
1 small onion, small dice 1/4″
12 cloves garlic confit
Optional: hog casings
Dice the meat about 3/4″.
Combine the salt and all the seasonings. Toss the meat, diced onion, and garlic confit with the seasoning and spread it on a sheet pan (lined with a silpat to reduce sticking) in a single layer (use multiple pans if necessary). Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until half-solid. Also freeze the grinding apparatus – the worm, blade, and die.
Meanwhile, if you plan to stuff the sausage, soak the casings in warm water, and change the water several times. Then rinse the insides of the casings, untangling as you go. Discard or cut the broken parts of casings that burst. Place the casings in a small bowl. Soak the casings well in several changes of water at least an hour before grinding and stuffing. Rinse inside and out.
Grind the entire meat/garlic/onion combination using the coarse die, into a bowl over a pan or larger bowl of ice to keep it cold. Cook a test piece and taste for seasoning. Add more salt, pepper, fennel, paprika if necessary. Make sure the product remains as cold as possible. and refrigerate during the next step.
If not stuffing the sausage, form about 2 tbsp of the ground meat into a ball, flatten, and depress the center slightly to keep the sausage form forming a ball when it cooks, as meat fibers contract during exposure to heat. Repeat until you use all the sausage (or freeze a portion of the ground sausage for future use).
If stuffing the sausage, assemble the stuffing feed tube. Lubricate with water or oil and load the casing onto the tube, pushing as you go. Tie off the end with cotton thread or clip it using a food-safe, clean clip. Begin to load the stuffer and stuff the sausage, easing the casing off the tube as the stuffing comes out. Do not overstuff (as in stuffing the casing too tightly). You may tie it off by twisting the casing as you go (tie it with thread later), or wait until the entire sausage is stuffed and then pinch it off at intervals, twist the casing, and then tie with thread. Prick with a thin needle to remove excess air from the links.
Cook sausages in a pan over medium-low heat. You also can freeze sausages for storage. Lay them on a Silpat on a sheet pan, in a single layer, and freeze until firm. Vacuum pack or transfer to plastic freezer bags.