Resourceful hunters, butchers, and cooks have been piecing together and preserving scraps of meat and fat as sausage for thousands of years. The process, which has roots in almost every cuisine around the world, came about as a simple and effective way to stretch valuable protein, and the transformation of those ingredients into a juicy, deeply seasoned product is pure culinary alchemy.
Fresh Sausage 101
These days, most sausage production is done by professionals who have the expertise and equipment to stuff, dry, smoke, and/or ferment the meat. But fresh bulk sausage is much simpler: It’s nothing more than salted, seasoned meat that you grind and vigorously mix, and anyone with a meat grinder or food processor, a solid grasp of the fundamentals, and a reliable formula can churn out a great batch. Once you’ve mastered the core technique, you can flavor sausage any way you like, and since it’s easy to portion into small batches and freezes well, you can keep it on hand for countless applications: breakfast patties; frittatas; ragus; and pastas such as my all-time favorite, orecchiette con rapini e salsiccia (orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage).
The fundamentals and a reliable formula are what I wanted to nail down here, and most sources suggest the same basic process: Start with a cut of pork that boasts plenty of fat; cut it into small pieces; cure the meat for several hours with a precise amount of salt and any other seasonings you want to add; briefly freeze the meat so that it’s firm but not frozen; finely grind it in a meat grinder or a food processor; and finally, knead the ground meat vigorously by hand so that it becomes cohesive and sticky.
“Sausage is like meat, perfected,” said J. Kenji López-Alt, a chef and former Cook’s Illustrated editor who cofounded Wursthall in San Mateo, California, where house-made links headline the menu. Unlike a perfect steak, which requires sourcing a cut with the ideal ratio of meat to fat and working hard to keep its juices intact when you cook it, with sausage “you build all that stuff in,” he said.
Read on, and I’ll detail how these steps lead to the juicy, snappy texture that defines great fresh sausage plus walk you through my formula that can be flavored with spice blends or used as a base for your own seasonings.
Use Meat with Plenty of Fat
Fresh sausage typically contains from 20 to 30 percent fat. That amount makes the mixture appropriately rich and succulent and carries the seasonings’ vibrant flavors to your palate.
Most pork butt naturally contains at least 20 percent fat; it’s the standard choice for fresh sausage. Look for a well-marbled roast with a defined fat cap, and don’t be tempted to trim any fat. Do, however, remove any connective tissue and sinew, which is unpleasant to eat and can clog the grinding mechanism.
Salt Precisely—and Well in Advance
Salt—the root of the word “sausage”—is arguably the most critical variable in the mix. Besides seasoning the meat, it fends off harmful microbes (useful for fermented sausages), restructures proteins in the meat so that they retain flavorful juices during cooking, and dissolves meat proteins (myosin) which act as a glue that binds up the meat and gives sausage its snap.
“Sausage made without [adequate] salt is not just underseasoned,” said López-Alt. “It won’t actually bind properly.”
There are two keys to using salt effectively. First, calculating the salinity relative to the weight of the pork. Most sources recommend using from 1.5 to 2 percent of the weight of the meat, and after comparing batches made with 1.5, 1.75, and 2 percent salt, I settled on 1.5 for my formula. With this amount, the seasoning and texture were spot-on.
Second, salting the meat for several hours, if not days, since the more time the salt has to migrate into the meat, the snappier, juicier, and more evenly seasoned the results will be. My tests confirmed this: The batch ground from meat chunks that I had salted for 8 hours (I also added the seasonings with the salt) cooked up noticeably springier and juicier than the one ground from meat I had salted moments before grinding.
Simple Sausage Math
Using a precise amount of salt—1.5 percent of the weight of the meat—is essential for properly cohesive, well-seasoned sausage, and the only way to guarantee that you’ll end up with that percentage is to weigh the trimmed pork, calculate the amount of salt you need to add, and then weigh the salt.
The calculation allows you to use any kind of salt and to easily scale the recipe. Be sure to weigh in grams for accuracy. Because most kitchen scales measure in 1-gram increments, you will likely need to round a decimal to the nearest gram to get a measurable weight of salt.
Chill Before Grinding
One of the biggest sausage production mistakes you can make is not chilling the meat mixture before you grind it. Chilling compensates for the significant heat created by the friction of the grinding process—and if you skip that step, the relatively warm fat will soften during grinding, separate (or “break”) from the protein, and then leak out when the sausage is cooked, leaving behind dry, crumbly meat.
“Heat is the enemy of fat,” said Brian Polcyn, chef and coauthor of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (2005). He said that commercial sausage production is always done under refrigeration.
When I compared sausage ground from pork chunks that I’d frozen for 45 minutes before grinding (long enough to firm up the meat but not freeze it solid) to a batch made from fridge‑cold meat, I could literally see the difference. The freezer-chilled pork broke down into defined bits of meat and solid fat, while the fat in fridge-cold pork smeared into the meat like a paste.
“That one little step, that one little extra effort,” Polcyn stressed about chilling, “will have dramatic results to the end product.”
Knead Briefly but Vigorously
Salting and grinding the meat encourages some of its sticky myosin proteins to cross‑link and bind into a strong network, but for properly cohesive, springy sausage, you need to encourage even more of that cross-linking by briefly but vigorously kneading the ground meat mixture. Conceptually, it’s a lot like kneading bread dough to develop gluten: The more you work the meat, the more myosin dissolves out of the muscle and cross‑links, and the snappier the sausage will be. All it takes is a couple minutes of working the meat by hand in a mixing bowl; you’ll know it’s done when the meat becomes tacky on its surface.
Season to Taste
Use any of these classic spice blends, or your own mixture, to season the sausage. Mix each blend in a small bowl before adding it to the meat.