Sausages are high on my list of perfect comfort foods; meat, herbs and spices rolled together in a delectable sack of fatty goodness. They’re also, of course, a great centrepiece for barbecues, for lazy breakfasts in bed or for last-minute dinners.
Once the domain of the peasant farmer and made from meat scraps from the butcher’s floor, sausages are now mainstream and accordingly often subjected to mass-production methods. Many commercially-available sausages are filled with an assortment of preservatives, fillers and meat from confinement-reared animals.
But there is still hope for sausages lovers. If you put in the hard yards you can find a butcher who makes their own preservative-free sausages, or one who uses free-range meat. Then again, you can really go the distance and make your own sausages. All you’ll need are your own sausage casings (available from most butchers) and a sausage stuffer (a small machine sold at most cooking stores) or a mixer attachment that performs a similar function. The stuffer has a long nozzle that the sausage casing rolls on to, then the sausage meat comes out to stuff the sausage. If you’re buying whole cuts of meat, you may also want a meat mincer or attachment.
Once you’ve got the equipment, making sausages is fairly straightforward. That said, there’s a fair amount of grunt work in stuffing and prodding (don’t say I didn’t warn you).
The best reason to make your own sausages is that you can fill them with whatever you like, including herbs, spices, and fresh pickings from the garden. Even Kel Knight of Kath & Kim had his favourite sausage concoctions, one of which he referred to as ‘‘sticky date’’ (although I don’t like to think too long about what might have gone into those sausages).
Another great reason to make sausages is that you can avoid many of the preservatives and additives that go into commercial sausages. Many preservatives (in particular sulphites numbered E220-225 and E228) used in commercial sausages are common food allergens and many people, particularly those with asthma or salicylate sensitivity, are advised to avoid them.
Preservatives are required for minced meat or sausages that are kept in the fridge for long periods of time. Meat will naturally deteriorate in appearance and become susceptible to microbial overgrowth within a few days. But you can buy preservative-free sausages from some free-range / organic butchers; they are usually kept in the freezer section or have a short fridge life.
Many butchers sell mince meat with ‘‘no preservatives added’’. However, a glance at the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) food code reveals that no additives or preservatives are allowed into mince, so I wouldn’t bother looking for ‘‘preservative-free’’ mince.
At home, sausages can be kept in your fridge for two to three days before cooking, or longer after cooking if you preserve them, like the French do, in lard or duck fat. You can also store them in the freezer for up to one year. If you are a fan of free-range or organic produce, you will save money by making sausages yourself as you can use the cheaper cuts of meat and make them in bulk.
Sausages are the ultimate convenience food; add some tomato sugo and penne pasta and you have a traditional penne with Italian sausage, or try some mashed potato and you have good old bangers and mash.
English and Australian sausages often include fillers such as breadcrumbs or starch that work to keep the sausage plump and contained during cooking. But don’t feel you need to add fillers to your sausages; the French don’t. In fact, cookbooks published in the 1960s tell how it was against the law for fillers to be added to French sausages. Even today, a good quality sausage in France will contain only the basics – herbs, spices, salt, meat and maybe a little wine. With this in mind, here is my very basic French sausage recipe:
French-style pork and honey sausages
700g pork – preferably 3-parts pork shoulder to 1-part pork belly (this provides roughly 25 per cent fat content although this may vary depending on the pork that you purchase) or 700g pre-minced pork.
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1/2 tbsp sea salt
1/2 tbsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp fresh sage, finely chopped
1 tsp fresh oregano, finely chopped
1/8 cup red wine
1-2 sausage casings (which can be bought from most any good butchers)*
Before you start: Try to keep the ingredients as cold as possible at all times. Wash your hands before you start and make sure all equipment is well sterilised.
Start by soaking your sausage casing in some cold water. Set aside.
Cut the meat into small cubes and process through the meat mincer. Set aside and refrigerate.
Prepare the other ingredients by combining the fennel, sea salt, pepper, honey and fresh herbs in a mortar and pestle. Pound well.
Place the meat in a large mixing bowl and add in the herbs, seasonings, red wine and honey. Mix well in a food processor or mixer (with paddle setting).
When you have made a good, solid mixture, do a sample run. Prepare a fry-pan, with a little oil or duck fat and make a small patty of mince mixture. Fry for a minute or two on each side until it’s thoroughly cooked. Sample and check for seasoning and flavour.
Place your casing on the end of the sausage nozzle and tie a knot at the end. Place the meat mixture through the top opening and turn the machine on. Watch for air bubbles. Slide the mixture through and tie a knot at the end of the sausage. Then twist the sausage into sections to make smaller sausages.
Freeze, refrigerate or cook sausages immediately after they have been made. You will need to prick them with a sausage-pricker (yes, there is such a thing!) or skewer prior to cooking.
Makes 8-10 small-medium sized sausages.
*The casings sold at butchers are roughly 1–2 metres in length. My butcher (Cannings in Hawthorn, Melbourne) sells them for $4 each.