Why make your own sausage? For Davis Knight, regional executive chef with Morrison Community Living at Smith Crossing, a CCRC in Orland Park, Ill., bragging rights are a big part of making his own sausage, but there’s more to it than that.
“Sausage is one of those things that, in and of itself, is pretty straightforward,” Knight says. “From a foodservice standpoint it can be something that you buy, but not many people actually know how it’s made. A lot of commercial sausage isn’t that good. It’s just OK.”
So when Knight’s father-in-law was finally ready to share his secret Polish sausage recipe, Knight was all ears. He learned the recipe one afternoon, and then brought it back to share with the senior dining residents he serves, a good tie-in to the memory-based dining that’s part of the program at Smith Crossing.
“Many of our residents remember making it themselves— hand chopping the pork, folding in the fat. Their hands were their equipment,” Knight says. “I wanted to create a bridge between my culinary philosophy and the food memories that a lot of my residents were sharing about sausage."
He serves it traditionally: boiled, with potatoes and sauerkraut made with red cabbage, sugar, apple cider vinegar, onions and golden raisins.
“It creates conversation, and that’s the whole point,” Knight says. “The meal creates that connection: ‘That’s how my mom and my grandma used to do it,’ and we suddenly have all these stories.”
Other than bragging rights and an opportunity to share a story (two very good reasons), making your own sausage allows a level of quality control and customization that appeals to many chefs.
That includes Mike Webster, general manager of dining services at The Hotchkiss School, Salisbury, Conn., where he makes sausage for everything from classic breakfast patties and links to gumbo to Italian sausage and peppers, starting with ethically sourced, gestation crate-free pork. For Webster, it’s the experimentation that makes sausage making fun.
“Making sausage on site is a great way to tweak and customize your recipes,” Webster says. “Like Italian sausage but want it spicier? Add more chili flakes. Being able to be creative and try new things can be very fulfilling.”
Flavor isn’t the only customizable factor. To reduce food waste, Webster makes 1-ounce patties, something that he’s had trouble finding on the commercial side. Overall, he says, “it’s a tastier, more economical, custom product based on your customers’ preferences.”
Casing the joint
Pork shoulder is a great place to start as it already has the fat content you want for great sausage. If you don’t have a meat grinder in your kitchen (many onsite kitchens don’t), it’s possible to work with your procurement program to get the grind and fat ratios you’re looking for.
“It’s typically pork shoulder because there’s a little more fat and a lot more flavor,” Knight says. “Most sausage, if it’s any good, will be 30 to 35 percent fat. And it’s a coarser grind than for hamburger. You’re creating a lot of surface area, so when you fold in the fat it’ll stick together. You’re also creating a texture profile. You’re recreating that rustic style. You can get as smooth as bologna or salami. But for Polish style you want a coarser grind.”
Knight special orders the coarser ground pork and also natural casing that’s been precleaned. He sets aside a whole day and a whole section of the kitchen to make his sausage. Everything must be kept very cold for both safety and textural reasons, otherwise the fat becomes too melted to work with.
“When the product comes in I keep it in the cooler and when I work on it I block off an area that’s raw meat all day and it’s all done on ice,” Knight says. “I’ll load up my hands with four or five layers of plastic to keep warm.”
It’s very important to keep equipment cold, too, Webster adds.
“Chill all your equipment before starting, including your large mixing bowls; we’ll throw our whole sausage stuffer in the fridge for an hour or two before using,” he says.
Now the fun part: seasoning. Here’s where a chef’s imagination can go wild or, on the other hand, create classic flavors (see sidebar, at right).
Damian Zedower, senior executive chef, Babson College, Wellesley, Mass., has a great way to test the flavor of your sausage before stuffing the casings: “Take a sample of meat and add it to a sauté pan like a burger, adding no additional seasoning,” he says. “Then, taste and adjust seasoning as needed.”
Now it’s time to pipe the meat into the casing. This can be done by hand or by machine. Experimentation might be required to figure out what’s best for your operation. “Use an even, slow, consistent pressure while piping the stuffing,” Zedower advises. “If during the piping, your casing bursts, don’t stop until you are done with the whole casing. Then go back and cut out the broken part of the casing.”
Since sausage making is definitely a big process, it makes sense to do a lot at a time and freeze some for later. At The Hotchkiss School, Webster uses a large mixer to combine seasoning and meat, working in batches with the meat and keeping everything cold.
“We transfer the mixture to refrigeration and then pull out smaller, workable batches. We try to pick a handful of days out of the month to work on sausage,” Webster says. “Then we can freeze some of it for later use.”
Housemade sausage on the menu
When the fruits of your (extra) labor are ready to incorporate into menu items, chefs agree it’s the sausage’s time to shine.
Andreas Ortner, executive chef at the University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Va., is well versed in making sausage at home, and next semester is planning a few crash courses for his kitchen staff to give it a try. He’s thinking about starting with brats.
“We could cook brats on the flat top and then create an entrée with roasted potatoes and sauerkraut, or we could serve it hot dog style on buns and top that with pulled pork,” Ortner says.
Back at Smith Senior Living, Knight says when it comes to cooking Polish sausage, don’t stress the grill marks.
“I always braise or boil them in order to keep the casing soft. Natural casing will harden up against high heat. High heat shocks the meat and overcooks the outside,” he says. “Natural casing is more important to me than grill marks.”
Zedower says menu versatility is one of the best parts of making sausage in house.
“You can go from comfort food to gourmet with a few tweaks in between,” Zedower says. “Whether it’s hot dogs or white bean cassoulet or pizza…the ideas are endless.”
Still not convinced to try your own sausage? “It’s underrated. While it’s a food that does have a high fat content, it has very few ingredients and they can be clean ingredients; every ingredient has a story and a part to play," Knight says. "The more we can do as chefs to get us excited about what we’re doing, the better.”
Sausage Glossary: Key Terms
Forcemeat: The first step in creating sausage, lunchmeats and pates, forcemeat is a combination of meat (typically pork), pork fat, seasonings and other ingredients, blended together through grinding or puréeing to form an emulsion.
Mousseline: Forcemeat with the lightest texture. It’s made with heavy cream rather than pork fat, and it’s forced through a sieve for a fine consistency. It’s used for delicate sausages to be poached.
Emulsified forcemeat: Also very smooth in texture. Used to make bologna, mortadella and frankfurters. Lean meat and fat are ground together for a cake-like texture.
Fresh sausage: Starts with a coarser blend of ground pork, fat, salt and seasonings. The meat and fat are ground together with seasonings, salt and ice water to bind the proteins.
Country-style forcemeat: Has an even coarser texture and traditionally includes pork liver. It often uses a binder like bread cubes and is used to make terrines and pates.
Source: National Pork Board
Amazing Flavors & Menu Items
Fresh garlic, onion and chives—using fresh aromatics aids in the infusion of those flavors into the meat.
Breakfast sausage: Maple syrup, sage and ginger come together for the breakfast sausage at Hotchkiss School.
Classic add-ins: Fennel seeds, marjoram, dried oregano and sage just say “sausage.”
Creative add-ins: Lemon zest, smoked paprika, roasted garlic, wine, juniper berry, coffee, harissa, fresh chilies, fresh grated nutmeg, fresh mace.
Pasta dishes: Sausage instantly adds flavor and character to otherwise plain pasta.
Sausage and peppers: Sweet bell peppers and either sweet or spicy Italian sausage is a simple way to serve and showcase housemade sausage.