6 Tips from Butcher Ryan Farr on the Fine Art and Science of Making a Good Sausage at Home

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Ryan Farr is the owner of 4505 Meats, a well-loved butcher shop in San Francisco’s Mission district. In the past two weeks he’s both opened a new restaurant, 4505 Burgers and BBQ, and released a new cookbook, Sausage Making: The Definitive Guide with Recipes. Clearly, he is a busy guy but he's the one to tap when it comes to solid advice on the essentials of sausage making!

Read on for Ryan’s thoughts on the art and science of making sausage at home. (Hint: There’s some math involved!)

Who doesn’t love a good sausage? They're so meaty and juicy and full of flavor. From the everyday hot dog to the refined boudin blanc to the explosion of deliciousness found in a good chorizo or Sai Oua, the list of possibilities is thankfully very long.

Why Sausage is Important

Variations on the sausage can be found in all major meat-eating food cultures. Why? Well, besides being delicious, sausages help us to use the whole animal by using up the leftover scraps of meat after the bigger cuts are taken. And this is where Ryan comes in. Since his butcher shop uses whole animals (as opposed to semi-broken down quarters that most butcher shops use these days), sausage making was a natural and important part of his business from day one.

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Ryan Farr's 6 Tips for Making Sausage at Home

Ryan just released a 300-page book on sausage making, so obviously he has a lot to say on the subject. Here are a few of his most essential hints to help you create and enjoy delicious sausage at home.

1. Begin with texture.

Sausage is a pretty simple idea — it’s just meat in a tube — but it’s often a complex endeavor to do simple things well, to get them right. To understand the basics, begin with thinking about the sausage in terms of texture. There’s smooth, firm, coarse, and soft as well combination textures like what you see in ballotines and terrines. Each texture has a master ratio that helps to create the texture, so all good sausage begins with math.

All these textures are achievable with the same four ingredients. In every sausage you have to have meat, fat, a little liquid and salt. (Of course, you’ll need a casing if you want to go that tube shaped route but you can also just make patties.) These four ingredients in different ratios will change the texture. A breakfast sausage, for example, is going to be a coarse ground sausage so you’ll need a fair amount of meat, a large amount of fat, a little bit of liquid, a little bit of salt — it’s not an emulsified sausage. But something like a Polish sausage has a firm texture. It will have more water and you’ll mix it a little bit more, so its texture is going to be more emulsified and firmer.

An example of a smooth sausage is a hotdog. Something that is smooth is going to have more fat in it. If you have more fat, you’ll need more water. If you have more water, you need to have a leaner meat, a leaner muscle.

It really comes down to your formula, your recipe. Each texture has a master ratio to it, so no matter how much meat you have, you can make sausage. Adding the aromatics is what makes them unique — once you have the ratio and texture down, you can add anything into it to make it the kind of sausage you want.

Sausage Making is laid out with a master recipe/ratio for each texture and then within each texture you can make any sausage, depending on what kind of meat you use and aromatics you add. The book is crafted in such a way that both the home cook and a professional can use it. A professional might be more apt to be using scraps from a whole animal, while a home cook may be more apt to head out and buy the proper amount of meat.

2. Cut the meat small and keep it cold.

Once you have the meat and fat, cut it into pieces that are smaller than your grinder’s opening because you do not want to stuff the meat down into the grinder. If you stuff it, you’re breaking the cells of the meat which you really don’t want to do. It also pushes the meat into the auger which causes more friction and the meat starts to heat up. Having small pieces is key: you want to be able to drop in the pieces of meat and fat into the grinder and see them get caught in the auger.

Temperature is key, too. We do something we call open freezing which is spreading the meat on a plate or a sheet pan and putting it right into the freezer, uncovered. Once the edges start to get hard and frozen (not frozen all the way though, just the edges) it’s cold enough. It’s about 32° or so and starting to freeze. If your freezer is like mine at home and packed full of kids' food, coffee beans and ice cream, then you can just cube meat and fat the night before, spread it out on the trays, and chill it in the refrigerator overnight. It’s key to cut it up into pieces first! The ideal temperature for working with sausage is around 40°F. The highest it should go is 45°F but really, we try to take it no higher than 40°F or below.

The colder temperatures preserve the cell structure. Solid cell structure is very important because that’s where you’re going to suspend the fat and water and that’s what’s going to give you a nice juicy sausage. If you have warm meat and a dull blade, the cells won’t hold the fat and water, and when you cut into it it’s going to grease all over the plate and be dry and crumbly in your mouth. Not good.

3. But don't freeze the grinder.

You don’t want to put the grinder in the freezer. We’ve all seen that Christmas movie where the kid puts his tongue on the frozen poll, right? The meat will do the same thing and get stuck on the grinder. But you do want it to be cold, so put it in the refrigerator or into a bowl with some ice for an hour or so.

4. Have the right equipment.

A sharp grinder is the most important thing. Referring back to the cold meat, if you don’t have cold meat and a sharper the grinder, then you will smash the cell structure of the meat. A lot of folks have KitchenAid sausage grinding attachments which can get replaceable blades and dies for just a few dollars. You want to be sure they’re super sharp.

I recommend the KitchenAid over those tabletop hand models for grinding meat but I do not recommend them for stuffing. I have a stuffer I bought online for $100 which I know might seem like a lot of money but if you’re going to make sausage every couple of months or so, it’s totally worth it. If you’re a hunter, say, or someone who has access to whole animals, you'll probably be doing a lot of sausage.

It’s a vertical stuffer, so you just load the sausage in the top of the canister, crank the handle down and it pushes the meat mixture out and into the casing. There’s no auger to overheat and you have better control because you’re cranking it down with one hand and handling the casing with the other. So you know how to regulate it, how fast or how slow it needs to go, as opposed to it just shooting out of the electric stuffer and you’re scrambling to catch it. You’re able to control the pressure and that’s important because you don’t want to overstuff and burst a casing.

5. Mix by hand and take your time.

It’s hard to explain this. I usually like to demonstrate it with the meat right in front of me. For small batches, 3 or 5 or even 10 pounds of meat, I like to mix by hand. A machine mixer can heat up too much but hands have just enough heat to slightly warm the mixture which helps to emulsify it. Your (very clean) hands are just warm enough to help bring the meat and fat and liquid together.

When you put all your ingredients into a bowl (the ground meat and fat, the salt, the aromatics, the liquid) you can see that they’re all separate and in layers. Start mixing and all of sudden you can see that it’s gone from four separate ingredients to one sticky, tacky ingredient. The mixture should be sticking to the bowl. You can also test this by making a little patty in your palm and holding it upside down over the bowl. If it doesn’t fall down, then the mixture is tacky enough.

At this point you should cook a small patty to taste for seasonings. We like to use a nonstick pan over very low heat. It takes about 5 or 10 minutes. You don’t want to caramelize it because when you caramelize it, you add a whole other range of flavors and we want to taste the sausage in its truest form at this point. So cook it slowly. Now you are ready to stuff or form it into patties.

6. Cook it right!

You’ve work so hard to make your sausage, to do the math, to grind it right, so be sure that you cook it right! No matter if you poach it, smoke it, grill it or pan fry it, you want to go slow and low. If you cook a sausage fast, all the juices are going to boil which will cause the meat to expand and push out and burst the skin, especially on the grill. For the grill, I always do it on the back, away from direct heat and cook it slow to retain all the juices. The casing will have a better texture, too, you’ll get more of a snap. Never cut a sausage when it’s cooking. Low and slow!

Thank you, Ryan!

More from Ryan Farr

  • For more information on Ryan and his meat-alicious businesses in San Francisco, visit his website 4505 Meats.
  • And be sure to check out his new book Sausage Making: The Definitive Guide with Recipes available from your local bookseller or on Amazon.

(Image credits: Ed Anderson; Chronicle Books)

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