For most of our time on this farm, we haven’t raised meat animals. That is, we haven’t intentionally raised animals solely for eating; we mostly eat meat as a necessary side product of producing dairy & eggs (hunting is its own category). That changed in 2010, when we acquired a newly-weaned Berkshire pig from JJR Farm, sellers of organic pork at the farmers market and valued colleagues.
While pork chops certainly taste good, we didn’t raise a pig just for the meat on its own. We’re happy with goat and venison for most of our meat-as-a-condiment-to-vegetables cooking. From a farm management perspective, we raised a pig to convert scraps (such as whey and overgrown zucchini) into a tastier product. From a culinary perspective, we raised this pig for its fat, and for all the interesting things you can do by curing & smoking pork on its own and in combination with other meats. In short, we raised a pig so we could really delve into Ruhlman & Polcyn’s Charcuterie (thanks to Mike Odette and Show Me Eats for starting us down this path). We butchered her in mid-December, and having been playing with our new ingredients ever since.
I have two hams cured and hanging, and have made some nice sweet bacon and pancetta. But it’s sausages that were my core interest in having an on-farm source of pork fat, and these have been a rousing success so far. You need pork fat to make proper sausage; goat, deer, and most other fats just don’t work culinary and chemically for the proper bind and texture needed (I’ve tried). Plus, hog casings are the proper size for stuffing sausages; the casings we saved from a goat kid last year are just too small and delicate for effective use (more on casings soon).
Having pork fat on hand means I can turn decent to low-end cuts of goat and venison into something far better, at a 4:1 ratio of meat to fat. Clockwise from upper right: Anaheim pepper sausage, spiced “Italian” sausage, roasted garlic/fennel sausage, and real hot dogs. More on each of these coming.
First, the equipment. You can use a hand grinder and stuffer, which we have, but I don’t recommend it if you do this more than once a year. It’s slow, which has consequences for the quality of the sausage as the meat & fat must stay cold; it’s annoying and painful, as your hands quickly freeze doing all this manually with ice-cold materials; and it’s messy as your hands are always in raw meat though you keep having to wash them to grab something you forgot. We use a meat grinder attachment for our electric grain mill, and recently upgraded (through a Christmas present) to a designated 5lb-capacity sausage stuffer. This makes the process faster, cleaner, and more enjoyable. Using the right equipment makes it easier to not screw up the sausage; if you break the bind between meat and fat, you get a sausage with the mealy texture of wet cardboard (I’ve done it).
Next, the casings. You can easily order casings through online suppliers, with a choice of normal/traditional (i.e. cleaned-out hog intestines) or various forms of “natural” artificial casings made with things like collagen. We don’t like using artificial, manufactured foods (“natural” or otherwise), nor do we care to support the industrial food system. So we collected, cleaned, and prepared our own casings from this pig. I won’t diverge into detailed instructions as that’s tangential to this post, but suffice it to say it’s not nearly as smelly or nasty as you’d think. It’s not enjoyable in that it takes a while and some care to do properly, but if you can change diapers you can prepare casings (having done both, I’ll take the latter any day). On to the sausage:
Anaheim pepper sausage
For this, I used a base recipe for Mexican-ish sausage, making a fresh-ground mix of various spices similar to my personal chili powder mix (cumin, coriander, fenugreek, paprika, black pepper, turmeric, etc.) and added a good whack of our own dried peppers (jalapenos, bells, and anaheims). I ground all these partially in a mortar, then transferred them to a food processor to really shred the peppers. This makes an amazingly aromatic spice mix, which I need to use in other recipes. Then this mix, along with garlic and some other stuff, was mixed into goat meat and pork fat and ground. I didn’t stuff this recipe, as we have limited casings and figured this recipe would be just as good as patties or crumbled. So I froze it in larger logs, from which it’s easy to slice off patties as needed. This is the best sausage I’ve ever made; the dried pepper mix has an amazing aroma and flavor with much more complex flavors lingering in the background. Wow.
This was just a garden-variety recipe for American-style spiced Italian sausage, using various herbs like dried basil & parsley (on-farm) and other spices. It’s not as mind-blowing as some of the others, simply because it’s a very familiar flavor, but a really good comfort sausage. These we stuffed, figuring they’d be excellent in buns or sliced into pasta.
Roasted garlic/fennel sausage
For this I took a specific hint from Charcuterie and steam-roasted a whole pan of garlic heads (12+), then squeezed them all into one bowl as a really rich paste. What didn’t go into this and other sausages I packed into an ice cube tray, froze, and repacked into a freezer bag as an instant shot of garlic flavor to whatever soup/sauce I’m making quickly. I used the first one recently and the effect was excellent. Try this. Anyway, this was a really basic recipe using primarily the garlic paste, fennel seed, and red wine (a semi-dry from Adam Puchta). Simple, but a very nice flavor. Note that in the photo above, these look lumpier than the others; they were stuffed with a hand-crank unit rather than a higher-quality stuffer, and it shows. It’s just a lot harder to control the process, and you get a lot of air bubbles and otherwise uneven results.
Real hot dogs
Now, these I’m proud of. Charcuterie has a very specific and time-consuming recipe for getting the flavor and texture just right, which I followed closely except for leaving out the corn syrup. I used more of the roasted garlic paste (above) in place of minced garlic. The basic flavorings are mustard seed, paprika, coriander, pepper, and garlic. The meat is ground coarsely, let stand in the fridge overnight with salt to form a better texture, then partially frozen, then ground finely, then frozen again, then passed through a food processor until it’s a thoroughly uniform paste (it looks disturbingly like industrial-strength cat food at this stage). Then it’s stuffed. Ideally these should be smoked, and I intend to smoke a batch when I fire up the smoker again, but so far we’ve eaten them roasted or grilled. These tasted real, at least as far as our distant memories of decent hot dogs go (as a well-travelled baseball fan, I sampled lots of cities’ dogs once upon a time).
We served some to friends, freshly grilled over charcoal and served on fresh-made “squishy” buns with homemade mustard & relish and our dill pickles. Oh, and with a side of pork & beans (day-long baked beans with sorghum and smoked pork hock providing the flavor). Pork ‘n beans n’ hot dogs, predominately farm-sourced. Now that’s farm comfort food, with the added comfort of knowing–not wondering–exactly what went into them.
Next up, I want to try my hand at bratwurst, and have enough materials to do a few other batches as well. Perhaps it’s our German side, but we are thoroughly thrilled with the sausage supply this year. And as fits many of our culinary & farm-management choices, doing this ends up more budget-friendly after raising everything ourselves than having to buy all these ingredients retail, or worse the finished product, if we could even get an equivalent. Eating well is one of our core goals here, and real sausage making has taken that a significant step further. Give it a try sometime.
We’d already decided that we couldn’t live without goats; now we’re realizing we’re stuck with pigs as well. They’re fantastic animals to raise, as smart and entertaining and energetic as the best dog, while being really useful and cost-effective on a diversified farm like ours. I’ve done some mathematical modelling and the economic return of raising them for sale seems minimal, but we’re certainly going to keep it up for ourselves. The food and farm value is just too good.