SAUSAGE OF ITALIAN DESCENT
We’re going to take a brief look at Italian sausage, what it means in Italy and what we mean by that name in the United States. Being brief is a challenge because we are looking at an item that was specifically mentioned over two thousand years ago starting with the term ‘luganega’, which became the closest thing to a generic term for sausage in Italy. Back then, they literally described a food from northern Italy that has the classic flavors we associate with Italian sausage; salt, chili pepper, fennel, anise and black pepper.
We here in the US are such a mix of heritages that we have a product identified as Italian sausage, but it is also stacked up against our melting pot culture. From brats to chorizo to bangers, we have a very broad horizon of meats called sausage as a result of creating this cultural mélange. Then we added our own groups, in particular breakfast sausages with maple flavors and local style.
Local style is really what you learn when you explore sausage in general and specifically in Italy. Go around their boot, and you will see every ingredient imaginable put into a casing with chopped pork and beef. Salsiccia matta, ‘crazy sausage’ is the penultimate mash up of every meat waste and offal, ground, seasoned, combined and cased. And regionalism goes further to include wine, fruits, vegetables, rice, any four legged meat available, and then twisting them into links, horseshoe shapes and spirals.
Defined by ingredients
We are using the American branding of sausage that is flavored in the general style of sausages from Italy.
The predominant flavor in ‘mild’ Italian sausages is fennel, or actual anise, a licorice like flavor with a little more earthiness. This really means we are emulating the style of sausages in Northern Italy, known for milder flavors with a noticeable presence of both fennel and garlic. It will also typically have a small amount of red pepper flakes to open up the flavors.
The ‘hot’ designation means a higher content of the pepper flakes, or the addition of cayenne, giving you that spicier flavor that is more common in the southern regions of Italy.
‘Sweet’ is pretty straightforward, little bit of sugar, milder flavors around that, sometimes some mild herbs, typically a lot of basil and such, to round it out.
As for meats, pork shoulders and butt cuts are very good for sausage making, and you can augment the fat content with pork belly or salt pork. Typically your target fat content is 25-30%. Cube the meat and toss it with all of your seasonings then feed it through the grinder, as fine or coarse as you prefer. You can also do this with a knife if you are not casing the sausage. And voilà; you have sausage.
The latter is time consuming, and you will end up with more of a rustic type of sausage, which will work for a lot of ways to use it.
Making Sausage Links
Unless you have a fair amount of experience, we are going to focus on a hot smoke process. Using a cold smoke process also requires a ‘fermenting’ process for the meat, which if done incorrectly poses major health risks.
Preparation for the smoking process has a couple of steps. You will need to have a meat grinder of some sort, and most will also include the tube apparatus for filling the casings. Pig intestine will give you the typical size for bigger links. There are a variety of ways to prep the casing ranging from a warm water rinse to a vinegar bath, and some folks like to salt and pepper the casing itself.
Lots of Italian sausages are made in a long continuous spiral, or you can pick your size and separate each link with three quick twists of the casing. Be patient when filling them, let the air bleed back into the grinder, and any remaining bubbles can be popped with a needle before drying (this takes some practice). You’ll get the best results letting the links sit overnight in the fridge. At a minimum dry them off before the smoking process.
First off you need separation of at least two inches between the links for air circulation. This is why you so often see sausages being hung from a rack. If your system accommodates that, string them up. If not use your grill, use a mesh style mat if you want to avoid striping. You can turn the sausages to minimize the marking, but ideally you want to keep the system sealed. For more on smoking tips, see our tutorial.
You will get more intense flavor if you cold smoke (under 100°F) for a couple hours then step your heat up. Your target goal is an internal temperature of 165°F, and a remote sensing thermometer is highly recommended. You can step the temp right up to 250°F and hold it there until the internal temperature is reached. Or you can go to 140°F for another two hours then gradually bring the smoker temperature up to 175°F holding that until the internal temperature is reached.
Serving ‘Em Up
Serve them up plump and juicy right away! Maybe on top of pasta, tossed in Alfredo sauce, or in olive oil with grilled peppers and onions, or wherever your tastes lead.
They can be stored in the fridge up to four days after smoking. Longer than that and you will want to freeze them. Whichever you choose, plunging them in a cold water bath after smoking will keep the casing from shriveling up as they cool.
Listed below is our favorite, really easy (no casing needed), recipe to make your own Italian sausage. This makes a pretty good size batch. We recommend browning it all off and keep the extra in the freezer for a quick addition to any meal. It is a must have item in your red sauces, and frankly it fills out a cream sauce perfectly. Plus, it runs a really close second to pepperoni as a must have pizza topping.
Throw it in your eggs for breakfast, sauté it with peppers for a lunch hour grinder, or throw it in your pasta for dinner; you can use it all day in all kinds of ways. We also have a couple of our favorite soup recipes known for their Italian sausage flavors.
Making Italian Sausage
This is a medium to spicy recipe depending on your tastes. Cut the meat into strips or cubes that will fit your meat grinder feed tube. You can also use a food processor, although it works better if you cut smaller cubes and freeze them to retain some coarseness in the finished texture. After cutting the meat, mix it with all the dry ingredients in a large bowl then feed through your grinder.
- 4 pounds pork well marbled
- (Use 3.5#s of pork and ½# salt pork if your meat is too lean, omit the salt)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
- 1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 tablespoon dried sweet basil
- 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
Add to the ground meat and herbs, mix well:
- 2 tablespoons dry red wine
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Allow all of this to marinade for 24 hours before using or casing. Cook or freeze within the next 24 hours.
Making Traditional Italian Soups with Sausage
This first is a staple in some well-known Italian restaurants, and is so easy to make that it will impress your friends and family. The second is one of our favorite hearty soups.
Brown and drain;
- 2# Italian sausage
- 3 diced yellow onions
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
In a pot, boil and cook until tender;
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 6 medium sized yellow potatoes cubed
Drop heat to low, add cooked sausage mix and;
- 1 cup chopped Kale
- 1-2 cups heavy cream
- Salt and pepper to taste.
Spicy Sausage and Lentil Soup
Brown in pot;
- 1 ½ # Italian sausage
Add and cook until clear;
- 1 Yellow onion diced
- 4 tablespoons chopped garlic
Add and bring to a soft boil;
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes
- 2 Russet potatoes, peeled, diced small
- 4 carrots diced small
- 1 cup lentils
- 2 bay leafs
- 2 teaspoons rosemary crushed
- 4 teaspoons paprika
- ½ teaspoon cayenne
Simmer until taters and lentils are tender.