Trying to get back to our roots, my household has upped its involvement in home meat-processing projects in the last few years. Fall chicken processing, dove and pheasant hunting, whitetail deer hunting, plus aspirations to process lambs and eventually pork and cattle – just like my great-grandparents did on the farm where I was raised – means each year we get some of the best meat available, but it also means we receive a surplus of more and more local and wild meats.
With that abundance, the need arises to be more creative in the ways we preserve the meat and even use it. Just as a youngster growing up on a cattle ranch tires of the same steaks night after night, there’s only so much venison chili and meatloaf a guy can eat before the taste becomes all too familiar.
So last fall, I listened as intently as ever when my father-in-law talked about a yearly occurrence among his circle of friends – one day sometime after deer season a group of six or so people gather to make their own venison snack sticks, summer sausage and more. I wanted in, and I wanted to understand the curing and sausage making that not only allowed Native Americans to preserve buffalo and deer meat so many years ago but also was the reason our family farm had that still-standing yet ancient-seeming smokehouse located right next to the root cellar.
Above all, with home meat processing thankfully accounting for a larger portion of the meat we consume, I wanted to experiment with additional uses for this valuable meat – especially the less desirable cuts – I was processing.
Home meat curing: a timeless tactic
Sausage making and curing meats is one of the oldest practices of processing food, and a logical outcome of home butchery today. The word sausage comes from the Latin root, salsus, meaning salted or preserved. It goes way back, dating to perhaps as far back as 1000 B.C. Homer mentioned a type of blood sausage in The Odyssey, made from a goat stomach filled with fat and blood, roasted over an open fire.
On the Great Plains of North America, Native Americans took to curing and drying their meats to preserve venison, elk, moose and buffalo, and they even made a sort of sausage of their own, combining spices, berries and other ingredients with dried meat to make pemmican.
Around the world, you’ll find as many types of sausages as you might find dialects, and often they are named for the city where they originated: Genoa salami from Italy; the braunschweiger, from Brunswick, Germany; bologna lunch meat from Bologna, Italy.
Types of sausage
The types of meat that go into sausage are just as diverse. Almost any type of meat from domestic or wild animals can be used: lamb, beef, pork, venison, elk, moose, or even fowl like chicken and turkey.
There are, though, three distinct types of sausage classified by how it is prepared: fresh, dry summer or hard, and cooked. At times, those three categories are broken down further, like fresh-smoked and cooked-smoked, but typically in America we think of these three groups.
Fresh sausages are made from meats that haven’t been cured, and they require thorough cooking. They also must be consumed immediately, refrigerated or kept frozen. Breakfast sausage typically falls into this category. Fresh sausage also can be stuffed into casings for bratwursts or Italian and Polish sausages.
Dry or hard sausages are cured meats that are fermented and dried. This is the category where summer sausage falls. They will keep for a long time – summer sausage even gets its name from staying preserved during summer months or with little or no refrigeration.
Cooked sausage is made with fresh meats, then fully cooked. These are the hotdogs and bolognas. Braunschweiger and liver sausage are two other examples. Cooked sausages are either eaten immediately or kept refrigerated.
From the outset, I knew I wanted to make summer sausage and snack sticks, both from venison and pork. These make great gifts for friends and family, they can be kept for months on end, and they are perfect whether from a side of beef or a whitetail doe I harvest during the winter months.
So the question became, “What do I need?” The answer, at least to get a basic setup, is a meat grinder, a sausage stuffer and a smoker.
You can get away without using a smoker; you’ll just have to bake your sausages in the oven. If you have an affinity for smoked meats in general, a smoker will likely be a part of your culinary craft kit before you ever add a grinder or stuffer.
With the grinder, I would opt for an electric version. A manual-crank grinder will work, but if you’re handling a significant amount of meat, it might be worth it to invest in electric – especially if you’re taking fresh chunks of less desirable cuts and putting them through the grinder for the first time.
Then, in my experience, it’s beneficial to have the manual-crank sausage stuffer. If you’re looking to do snack sticks in, say, 19-mm casings, a manual-crank stuffer will allow you to stuff slowly enough that your casings don’t break. It’s also no problem to stuff larger 2-1/2-inch summer sausage casings or other larger stuffing tubes. Go manual on the stuffer, electric on the grinder. Some grinders come with stuffing tubes and can work for stuffing as well, but trying to stuff the smaller casings without tearing them will be a challenge.
Some retailers, like Mad Cow Cutlery, package products together, so you can buy a grinder-stuffer-smoker package cheaper than you’d get them buying the individual parts. Think of it as an investment that will be with you through years of perfecting sausage recipes.
Start by making summer sausage
Once you have the basic pieces of equipment, it’s time to have some fun. The first time I ever attempted curing sausage, we set out to make two different yet similar products: summer sausage and 21-mm snack sticks.
The outcome was actually good enough. The product was sufficiently cured and smoked to produce a great flavor and not make anyone queasy.
However, for my first homemade sausage-making experience, I felt a little cheap. It felt a little like I wasn’t getting back to my roots at all (except for the excellent farm-fresh pork and venison we used). That first time, I bought seasoning kits, and my role was pretty much to dump in the seasonings – not having a clue what was in there – mix it with the meat, let the summer sausages sit overnight, and smoke them until done.
Afterwards, it was evident we needed to start with fresh ingredients, work from a recipe, then adapt that recipe to fresh ingredients that suited the whole family’s taste.
Having had store-bought beef summer sausage with cheddar cheese and jalapeño peppers in it, I knew that was the route I wanted to go. Comparing a buddy’s recipe to a recipe I found in The Complete Guide to Sausage Making by Monte Burch, I decided to slightly alter the recipes and give my own version of Jalapeño-Cheese Venison Summer Sausage a go.
I think it’s a winner. Give it a try for yourself here: Jalapeño-Cheese Venison Summer Sausage Recipe.
Go sausage-making crazy!
Now that you’ve successfully made fresh summer sausage, the possibilities are endless. Make homemade salami for a tasty sandwich, your own pepperoni for an on-the-grill pizza, frankfurters for your next barbecue, or good old-fashioned breakfast sausage to go along with those fresh free-range eggs.
With a little experience, one can turn livestock and game into delicious novelty meats that will keep for long periods of time and will delight friends and family who find homemade, farm-fresh sausage in their possession. And that feeling of generosity and community, if nothing else, will take you back to your roots.
Chemistry of home meat curing
The two main ingredients involved in home meat curing are salt and nitrite. Other substances are used to modify flavor, appearance, size, etc. Salt is the primary ingredient. Since meat is so highly perishable, salt preserves by dehydration, which then inhibits bacterial growth.
Nitrates and nitrites, either potassium or sodium salt, are used to develop cured meat color. They also affect flavor by acting as antioxidants — compounds that prevent the development of oxidative rancidity, which would reduce the keeping quality. Sodium nitrites also prevent the growth of Clostridium botulimum, the bacterium that causes botulism.
Nitrates and nitrites should be used in an exact and cautious manner when curing meat.
High temperature cheese
The idea seems odd, a cheese that will withstand temperatures up to 400 degrees F. So it’s only natural to wonder, What the heck is in it?!
High-temp cheese is the result of an enzymatic reaction. And it’s really not as exciting as it sounds. What happens is high-temp cheese producers will buy barrels of excess cheese, be it market-quality or the scraps and shavings from blocks of cheese or all different sorts of end cuts, then they’ll melt it down, add a couple of enzymes to it, cool it, and cut it into cubes. The new cheesy structure is temperature stable — it just won’t melt. As for what those enzymes are, high-temp cheese producers play that one very close to the vest.
Caleb Regan and his wife, Gwen, live in rural Douglas County, Kansas, where they enjoy hunting, fishing, and raising and growing as much of their own food as they can. Caleb can’t imagine a better scenario than getting to work on a rural lifestyle magazine as a profession, and then living that same lifestyle right in the heartland of America.