Warning: The following may not be suitable for vegetarian viewers.
Oh, and no, it's not porn.
OK, now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get down to some meaty business.
Ah, sausages ... carnivores are especially fond of them. We like their spice-laced, succulent, savory meatiness anytime, any way: on warm, sunny days and cool, rainy evenings, solo on the end of a pier or at a ball park with thousands around, washed down with a mellow amber ale or a peppery zin.
So that much you meat-lovers already know -- but one thing you may not realize is that they're fairly easy to make. The variations range from venison to seafood, and once you know the basics, experimenting is easy. Also, they keep frozen really well for up to two months, and are always a hit at BBQs. Who can resist these homemade, custom-spiced pudgy bundles of delight? (That, fellow meat eaters, is a rhetorical question.)
You could go lean, but a little fat goes a long way for flavor, consistency, and that fantastic burst when you first bite into the sausage. For my pork sausages I like to use pork shoulder (also called pork butt), which is rich in flavor, tender, and quite affordable. Just don't eat six of them (burp).
I had a few misadventures trying to get free-range meat, even in San Francisco. A week back I bought some a vendor sold to me as free-range, but after a little online research I realized the claim was untrue -- and this was a very reputable store. I strongly advise you to get it from a reliable, knowledgeable butcher like Prather Ranch or Golden Gate Meats in the Ferry Building, or Avedano's on Cortland Avenue.
I like to use natural casing, made of pig intestine. Quit whining: if you're squeamish about natural casings, you probably won't enjoy making sausage. Most commercially-produced sausages are cased in artificial collagen casing, but natural casing gives a great snap to the sausage when you bite into it and has a delicate savoriness that complements the meat beautifully. I buy mine salt-packed from the Syracuse Casing Company. A pack of casings is called a Hank (I'm not making that up) and it will last up to several months in the fridge.
How do I do it?
Here are some great recipes from Sausagemania and About.com. If you're serious about making sausages, I recommend Bruce Aidell's book. It's thorough and it has some excellent recipes and explanations of every step of the process, including smoking.
Once you've got your recipe and ingredients ready, start by pulling the casing out of its container. Each casing will be packed in salt, and wrapped around a plastic guide. One casing makes about forty sausages.
Soak your casing about ten minutes in cold water, without removing it from its pink plastic guide. You will use that guide to slide the casing onto the meat grinder feeding tube. After soaking, rinse your casing under running water for a minute to make sure there's no salt left on it.
While the casing is soaking, grind your free-range meat with the fat according to your recipe. Don't freak out if the recipe asks you to add fat: much of it will melt away in cooking, leaving just the flavor behind. Look at that beautiful red and white streakiness .... mmmm, marbling...
When the meat has been ground with the fat, prepare your spices. I like to grind my spices fresh whenever possible with a mortar and pestle for a stronger, fresher flavor ... plus I like to kick it old school style.
Add the spices to the meat, and when they're all in...
... you mix it all together by hand, making sure the spices are evenly distributed in the meat. This part is totally sexy.
Test-cook a few small pieces of sausage so you can adjust for spices and salt. If it seems a little strong, remember that after sitting in the fridge, the flavors will round out and make nice with each other. Needless to say, you don't need to add any grease to the pan.
Once the proportions are right, let the meat rest a few minutes while you prepare the stuffing tube. I use the Kitchen Aid attachment, which works pretty well. You can also use a hand-cranked meat grinder and sausage stuffer, though it's quite a workout.
Slide the pink plastic guide onto the tube, and push the casing onto the tube. While holding the casing firm, pull out the guide, leaving the casing ready for the stuffing. If you've done it right it should look like a Sharpei puppy's tail.
Tie the end of the casing, so the meat won't fall out once it starts being extruded from the tube.
With a fork, pinch a few small holes at the end of the casing, so that any air is pushed out of the casing. Otherwise, it will inflate like a balloon.
Hold the casing onto the tube with one hand, and stuff the meat into the grinder with the other hand. As the meat fills the casing, let it slowly inch forward and keep cramming meat into the grinder.
Make sure the casing is not stuffed too tightly. The stuffed casing should feel like a balloon that has lost some air, and gives 1/4 of an inch when you squeeze it. You'll need that latitude to divide the sausages, tie them off, and prevent bursting while cooking.
Once all the meat has been extruded, tie the other end of your casing. You should have one obscenely long sausage. Make sure you give yourself about an inch or two of casing extra at the end to leave room for adjustments.
Now you're ready to tie off your sausages. Begin where you started, at the end you stuffed first. Decide the length of your sausage, and gently slide the meat forward from that spot until you've formed an hourglass shape. Then give the sausage a turn where you want to tie it off, and at that spot, use food-quality string to tie two knots about 1/4 inch apart from each other. Later, you'll cut in between these two knots to divide your sausages into single servings.
Once they're tied, your sausages should be plump, but still give a little when you poke them. But before you eat or freeze them, they need to rest about 24 hours in the refrigerator so the flavors mellow and blend. (If you must have sausage NOW, go ahead -- I know the feeling. Otherwise, you can fry up a patty of the leftover meat filling.) Make sure to cover your sausages tightly with plastic wrap or place them inside a tight container, or the surface of your sausages will dry up and break.
The next day, you can either cook your sausages or freeze them in freezer bags. Usually I put one or two in a bag, so I can defrost only what I need for pasta sauce or lunch. Be sure to thaw them for 2 hours before you cook them, or put what you need in the refrigerator the night before you use them. In a defrosting pinch, the microwave does the trick on a low setting.
If you think these babies look good, wait until you smell them hit a hot pan. Enjoy!