A really great sausage is not as common as you might think.
I have a vested interest in saying this because I’m in the sausage-making business, but it’s the truth. A lot of the sausages that I eat have dry, mealy, sometimes even crumbly textures.
The primary goal of my sausage-making classes is to teach people that these are not matters of personal taste, but objective flaws in a sausage, plain and simple. A sausage should have the well-bound fat content that makes it decadently moist in your mouth. If there is any sense of abrasion on your tongue from dry, crumbly meat, the sausage was not properly made.
I’ve identified what I believe are the three most common roots of these textural issues. The remedies are what I call The Three Pillars of Sausage-Making Wisdom.
First Pillar: Correct ratio of meat to fat.
3 to 1 lean meat to fat: of course because this is an eye-ball judgement there is some wiggle room, but this ratio is more or less dogma. Low-fat sausages are terrible.
When you cook a lean, tender piece of meat like a pork tenderloin, the juiciness is coming from the water content of the meat. However with sausages our perception of moisture comes primary from the fat that has been included in the mixture.
Second Pillar: Properly chill meat before grinding.
I can’t say for certain but I suspect that improperly chilled meat is the single biggest source of dry sausage. Starting with the correct amount of fat is great, but we need to make sure that the fat stays in the sausage and ends up inside our mouths. I like pan-drippings as much as the next guy, but what’s the point of putting the fat in the sausage in the first place if it’s going to run out of the sausage and into the grill or pan? We prevent this by thoroughly chilling, nearly freezing, the meat and fat before grinding.
Why does thoroughly chilling the meat and fat make a difference? When we talk about the “pure, raw fat” used in sausage-making, like pork fatback, it’s not literally pure fat: it is a network of connective tissue comprising numerous cells that are filled with fat.
When fat is warm it softens. Picture forcing warm, squishy pork fat through a grinder. When the blade of the grinder cuts through the fat, the fat squishes around and most of the connective tissue ruptures. When the final sausage is cooked, that fat melts and runs out of the cells, into the pan.
If the fat is very, very cold, it is very, very rigid, and when the blade cuts through it, very few of the cells are ruptured. Then even when the sausage is cooked and the fat melts, it stays inside the sausage.
It is a common misconception that the casing of the sausage holds all the fat and juice in. A properly made sausage mix can be made into a patty and fried in a pan, and there will be almost not fat in the pan!
Third Pillar: Thoroughly mix meat to develop cohesive texture.
What is a sausage? Ground meat in a casing, right? Well, that’s actually only part of the definition.
Consider the sausage patty, the kind you get on your Egg McMuffin. How is a sausage patty different than a hamburger? Yes, one is usually pork and the other beef, but the real difference is in texture, and this is a result of how the meat has been mixed. Hamburgers should have a very tender, delicate, fall-apart-as-you-bite-it texture, a result of very, very little mixing. Sausages should have a cohesive, even slightly springy texture, a result of the inclusion of salt and water and thorough mixing.
The process of mixing a sausage is surprisingly similar to kneading bread dough. When we make bread we combine flour with water. The water draws proteins from the flour and the agitation of kneading develops the protein into the infamous gluten network. When we add water and salt to ground meat, proteins are drawn from the meat, and mixing develops a network of a protein called myosin. This is what gives sausages their distinct, well-bound, cohesive texture. Now, people make burgers all kinds of ways, but an authentic hamburger should not have binders like egg or fillers like breadcrumb: these are for meatballs and meatloaf. A burger should be ground beef, salt, and pepper, and pains should be taken to avoid the development of a protein network. A good burger should be super-tender, falling away as you bite. And if you’ll permit me a weird digression, this is why Harvey’s hamburgers are not hamburgers, they are sausage patties. I love them, but they have the distinct texture of a well-mixed sausage. And this is the primary difference between a sausage patty and a hamburger.
All too often I have a “sausage” that is basically a hamburger or meatloaf stuffed into a casing. It is ground meat in a casing, but it is not a sausage.
I consider this the sausage gospel.