Quality ingredients and finely tuned techniques bring house-made sausage to the center of the plate.
As the food-truck and fast-casual scenes heat up around sausage, full-service restaurant chefs have stepped up their game by expanding their own homemade versions of sausage or by sourcing from local and craft producers.
They’re also paying more attention to the quality of the meat and other ingredients going into the sausage, essentially extending the farm-to-table philosophy to encased meats. Many draw inspiration from European, Italian, and American food heritage, as well as from their own specific regions for developing distinctive flavors.
Others have branched out beyond traditional pork and beef to explore seafood and game variations. Rabbit, venison, and chicken have become popular alternatives, and bacon is on the rise as well.
Albeit most people picture traditional breakfast sausages or German-style bratwurst when it comes to pork sausage, but bacon never fails.
Chef Lance Avery, a culinary consultant and founder of Big Fork Brands specializing in craft sausages for restaurants, blends bacon with pasture-raised pork and then incorporates roasted, diced, and partially dehydrated portobellos for an extra earthy flavor and a juicy texture without the troublesome moisture that most mushrooms bring.
Like bacon, beer has also become a go-to flavor enhancer for sausage—and when done correctly, it’s a winner.
House-made sausages are trending hot, not only because they enhance the menu, but also because making sausage saves dollars. “It’s a great way to use leftovers; we save all of our trim from food and even vegetables and use it in sausage,” says Deb Paquette, chef/owner of Etch in Nashville, Tennessee.
She can also increase the price for her entrée salad that features two homemade sausage types with smoked beans, spicy Sriracha vinaigrette, pickled caraway seeds, and a smear of yellow beet-Dijon sauce on the plate.
“Making sausage in the restaurant gives chefs a way to be artistic and creative without extra food costs,” Chef Paquette says. “And it’s fun for our guests, too. We recently cut up a fennel pork sausage into tiny bites and topped it with hummus, basil micro greens, and a drizzle of olive oil for a party—both the men and women loved it.”
Jared Wentworth, chef/owner of restaurants Longman & Eagle and the Promontory, both in Chicago, defines sausage in two categories: emulsified (hot dogs), which use a finer grind and binding agents like bread, egg whites, or liquid, and the traditional or coarse sausage (breakfast, bratwurst). Sausages can be served fresh or cured, using salt or nitrates, dry-aged, or fermented.
There are also different types of casings, including natural ones made from pork intestines, sheep, or lamb for smaller sausages and beef bung for larger sausages. Synthetic casings are made from collagen or plastics. These are used less frequently, but some chefs work with them to create vegetarian and vegan sausages.
Ted Prater, chef/owner of Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden in Austin, Texas, which serves 30 types of homemade sausages, says he soaks and rinses his casings twice to remove any traces of salt from dry-packing.
While it sounds complex, Chef Paquette tells even the most intimidated chef that sausage making is not as hard as it looks. “There are some techniques, but once you get those down it’s like playing in a giant playground,” she says.
Enter the Playground
While using quality meat and ingredients is an important first step in sausage making, technique is also key.
Cold, cold, cold: “Everything from the ingredients to the equipment must remain as cold as possible,” says Chris Mattera, owner of Sausage Craft, a specialty sausage producer that primarily serves restaurants on the East Coast, and affectionately known as the “Sausage Guy.”
“We work at 37 degrees in a giant refrigerator,” he says. Most restaurants don’t have this kind of space so an alternative is to frequently refrigerate the equipment parts and sausage mixture between stages of preparation.
“In a pinch, we’ll add dry ice to the mix, which will bring the temperature way down and which evaporates into gas without any taste,” Mattera explains.
Steps are also taken to prep the meat before the grind even begins. At his 2-year-old restaurant, which claims to have Austin’s largest selection of sausage, Chef Prater marinates the meat for 24 hours so, as he explains, the “seasoning and meat get to know each other.” He then cuts it into 2-ounce portions so it will grind evenly.
The fat-to-meat ratio is another critical decision point, and determining that ratio depends largely on a personal preference. Prater favors juicier sausages, so he’ll go for a higher fat ratio of 60–70 percent lean meat to 30–40 percent fat.
A leaner sausage might have a ratio of 75–80 percent meat, 20–25 percent fat. Mattera prefers a leaner ratio when making a coarsely ground sausage, so “you don’t end up with large pieces of fat in your mouth when you take a bite.”
After grinding, both Chef Prater and Mattera put the meat back in the cooler to make sure it’s cold—38 degrees or below—or the fat can break down and create a gummy mess.
Mixing, Flavoring, and Serving
When mixing sausage, slow and steady is the rule. Working with a 25-pound batch, Chef Prater sets his industrial mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, to speed setting 1 and mixes for two minutes. “If you over-mix the sausage, it will become a hockey puck,” he says. “But if you under-mix it, you’ll end up with sausage that crumbles and falls apart on the grill.”
A well-mixed batch will feel slightly sticky to the touch and resemble one large piece of meat, or it will be like a ball of bread dough and jiggle when smacked, Mattera explains.
After mixing, both Mattera and Chef Prater cool the sausage before stuffing it. Even then, they refrigerate the parts of the stuffer to ensure the sausage mixture stays cold.
Incorporating beer or other liquids into the homemade sausage adds another signature element. Many chefs have sought out Mattera’s beer-based sausages because they pair well with craft beers. The Saturday Night pork sausage, made with garlic Sriracha and a malty-sweet Vienna lager ale, remains the favorite. But his newest fresh pork sausage, with habanero peppers, chives, garlic, and a hoppy IPA from Blue Mountain Brewery in Virginia is also a hit.
“You want to incorporate the beer after the initial mix and add it slowly so it doesn’t interfere with the protein binding that’s going on,” Mattera says. “We don’t add a ton of beer, either, only a little for flavoring. Sometimes we vacuum-pack the beer and freeze it until it gets slushy before incorporating it.”
Clearly the process is both science and art, but once the sausage is made, the cooking fun can begin. Sausage can be grilled, pan-fried, sautéed, baked, or smoked.
“When cooking sausage, we always try to go low and slow,” says Chef Prater. “If the heat is too high, the sausage can burst and lose all of its juice.”
Once prepared, it’s also easy to have fun with toppings—whether serving the sausage with or without a bun. Banger’s serves a Cajun boudin with red beans and rice and a side of crackers. A currywurst comes topped with fries and a roasted garlic aioli. The options are endless.
“It’s easy to serve sausage as a center-of-the-plate item without having to do too much to it,” says Mattera. “You can serve a really great sausage over stone-ground grits with sautéed greens, and charge a higher price for this heartier dish.”