Grilling: Merguez (Or How to Make Juicy Homemade Sausage)
I've posted a lot of sausage recipes over the years, but looking back at all those fine links, I realized that I've never actually explained why those ground, spiced, and stuffed meat creations actually work. So I thought this was as good a time as any to take a slightly deeper look into the world of sausage making, through the lens of the latest tasty link to come out of my kitchen—merguez, a North African lamb sausage.
I should probably start by re-titling this post "Everything I Learned about Making Sausage, I Learned from Charcuterie. The tome is devoted to the art of sausage making and meat curing, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. And while I was making sausage before purchasing this book, they weren't actually good until after I bought it, read and reread it, and then made a crap load of sausage. So much of what will follow is what I've learned from that cookbook, backed up by years of experience.
A Matter of Fat
If there's one thing that makes a sausage great, it's fat. "Low-fat" and "sausage" are two things you never want to see together—for a proper juicy link, you'll need at least 30% of it to be fat. This leads me to always choose the fattier cuts for sausage making, like pork shoulder, brisket, chicken thighs, and, in the case of this merguez, lamb shoulder. Even then, most of these cuts won't come in at the 30% fat mark. They require some additional help, and one great place to find it is in pork fatback.
Fatback are slabs of pure pork fat cut from the back of the pig, right beneath the skin (most fatback comes with the skin attached and will have to be trimmed off). This stuff it pretty much white gold and is often my fat of choice because of its wide availability and neutral flavor. For each three to four pounds of meat, I tend to add about one pound of fatback to achieve the right ratio of meat to fat.
The Spice of Life
Meat and fat only go so far, though. Part of what makes sausage making so exciting is the endless possibilities of how to flavor your links. I already have seven sausage recipes up here, and that's not even the tip of the iceberg.
While variations are only limited to your imagination, I have developed a distinct preference for seasoning the meat prior to grinding. My sausages were coming out just fine when adding the seasoning after processing, but when I started to toss the cubed meat in the spice mixtures before sending it through the grinder, I felt like the links were more evenly and thoroughly seasoned throughout.
This merguez happened to be one of my favorite sausage seasonings so far, combining spicy Moroccan harissa with earthy cumin and coriander, along with some fennel and paprika. The seasoning mixture was pungent with a strong spice, allowing it to stand up against the heavy flavor of the lamb shoulder.
My first few attempts at sausage making ended sadly with links that had a crumbly and broken texture. I was seemingly doing everything right, and after so much labor I was, to say the least, dismayed by my failures. But it turned out there was one important point I was missing that made all the difference—keeping the sausage ice cold.
The fat and protein of sausage must stay bound together to result in a final juicy link with a smooth texture. Heat will break this bond. Most of the heat generated during the sausage making process happens while grinding, which is why I always start with a grinder that has been placed in the freezer for at least 30 minutes prior to use, and grind the meat into a bowl set in ice water. As soon as I started taking these precautions—along with storing the meat in the refrigerator when not it use—all issues with crumbly links ceased.
Since I'm not a big time sausage maker, I've found the KitchenAid meat grinder attachment to serve my needs fine for eight years running. It can grind five pounds of sausage pretty quickly, and adding on the large food tray provides a helpful touch of more space for meat waiting to travel down the feed tube. For almost all sausages I've made, a single pass through the small cutting die seems to suffice.
You Spin Me Right Round
Another tip that's seemingly simple, but does a lot to making sausage great, is giving it a good mix after being ground. The meat needs to be worked a bit to bind together, otherwise this is another area that can result in a loose texture. A minute or two in a standing mixture is all that's required to develop the protein needed to create a uniform mixture, further ensuring that both the fat and seasonings are evenly distributed throughout.
The next logical step would be stuffing your casings, but once the meat has been encased, fixing any errors would be next to impossible. That makes it pretty critical to cook up a small test patty—while keeping the rest of the sausage cold in the fridge—to make sure the sausage is well-seasoned. Once you confirm flavor is where you want it, only then is it time to proceed.
All my sausage recipes can be formed into patties and grilled or griddled as is, but honestly—what's sausage making without mastering the art of stuffing meat into casings? Unfortunately, this tends to be the single most feared part of sausage prep. After years of avoiding it myself, I eventually learned that hardship and anxiety can be easily avoided, so long as you have the right tools for the job and a little practice under your belt.
While I'll sing the praises of my KitchenAid meat grinder any day, their sausage stuffer is, in my humble opinion, pure crap. Expletives flew in my kitchen as I struggled with getting the sausage to flow quickly and evenly into the casings, only have them tear as gravity took the sausage from the high height of the stuffer down to the table.
If you're going to be stuffing sausage, it's worth every penny to invest is a real sausage stuffer. I currently use the LEM 5-pound vertical stuffer, a hand cranked device that gets meat into casings so easily that all fears of stuffing dissipated after a single use. A good stuffer outputs a steady stream of sausage at a good pace with minimal air pockets, resulting in nothing but properly stuffed casings that can then easily be pinched and tied into links.
The choice of casing will also play a big role in overall sausage success. In my early years, I tried out synthetic collagen casings because, at the time, working with animal intestines did not sound like fun. This was another mistake I've long since overcome. While it was nice to have those collagen casing there were always ready to go and easy to feed onto the horn, they tore constantly and only became another point of frustration.
Once switching to natural hog casings, I've had few issues with tearing, plus they add a snappy bite that synthetic casings can't match. Hog casings seem to be pretty available at butchers shops if you just ask, or you can find them easily online. To prep them, soak the salted casings in warm water for at least 30 minutes, then hold them open in a stream of running water to flush out the insides. Any unused casings at the end can be re-salted and stored in the fridge for about a year.
Hog casings are perfect for most sausages, but in the case of merguez I needed a smaller diameter casing, requiring me to turn to lamb. In contrast to the hog casings, these smelled faintly like, well, shit. They were also much thinner, and proved to be a bit of challenge to get on the horn and keep from tearing. Still, after working through about half the sausage with some issues, I got the hang of the lamb casing and finished the second half with comparative ease.
Fat and Fire
At this point, a lot of thought and work has gone into the sausage, so it'd be a shame if improper grilling technique made it all for naught. For the juiciest, tastiest links, it's best to slow cook them over indirect heat to 150°F, then brown the outside over direct heat. Kenji has a fantastic post all about this with the scientific proof to support it, so no need for me to go deeper into that.
I will say that I'm guilty of not using the preferred method most of the time; often, I simply grill my links over a medium-high fire. For the merguez, I think this method is fine, since their smaller size means they cook through faster than larger links. The outside gets brown and crisp around the same time that the inside reaches the ideal temperature of 155°F.
I did suffer the occasional burst and flare up as the fat exploded from the casing, but it was relatively rare. Most of the links grilled up quite well and I was rewarded with an incredible sausage that was moist and tender, with the distinct flavor of lamb against an earthy spice blend that packed a nice bit of heat.
So there you have it. I set out to give a little insight into why I develop my sausage recipes the way I do, and even transcribing what is probably the bare minimum of proper instruction, this still turned into quite the hefty post. Don't let that scare you though, it all really just boils down to a small list of important points—use lots of fat, season well, keep it cold, and grill properly—that will put you on the road to incredible homemade sausage, which can be as thrilling to make as they are to eat.
About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment each Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.