On a clear spring day, the very same week that lovage and sweet asparagus are exploding across California, Russell Moore shows up at my door with an old bucket of meat. The bucket is old, that is. The meat is fresh and lovely—impeccably sourced, marbled just so. But it's scraps: some pork shoulder and belly, a little leftover duck breast and leg and liver. Intestines, too. Sausage school is in session.
Fifteen years in the Bay Area has steeped me in the California religion of Respecting Ingredients as They Are and Not Monkeying with Them Too Much. But today, Moore and I are going to grind our ingredients into disrespected little bits, then pump those bits into a garden hose of bleached sheep's and hog's intestine.
Moore is tall and boyish, always in gingham, a half-Korean Southern Californian who was a punk-rock kid and worked at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in the '80s. When Moore was a young cook there, Waters got a hankering for boudin blanc—the white pork sausage claimed by both the French (they use milk) and the Cajuns (they use rice)—and asked if Moore knew how to make the thing. Of course, he said. Then quickly, calmly, he called David Tanis, the restaurant's chef at the time, and explained that he'd never even tried boudin blanc, much less prepared it. They talked it out. What Moore produced was so good it became a staple and made it into the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook.
After two decades at Chez Panisse, Moore opened Camino, a rustic, cook-most-things-in-a-fireplace restaurant in Oakland. I spent a good chunk of the past year loitering there, helping to write their forthcoming cookbook. But somehow I'd never witnessed the famous sausage prep until now. (Freud says there are no accidents.)
We inhabit a funny moment, sausage-wise. Historically, when a civilization was too technologically primitive to keep meat, sausage—cured with salt or dried—was one way meat was preserved. Now, sausage making is where one turns when sous vide feels too 2013. But this country's fondness for cylindrical meat sits atop a rigorous incuriosity about the stuff. Don't ask, don't tell what's inside that bad boy—a philosophy that makes chefs like Moore snort and adventurous home cooks reach, trembling, for the casings container.
I had always accepted sausages as a foregone conclusion, neither bad nor good, in the way a soap dish is neither bad nor good. After all, they arrive fully formed, with no trace of domestic origin; there's something palpably store-bought about sausage. But when hanging around Camino, I started paying attention to the sausages I ate, how crumbly they were, how subtle the flavor. And I realized that there's such a thing as truly excellent sausage, made by two hands transforming leftover bits into something much more than the sum of its parts.
As we gather at my kitchen island, selecting this piece and dismissing that one, and as I mortar our herbs and spices, I notice a deeper appeal—the endless experimenting with cuts, the infinite combinations of flavors. The essence of sausage making is more math than gore. The superlative sausage emerges from a thoughtful mix of lean and fat—less than 30 percent fat will leave you unhappy, says Moore—and from the right qualities of lean, and qualities of fat. Once you invest in a couple of ridiculous-looking pieces of equipment, there's also an economic argument for my newest culinary obsession: Odd cuts of meat and leftover herbs now have a second life.
Today's rehabilitation project: a garlicky herb pork sausage, and a slightly fattier pork and duck sausage with juniper. The marbled pork shoulder and the pale back fat are cut into cubes; silky duck liver remains in shimmering slabs. As a rule, Moore improvises his other recipes. Today, he weighs or measures out each ingredient. It's like seeing a bear up on its hind legs. But mediocre sausage is plentiful on our planet, and a quality sausage demands precision.
I begin the horror-movie task of feeding the meat into the grinder attachment on my KitchenAid. It is oddly meditative—as much as pulverizing duck and pig can constitute meditation—to watch the meat Play-Doh its way through the grinder plate.
I've invested in a five-gallon, vaguely Game of Thrones-ish sausage stuffer and now it's time to use it. I didn't think I knew what casings smelled like, but I get a whiff of them in Moore's bucket and realize some ancient part of me has always known what casings smell like. As I unroll the casings over the nozzle, I remember the town in Bavaria where locals erected a monument to Johann Georg Lahner, inventor of the frankfurter. A monument! I hope merely for a small plaque as I snip a link free and throw it into a pan.
"Aren't we supposed to cure this somehow?" I ask Moore. "Like they did before sending it off on ships?" He smiles. We're not getting on any ships; we'll eat these soon.
Very soon, in fact. Two hours after we begin, we take our first bites. A splash of brandy would be nice, Moore says. I nod sagely. In truth all I can think is, I can't believe we made sausage. Ours is light and subtle, moist but not heavy or greasy. The herbs and spices I'd so patiently ground are bright and central.
I don't measure our success in the individual bites, but in the countless that follow. I keep eating and eating. The next morning I eat sausage with sauerkraut. For lunch I eat it with asparagus, fresh lovage, thyme, and oregano. For dinner I eat more of my lunch. A normal person consuming this much sausage fills himself with regret. But I feel light and springy, perfectly balanced, just like my creations.
Russel Moore's Secrets to Killer Sausages
"Fat is key. Pork belly or jowl makes a creamier, juicier sausage. Fat back doesn't really melt, so use it when you're making a more textured, country-style sausage."
"Keep your meat and fat cold. If the mixture gets warm before grinding, the fat will smear and then drip out during cooking, resulting in a tough sausage. Same goes for mixing: Your hands will warm up everything pretty quickly, so don't overdo it."
"Err on the side of under-stuffing, because you can always twist sausages to get them to the right shape. If you pack them too tight, they'll burst."
"Cook a little piece to test for seasoning before stuffing. But then don't futz: Try to get the flavor right in one shot, so you don't keep remixing the meat."
How to Choose the Correct Casing
When making Russell Moore's sausages, we used hog and sheep casings. Hog casings, a sturdy option for larger sausages, like Moore's boudin blanc, come in a variety of diameters: 1 1/8–1 1/4-inch for frankfurters, 1 3/8–1 1/2-inch for bratwurst, and 2 1/4-inch if you want to make traditional black pudding. Sheep casings, which are more delicate, are best for smaller sausages like breakfast varieties, or Moore's garlic and herb sausage. These natural casings, if packed in salt, should be rinsed and soaked in lukewarm water for 24 hours before using. If submerged in brine, 15–30 minutes of soaking will do. Synthetic varieties are less expensive and ready for immediate use, no cleaning necessary, but you'll want to steer clear of those made from cellulose—they are not safe to eat.
The Right Stuffer
To stuff our sausages, we used a reliable sausage-stuffing attachment that affixes to any KitchenAid stand mixer. If you don't have a stand mixer, the Weston 3-lb. manual sausage stuffer, ($55, amazon.com), is an inexpensive yet durable choice, and, if you want to splurge, the LEM Stainless Steel Vertical Sausage Stuffer, right ($155, lemproducts.com), is Moore's preferred tool.
See The Basic Sausage Stuffing Technique and all the recipes from A Beautiful Grind in the gallery, below.