5 Lessons from sausage making

A few weeks ago I finally had a chance to make some more sausages.  I had been wanting to try some poultry sausages, for a couple of reasons.  They can be a bit healthier (although you still have to add a lot of fat), the flavors are more neutral (thus allowing for more creativity and variety in flavoring) and the meat tends to be a bit cheaper as well.  This was also my first time using my new sausage stuffer and using casings. You can read about my first attempt at making fresh pork sausage in an earlier post.

I decided to make two different sausages from the Ruhlman Charcuterie book.  One is a turkey sausage seasoned with Thankgiving-style spices (cloves, cinnamon) with dried cherries and some red wine.  The other is a chicken sausage flavored with white wine, olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and various herbs.


Here are a few things we learned from the process.

1. Drumsticks are cheap, but a pain to prep
I decided to use mostly drumsticks since they are such a cheap cut of meat.  We have a local poultry farm just up the road where I can buy directly in bulk.  I got a bunch of turkey drumsticks for just a few dollars per pound.  For the chicken sausage, I had drumsticks and thighs.  The problem is, if your time is valuable you will use up any savings in buying drumsticks with the time it takes to cut and prep the meat.  Drumsticks are great finger food fresh from the grill, but there is a reason you don’t see boneless legs at the supermarket.  They have a lot of tendons and ligaments you have to cut out and around.  And you don’t really get a lot of meat in the process.  The turkey drumsticks are better because they have a lot more meat, but the tendons are thicker and tougher so it’s a bit of a wash.  I don’t think I would use them again for sausage, although I love the flavor and price.

2. You might want to skin the fatback first.
Poultry meat doesn’t have a lot of fat and you really do need fat to make a good sausage.  So typically you will add some extra fat and pork fatback is a great solid fat that works well.  I got my fatback from local farmers raising pastured hogs and it’s beautiful stuff.  But I started cutting it up without thinking about the fact that it still had the skin on.  Sometimes you want the skin on when you are cooking certain cuts because it cooks up nice and crispy.  But not for sausage and it’s a pain to cut skin off a bunch of little pieces of diced fat.  Ask me how I know….. Much easier to skin the whole thing first.

3. If stuffing is overly hard, you’re doing it wrong
This was the first time I had tried stuffing sausages and I figured it would be a bit tricky. I got a decent 5 lb. vertical stuffer, so I have good equipment for small batches. I used standard natural casings in the medium size that is most commonly used.


Preparing to stuff

Going to have to tell on myself a little bit here. By the time it came to stuff the first batch, it was pretty late on a Friday night and I wasn’t too with it anymore.  So I didn’t bother reviewing the right way to use the stuffer.  I asked Kristin for help and started the stuffing.  It would go along fine for the length of a couple of links and then pressure would start building up and the casing would split. We were both getting very frustrated and Kristin actually tried to tell me I should try it a different way, but I didn’t get what she was saying.

So the next day I decided to go online and figure out if I was doing something wrong.  Sure enough, that was the problem. Here’s what I was doing.  I was feeding just a bit of the casing on the tube and then trying to push the mixture down through the casing.  WRONG! You are supposed to put the WHOLE casing on the tube, tie off the end and then let the mixture feed in and push the casing off the tube. Works so much easier when you do it right.  We tried this on the second batch the next day and it was a world of difference. We stuffed the entire casing with no issues.

tieingTying off sausages after stuffing

4. Food dehydrator works well for pre-drying before smoking.
When you get ready to smoke something, you want the surface to be pretty dry and a little tacky. Basically the smoke needs something to stick to.  You can hang the sausages up for awhile at room temperature or inside a fridge or drying chamber.  There are various ways.  I was looking for a shortcut and we already have a food dehydrator.  So I got the thought that maybe I could use that to speed the process.  Checked online and apparently some other folks have tried this as well and it seemed to work.  So I gave it a shot and I think it worked pretty well.  You have to keep the temperature down and keep an eye on them, but I was pretty happy with this method.  We have the American Harvest square dehydrator with temp control and I like it a lot.

stuffedReady to Dry

5. Don’t do too much at once.
Since sausage making is pretty time consuming, it’s good to do a bunch at a time.  But doing two different 5 pound batches is a bit challenging, particularly when you are stuffing and smoking all of it.  And when I was smoking the sausages, I really had the smoker way too overloaded.  Some sausages got too hot and others were a bit slow. Not enough airflow and it was difficult to get them all up to temp.  So if I did it again, I would probably just smoke some of them and keep the rest as fresh sausages.


So all in all, I learned a lot from this round of sausage making.  And the sausages turned out great, although I think we like the chicken ones a little better.  They are right up there with some of the really good ones I’ve had like the Aidell’s version.  Not sure what we’ll try next, but each time the process seems to make a little more sense and go a little more smoothly. 

Here is the finished product:



The mushroom project

One of the foods I really love is mushrooms of various types, so I’ve been wanting to try to grow some of my own.  This is actually a project I started in March, but haven’t had time to post any pictures until now.  I actually tried growing some shitakes and oyster mushrooms indoors with varying success.  You definitely have to stay on top of them, so I was looking for something a little lower maintenance.  After all, if you take a hike in the forest they are everywhere, although maybe not always ones that you can eat.  Speaking of that, foraging for wild mushrooms is another thing I would like to learn how to do.  There are definitely folks around here who do it, but that’s the sort of thing that’s best learned from someone else.

Anyway, I decided to try inoculating some logs with mushroom plugs and see how well that works. There are various sources of mushroom supplies online, but I like Fungi Perfecti.  It was started by mycologist Paul Stamets, who literally wrote the book (several of them) on growing mushrooms.

My landlord is also interested in this, so he supplied some logs to start out with and we are going to share the logs once they get fully populated.  The logs have to be fairly fresh, not too large in diameter and most edible mushrooms that use a wood growing medium generally like hardwood.  Some mushrooms have favorites where they seem to perform best, although often there is a range of types that will work.


The process is basically to drill a ton of holes in the logs and pound these wooden plugs into the holes with a mallet.  It’s pretty time consuming, but the nice thing is if the logs “take” and the mushroom spawn fully colonizes the log, they can produce mushrooms for 3-5 years or more.  I’m mainly trying shiitakes and I also did a few logs with Lion’s Mane.


After the logs are plugged, they go into a colonization stage where you water them occasionally and wait for at least 6 months or so for the mycelium to take over the log.  Then you can put them outside “planted” upright in a shady damp place and hopefully start harvesting mushrooms here and there as they go through regular flushes of growth.


I had a good supervisor, so hopefully things will turn out great.  This is another one of those things where you start something and hope it turns out.  In that way it’s much like garlic or beer or cheese or any other number of great things that are worth waiting for.

Sights of Spring

Not a lot of big new projects lately, due to visits from friends and traveling.  But still continuing to get ready for summer.  Lots of seed starting, both indoors and out. And a sudden explosion of color around our rental property as the huge number of hidden bulbs suddenly make their presence known.  It still seems magic every year after the gray of winter.

P1000990Onion starts.  This is the first time we’ve ever tried doing onions from seed.


Various brassicas


Windowsill pots of oregano and thyme


Peas!  We are attempting two regular types and two snow/snap types.


The garlic we planted last fall is looking fantastic.


Various brassicas inside the cold frame. We will transplant these out.  Comparing how this works with starting inside.


A view inside the hoop.  The big splash of color you see is various lettuces and arugula.



Tulips, daffodils and other lovelys.

Goat kids!

We visited Twig Farm on Sunday, so here is just a quick post with some cute goat kids. 


Our friend Mark was in town and came along for the visit.  Here I am getting some goat kid love.



We also just happened to arrive as a yearling doe was in labor and got to see 2 kids being born.  We’ve read a lot about it, so it was interesting to actually see it in person.


Seed starting

I’ve been fairly heads down with all sorts of projects.  Spring is trying to come early this year in Vermont, in fact it is supposed to be in the 60s and 70s all this week.  We had a beautiful weekend and I got some more things planted in the low hoop tunnel and also in the new cold frame I just put together.

I’m also attempting to start some seeds in the basement.  I scrounged together a system using mostly stuff I already had.  I already have some wire racks that are great for all kinds of things, including storing homebrew and equipment.  I also had a couple of aquarium fixtures with working lights, so that is my light source for now.  I think I’ll likely have to upgrade to a) bigger lights and b) better bulbs (more full spectrum) to get great results.  But trying this first before I go spend a bunch of money.  I did buy a heat mat, some seed starting trays and a little fan to circulate the air around the plants and help them develop decent stems.

Here are a few pictures:


The whole set-up.


Starting with onions, they take awhile to get going.


A few seedlings poking through.

I’m curious to see if I can use the cold frame outside to start some seeds as well.  One nice thing about that is the plants get used to the soil immediately and there isn’t much in the way of hardening off that you need to do.  But you definitely have less control over temperature and environment in general.  So I’m just going to try some of each and see what works.

First attempt at curing and smoking bacon

In my last post I talked about making sausage.  Making bacon was my other initial charcuterie project.  It’s not that hard, but it takes more time (in duration, not effort) to complete.  You also need some special ingredients, mainly pink salt.  Pink salt is salt that contains sodium nitrate.  It is colored pink because it looks just like regular salt and you don’t want to accidently use it like regular salt, because in large quantities it is toxic.  But you actually use very little at a time to cure meat, so it’s perfectly fine that way.  The purpose is to inhibit unwanted bacterial growth, particularly the kind that cause botulism. I got my pink salt, as well as sausage casings from Butcher and Packer, which is one of the sources recommended in the Ruhlman Charcuterie book.

The most important thing when making bacon is starting with great meat and I got my pork belly from Maple Wind Farm.  It was a nice thick cut, coming in at a little over 8 lbs.


The first step is the curing process, which takes place in the fridge and takes about a week, depending on the size and thickness of the meat. I did two variations on the basic cure in the Charcuturie book, one a sweeter cure with real Vermont maple syrup and one a savory cure with peppercorns, garlic and bay leaves.





Here is the cured bacon ready to rest in the fridge.


I decided to go ahead and smoke the bacon.  Fortunately the Saturday I picked worked out, even though it was March.  It was quite a nice day, although it got chilly towards the end of the process.  As you can see, it’s quite hard work.


As smokers (at least decent ones) can get rather expensive and I’m just starting out, I decided to try something I found on AmazingRibs.com. There is a device called a Smokenator that turns an ordinary Weber kettle grill into a smoker.  Since I already have a Weber, it seemed worth a shot.

I have to say it worked pretty well.  I got a Maverick Two-In-One Oven and Roasting Digital Thermometer with Timer as well to monitor it.  This thermometer combines a probe that goes into the meat with a sensor on the top of the probe to monitor the air temperature of the oven or grill.  Pretty nifty.

I took an hour or so to “practice” and try to determine the optimal vent settings to get the temperature I was after, somewhere in the 200 degrees area.  It was actually pretty interesting how much the system settled in and stayed at the right temp.  One thing I did (recommended in the Smokenator instructions) was to use some basic binder clips around my lid.  Before I did that, I could see some smoke escaping which meant the system was airtight.

I used normal Kingsford charcoal and apple wood chips for the smoke.  I had to fiddle with it every so often to knock the ash off the coals and check the water supply, but it wasn’t much trouble at all.  Ended up taking about 3 1/2 hours all together to reach my target temperature on the bacon.

Here’s the finished product.


After slicing.  Check out the nice pink color.


And here’s what it looks like in the pan.


All in all, it turned out very tasty.  I could use a bit more maple flavor in the sweet cure.  This bacon is not super salty, but I’m actually okay with that since I have high blood pressure and need to watch salt and fat intake anyway.  Watching the fat intake is going to be difficult with this tasty stuff, but at least I know everything that went into it.

First attempt at making sausage

I’ve been wanting to start learning how to make charcuterie (sausage, cured/smoked meats, bacon, etc.) as part of our overall trek towards growing and creating as much of our own food as possible.  We also may raise our own hogs at some point.  I got the Michael Ruhlman Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing book for Christmas and have been going through that for ideas.  I also bought Home Sausage Making: How-To Techniques for Making and Enjoying 100 Sausages at Home which is interesting for the sheer volume of ideas. Although vegetarian sausage?  I don’t think so, at least not for me.

I’ve been talking to a couple local pastured pork farmers about getting the raw materials.  The other night I took a trip over to Maple Wind Farm, about 20 minutes from here.  I picked up a whole pork belly that was just beautiful, a little over 8 lbs. and nice and thick.  Also grabbed two smaller pork shoulder roasts, which are really nice for making sausage.  The fat content is about 30% naturally, particularly when you buy heritage pastured breeds, which is perfect for sausage.  They had just gotten some lamb back from the butcher, so I got some of that as well.  Certainly more expensive than super market meat, but for good reason.  Better breeds, better feed, better living conditions and a lot more care goes into the animal husbandry.  It’s money well spent to me, both to know exactly what I’m getting and the quality of the meat.  If you are going to go to the trouble of making your own charcuterie, you want the highest quality meat you can get because the end result is only as good as the raw materials.

I made my first batch of about 3 lbs. of sausage last weekend, using the basic breakfast sausage recipe from the “Charcuterie” book.  It’s an interesting recipe, full of lots of fresh ginger, sage and garlic. You end up with a very clean tasting sausage, full of lively flavors.  I’m not sure I want it all the time as I like a spicier, more peppery sausage most of the time, but it turned out to be quite tasty.

Here are some pictures of the process.


A few years ago we found an antique meat/food grinder in New Glarus, WI.  I think it is World War II era as the instructions mention a certain part is not available during the war (I guess due to metal rationing).  Kinda cool. One reason I bought it was the possibility of making sausage, plus I really love old kitchen tools. Particularly ones that don’t require electric.


Everything you use has to be super cold, including the grinder if possible.


The grinder set up and ready to go. You grind into a bowl or tray that is set in ice.  Once again, think cold, cold, cold.


The season mixture, cubed and ready to grind.  This has been in the freezer as well until starting to get a bit icy, but not frozen.


The primary bind, where you add just a bit of ice water to bring it all together.  As you can see, the grinder didn’t do a terribly fine grind.  I was a bit worried about this, but it came together just fine. A bit smaller would be nice, but this works.


Quality control. It’s good to fry up a taster portion just to make sure the spices are where you want them.  You can still add a bit more spice or other ingredients at this point.

So now that I understand the basic process a little bit, the next step is to try stuffing the sausage into casings and try some other recipes.  There is a chicken sausage recipe that looks awfully good…

Google custom search for seeds

When we looked at buying seeds this year, we had a bunch of catalogs and seed companies to choose from.  It would be really great to be able to quickly determine who has what variety, the cost and whether it is still in stock.  Certain popular seeds tend to sell out quickly.

When I started looking into this, it seems like a task that would be difficult to accomplish without some direct assistance and interaction from the seed companies.  And I’m not sure they would be that interested.  I still think there might be a way to do this with some sort of screen scraping app, but it would take some doing.  And it might not make the seed companies happy, even though my goal is to support those who are selling organic and open-pollinated seeds. 

Still might be a fun project to try.  The problem is not everyone uses a distinctive enough url structure to make this easy.  It’s also not trivial to compare prices, since some companies sell by the number, some by the ounce and it also depends how large a quantity you are buying.  If you could find the price, I guess you could just display it.

In the meantime I created a Google custom search that searches all of my favorite companies.  I tried to filter down the urls to be as specific as possible (e.g. use the item detail page, not every url in the site). You can do this with some of the sites, but not all.  Makes me wish everyone was using MVC/friendly urls.  Mother Earth News already has a custom search like this, but it’s hidden in their site and they search several hundred companies.  So the signal to noise is pretty bad if you ask me.

You can check out mine and see if it’s helpful.  I will likely add some additional companies into the mix, but trying to keep it a bit more curated.

Review: Diane Ott Whealy – Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver

Article first published as Book Review: Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver by Diane Ott Whealy on Blogcritics.

First, a bit of background on the lens through which I read Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver. As a child, I spent a lot of time in the summer working in the garden and often could not wait to be done with it.

Fast forward a number of years, however, and I find myself interested again. The idea of growing your own food is a compelling one for many people, particularly in this age of economic uncertainty. I’m certainly very much in agreement with the goals of this organization and my review reflects that.

When my wife and I started researching various aspects of gardening and sustainability, some resources kept popping up in more than one book and one of them was Seed Savers Exchange. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is a non-profit organization with the mission of saving and sharing the richness of genetic and cultural diversity found in open-pollinated seed.

Today many of the seeds you find in the seed rack are hybrid types. But you can’t save hybrid seed year after year; you must buy it again each time. This book is the memoir of Diane Ott Whealy, one half of the husband and wife team that brought SSE to life.

While it certainly helps if you are interested in the subject matter, there are aspects of this book that make it a compelling read for anyone interested in small business, entrepreneurship and the strength of the human spirit.

Diane and her husband Kent fought through many obstacles to bring Seed Savers to where it is today. Ms. Whealy is honest and forthcoming about the very real struggles that it took to develop the organization to where it is today.

When they were getting SSE off the ground, the idea of preserving genetic diversity and using sustainable gardening practices was going through a dark period. For hundreds of years, farmers had basically farmed organically, saving their best seed from year to year.

But starting in the early to mid 1900s, a new rush of “progress” pushed farmers to make production the primary goal, through the use of chemical fertilizers, unsustainable soil practices and the new hybrid seeds and later GMO seeds.

Open pollinated seeds must be regularly planted and saved or they can be lost forever. In addition, the diversity of seeds in catalogs for the home gardener was dwindling. Each year found more and more varieties unaccounted for and some seeds were only available from a single source. The Whealys recognized this as the problem it was and set about trying to do something about it, well before most people were thinking in these terms.

Scattered around the country, there were other individuals with the same dreams and goals. Seeds Savers provided a framework to bring these people together and work for the common good. They started in 1975 with only 29 gardeners exchanging and sharing seed. The tradition was started of a yearly meeting on the property, with like-minded folks coming from all over the country. By 1983, they had around 3500 different seed varieties in their collection, including 2000 different beans, 500 different peppers and 200 different squashes. For the most part, the business was run out of their home and there wasn’t always money for a salary. Income came from the seed catalog they distributed each year.

Another struggle was finding the room to work and grow the business. The Whealys moved around several times before Seed Savers finally found the right property in Decorah Iowa. Eventually Kent Whealy won the MacArthur “Genius” grant in 1990 and there were some other grants along the way. These grants, along with growth in the business and help from other benefactors finally got SSE on stable footing.

Later the organization was also able to purchase an additional 700+ acre property of pasture and woods, giving them a large protected area to carry out their mission. But it was a long road to get there, years of laboring and putting everything back into the organization. This shows the perseverance that is often necessary to make your dreams come true.

This intense, sustained focus on the organization was not without its downsides. It took a toll on the Whealy’s marriage, which ended in divorce in 2004. It is very difficult to pour your entire waking existence into a dream without some aspects of your life being neglected. This is food for thought for any entrepreneur. On the other hand it is often difficult to create something of good and lasting value without a lot of sacrifices along the way. Many people are grateful to the Diane and Kent Whealy for the lasting impact their life work has had and will continue to have on the sustainability and organic gardening movement.

Gardening Plans

We are very excited this year as we go from the shaded 100 square foot garden patch (behind our friends’ house in Chicago) to a full-on 2000 square foot “real” garden.  There is some shade around the garden, but I think we’ll get plenty of sun for a lot of the garden. I think this is approximately the same size as the garden we had at our first house when I was a kid.

We’ve already planted a patch of garlic (it gets planted in the fall just before frost really starts).  Will be cool to see how that works out.  There is also a few plants of asparagus already planted.  We have several compost bins/piles going, as well as some leaf mulch breaking down over the winter.

During this time of year, the days are short and it’s pretty dreary.  But the bright spot is receiving all the garden catalogs, allowing dreams about the summer.  This year we are trying some new catalogs. We’ve bought a lot from Johnny’s in the past and we still love them, but we want to support some other small heirloom/organic seed companies. These companies need all the help they can get to stay in business. It’s important to make sure those of us who care continue to have an alternative to the evils of Monsanto, GMO seeds and the like.

I thought it might be interesting to share what we ended up purchasing. We might have overdone it a bit, but this is an experimenting year.  We actually had a decent number of seeds already, so we didn’t need everything.  This is just a partial list of what we plan to plant.

Encore lettuce mix (a standby, we’ve grown this for several years already)
Legume inoculant – to encourage nitrogen formation on the roots of the various beans and peas we are growing
Yukon Gold seed potatoes
Celosia – Chief Mix

Comstock Garden Seeds – one of the oldest seed companies in the country, since 1811
Radish – French Breakfast
Broccoli – Calebrese
Savoy Cabbage – Perfection Drumhead
Pea – Little Marvel
Onion – Giant White Stuttgart and Yellow Dutch
Brussels Sprouts – Long Island Improved
Squash – Blue Hubbard
Squash – Delicata

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – we think this might be our new favorite catalog
Lettuce – Rocky Top Mix
Culantro (Vietnamese Coriander)
Beet – Chioggia
Beet – Cylindra or Formanova
Radish – Pink Beauty
Tomato – Stupice, San Marzano, True Black Brandywine, Pink Icicle
Cauliflower – Purple of Sicily
Cucumber – Mexican Sour Gherkin
Carrot – St. Valery
Pepper – Hungarian Hot Wax
Pea – Alaska
Sugar Pea – Mammoth Melting, Sugar Snap Pole
Onion – Red of Florence
Melon – Boule D’Or, Sugar Baby
Squash – Kuri
Sunflower – Mammoth
Marigold – Red Cherry

High Mowing Organic Seeds – local Vermont seed company
DMR (downy mildew resistant) Lettuce Mix
Chard – Rainbow, Fordhook Giant
Thai Basil
Bean – Dragon Tongue
Sweet Pepper – Sweet Chocolate
Kale – Russian White
Potato – Red Norland

Seed Savers
Cucumber – Bushy
Fingerling Potato – La Ratte

D. Landreth Seed Company
Genovese Basil
Spinach – Bloomsdale
Zucchini – Black
Bean – King of the Garden
Marigold – Sparky
Nasturtium – Dwarf Jewel
Hollyhock – Nigra
Tomato – Paul Robeson

We are curious how some of this stuff will do in the garden and whether we are biting off more than we can chew (pun intended).  But it should be fun to have plenty of room to experiment and see what works in our shorter growing season.

What are you growing this year?