The Lost Art of Wild Game Sausage
May 16, 2016
Tubed meat gets a bad rap. Consider the much-maligned hot dog and its vile reputation as the endgame for pig lips and ani. The truth is, the craft of turning ground meat into a sublime sausage is high art, even when it comes to the lowly wiener. And while it may be art, making sausage is not difficult.
With a little equipment and some basic knowledge, hunters can turn deer, elk, and other venison into something so much more than the usual steaks and burgers.
First, let's tackle the misconception that sausage is made from suspect ingredients. Like any worthwhile endeavor, you get out what you put in — or put more simply: quality in equals quality out.
While sausage is a great use for butcher scraps and tougher cuts like shoulders and the neck, it pays dividends to trim judiciously, removing any bloodshot material, stringy sinew, or otherwise poor or damaged meat. As for the deer's intake and output ports? Best leave them for the dogs.
Another ingredient that can't be skimped on is some type of fat, and that goes double for sausages made from otherwise lean game meat. We all know fat adds flavor, but it's also essential for creating the proper texture.
The No. 1 complaint when it comes to sausage made from deer is that it is often too dry, and biting into a game sausage without enough fat added will feel a lot like getting a mouthful of sand. To prevent that, plan on adding as much as 30 percent fat, which can come in the form of ground pork fat, beef tallow, or even bacon.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different types of sausages from around the world, but they all fall into one of three categories: fresh (think loose breakfast sausage or links of Italian sausage), smoked, or dry-cured (generally in the form of hard salami).
The borders between these types are often blurred, especially the line between smoked and cured, but there are a couple rules. Fresh sausage, either cased or loose, is left uncooked until it comes time to prepare it for the table. Dried sausages are always made with some type of curing agent, generally a variation of sodium nitrate, to prevent bacteria growth during the weeks (or months or years) it takes them to cure.
There is a singular rule covering all types of sausages, and that's keeping everything cold. Abundant fat and the primary bind (more on this later) are essential to creating the perfect sausage, and each of these elements is threatened when the meat temperature gets too warm. The slightest amount of heat during the sausage-making process will cause the proteins and fats to separate.
This is called breaking, and it results in a sausage that will dry out when cooked or cured. To prevent it, place the meat — along with the grinder throat, auger, and blade — in the freezer for 30 minutes before grinding. It also helps to grind the meat into a bowl placed inside another bowl or tub filled with ice.
"The No. 1 complaint when it comes to sausage made from deer is that it is often too dry, and biting into a game sausage without enough fat added will feel a lot like getting a mouthful of sand. To prevent that, plan on adding as much as 30 percent fat, which can come in the form of ground pork fat, beef tallow, or even bacon."
Once the meat and fat are ground and the seasonings added, it's time to mix everything together. This seems like a simple step, but it's actually one of the most important — right up there with keeping your ingredients cold.
Mixing is more than just incorporating the ingredients; it also creates what is called the primary bind, a complex network of proteins that holds the meat together during the cooking and curing process. You'll know you've achieved a primary bind when the sausage mix becomes sticky to the touch and has a shaggy appearance.
While some sausage can be left loose, it's when the meat is stuffed into a casing that it transcends mere burgers. There are a number of casing types available, but natural — those made from (cleaned and sterilized) animal intestines — are by far superior, with that distinctive snap they make when you bite into them. The style of casing will also depend on the sausage.
Whichever you choose, be sure to prep them according to their directions, including soaking them in warm water for at least 30 minutes. Also, keep everything wet — the stuffer tube, the counter, your hands — to ease the stuffing process and reduce the chance of blowouts. Getting it just right takes some skill, but with practice you'll be creating perfectly stuffed links in no time.
These steps may seem basic, and to some extent, they are. There's a bit more to it, such as the blend of seasonings and salt, but at its core, sausage making is simple, even if what comes out is not. Like any type of cooking, creating sausage is partly alchemy, where meat, fat, and flavor all come together to create something so much greater than the sum of its parts.