It’s high school basketball tournament week here in Maine, meaning everyone is out of school and all eyes are on the arena in Bangor. That also means it’s time for some sports food, and this time of year I can’t think of anything better than some hot sausage and cold beer.
I hesitate to call this sausage a bratwurst, because it isn’t in any way, but it is fantastically delicious and does everything a brat does (but better), soooo…. let’s go sport sausage!
First up: grind your meat. For this, we’re using 100% chicken, preferably butchered yourself from a whole bird. If not, that’s fine, just grab some boneless thighs so long as the skin is still on (the skin is important for the fat content, and not for some Buffalo Bill proclivity).
Alright, let’s talk grinder protocol. I can’t tell you how many videos I’ve seen and instructions I’ve read that demand the meat be cut into chunks or cubes before grinding, and it’s not only wrong, it’s actively bad advice. You want STRIPS, not chunks.
Think of it this way: in Temple of Doom, if that bad guy in the the mines had a scarf made of “chunks” he never would have been sucked into the rock smoosher. Here, you want your chicken to go through the grinder, so make it long strips that will get grabbed by the machinery:
Get these in the freezer for half an hour, but no more than that or they’ll become impossible to work with. Get your grinder set up, and let fly:
From here, you need to measure your chicken grind weight to know how much salt to use. For this sausage, you want about 1.5% salt by weight of the meat alone (make sure you’re not weighing the bowl as well). In our case, the chicken is about 550 grams, so we’re looking at eight (8) to ten (10) grams of salt.
Now, spices. For this sport sausage, we’re going to use whole yellow mustard seed, whole fennel seed, whole black pepper, and red chili flake, all cracked and ground in a mortar and pestle. Yes, you can absolutely use a spice grinder for this if you want, but I like the texture of the cracked and hand-ground spices in the final sausage. How much of each spice is totally up to you, and dependent on how much sausage you’re working with. The salt is really the only set-ratio ingredient. We have a way to test for seasoning coming up, so don’t panic.
I will point out that this recipe can become a classic breakfast sausage by using only sage and black pepper. It’s the best breakfast sausage you’ll ever eat, and anyone who doesn’t know it’s chicken will ask where you got the ground pork. It really is that good.
Anyway, get the spices into the meat with the salt, and mix the daylights out of it. Classically, they’d say use your hands so the heat warms the fat to help infuse the farce (farce is the name for the sausage mixture, and then short, goofy Shakespearean plays). I use the stand mixer with the paddle attachment because I’m usually doing something else at the same time, but you’re looking for a sort of smeared texture like this:
Now, grab a little and cook it to taste for seasoning. You’re primarily looking for salt content here, and yes, it’s going to be delicious, but resist the urge to just cook the rest of it now and eat it with a sunny egg and some tortilla chips. DON’T DO IT. Add more salt if you need, but you probably won’t. Otherwise, cover with plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge overnight to hit it’s sausage potential.
The next day: congratulations, you have sausage. You can make this into patties if you want or brown it up in a crumble to put on pizza, or freeze it for the future. But, to really get that full sport-sausage experience, we need to stuff.
I have used natural casings before, and I actually much prefer them to the alternative. I think they produce a much better end-product, and fit with my ethos of using up as much of an animal as possible. However, natural casings are a pain to work with and may (sadly) turn some folks off, which puts a real damper on a BBQ when you’re not expecting it.
The alternative are synthetic collagen casings, seen above. They last forever in the cupboard, are ready at a moment’s notice, are cheap, and overall are easy to work with. The big downsides, in my experience, are that: because they’re dry, they can be brittle when stuffing and may crack or tear (rare, but it happens); and, more importantly, they need some dry heat to become edible. If you’re planning on simply poaching your sausages, or cooking them in a wet medium (like a tomato sauce or something), the collagen just gets chewy and may need to be removed before service. On a hot skillet, or on the grill, you’re good to go.
So, the actual stuffing process. My stand mixer meat-grinder attachment came with a sausage-stuffer component, and I’m betting if you ground your own meat you probably have one as well. If you’re planning on getting into this in the future, just make sure whatever grinder you’re considering has one. (Really, I think all grinders come with the attachment. I bought a big, aluminum-block hand-crank model after I shot a boar in the Everglades, and even that had a sausage stuffer).
As to the process, it’s pretty simple and there (again) are a lot of videos out there showing the whole thing, but slide the casings onto the nozzle, and start running the sausage through the machinery. As it fills the casing, just keep things moving and let the machine do the work until you have one big sausage:
From here, tie one end and start twisting into links. If there are air pockets, prick with a thumb tack:
Tie off the other end, and trim up the extra casing. Move these to a cookie sheet and let them sit in the fridge to dry out the casing a bit and set the twists.
So cooking… as I mentioned, these casings need an application of high, dry heat at some point, whether that’s a broiler or a skillet or a charcoal grill. But, before we get there, let’s talk about adding even more flavor. With onions. And beer.
I like to get a big yellow onion, separate the core from the outer rings, dice the former for fresh chopped onion, and slice the latter for simmering with the beer:
Next, onions go in the bath with some beer. Personally, I like cheap American lager for this, but it’s also a great way to use up the odd-and-ends beer your clueless friends bring to a BBQ before they drink the good stuff that you bought:
Bring this to a simmer, but not a full boil. We’re going low-temp here, but once you’re there, add the sausages:
I snipped the twists ahead of this, which I find cuts down on the sausages bursting through the casing. That said, as you’ll see it’s not a sure-fire solution. But hey, it’s sausage you made yourself from chicken and salt, so who cares if it’s not perfect? Simmer until your probe thermometer clears 165F internal on these guys:
So, now for the high, dry heat. At this point, we’re fully cooked, but I want to get a crisp on that casing. We’re going into ol’ faithful over medium:
So, yes, you can see here my twists didn’t hold, but this is why I snipped them before I cooked them. Instead of a catastrophic failure, we just have a little… peaking. Keep an eye on them so they don’t burn or stick, and let them get some color:
You can see a couple additional splits, but nothing we can’t handle. We’re about to eat them after all. From here, move to a bun of your choice (might I suggest a beer-cheese bun?), top with some of the beer-steeped onions if you want (and I do want), or some fresh onion (which I also want), then condiments of choice. For these, I really think it’s hard to go wrong with just mustard, but you’re an adult. Right?