It's good to keep ingredients on hand that are versatile enough to go into a wide variety of dishes. After all, just because you're in the mood for Thai tonight doesn't mean you'll still feel that way when dinnertime Thursday rolls around. That's the beauty of ingredients like ground pork. Sure, you can use it for larb, but if that mood has passed by mealtime, it's just as good as part of your meatloaf mixture, or even fresh, homemade sausage. If you've never made sausage before, don't sweat it: A basic sausage is one of the easiest things to pull together.
Start With Your Pork
If you're going to grind your own pork, your best bet is to start with a piece from the shoulder. Shoulder cuts, like the Boston butt, have about the right balance of fat and lean to make good sausage. You'll usually need about one part fat to two parts lean meat, because anything less than that feels dry in your mouth. If you're a control freak, you can meticulously separate the fat from the lean and weigh them, but with shoulder, that's not really necessary. If you're buying your pork already ground – which is a lot faster and easier, and cuts down on cleanup – just tell the butcher you need it to run around 30 to 35 percent fat.
Don't Skimp on Salt
Any recipe for sausage is going to include a certain amount of salt, and you need to understand that that's not a suggestion. You can cut back the salt in a lot of recipes, but in sausages, it serves a very specific purpose aside from flavor. The salt in the recipe is what helps the pork's proteins bond together to make a smooth, even-textured sausage. Otherwise, it would have the same loose, shaggy, dry texture as a lump of plain ground beef that's just been dumped in a skillet and cooked. Some specialty sausages might take more, but for simple fresh sausage, the salt will usually be around 2 percent of the pork's weight. If your recipe measures by the teaspoon, rather than by weight, that's fine, too. If the recipe has good reviews, you can be pretty sure it's about the right amount.
Put it All Together
The biggest thing to remember when you're mixing up sausage is that everything has to be kept really, really cold. Work with pork straight from the fridge, if you can, and chilling your mixing bowl ahead of time – and having your other ingredients all measured out, so you're ready to rock and roll – really helps. The whole point is to keep the fat from melting as you mix, which spoils the texture of your sausage. Make a well in the middle of the pork, add in your flavorings, and mix with a gloved hand or in a stand mixer at low speed until it's just incorporated. If it looks like it's starting to smear, put it back in the fridge for a while to chill again. Black pepper and sage are traditional flavorings for breakfast sausage patties, but you can take the mixture in any direction that appeals to you.
Tweak for Lower Fat
If the idea of chowing down on something that's 1/3 fat by weight doesn't appeal to you, bear in mind that some of that fat will cook out as you fry or grill your sausage. If you'd like to start with less fat in the first place, you'll need to do something to replace the moisture the fat gives your sausage. One obvious way to add moisture is with water or other liquids, and a lot of recipes call for water. Crushed ice is even better, because it helps keep your pork cold while you mix it. Applesauce and other purees are another good choice, and can replace 1/3 to 1/2 of your fat.
Stuff if You Must
Traditionally, sausage is finished by stuffing it into a casing, either artificial plastic or collagen versions or natural casings made from hog intestines. That takes time and equipment, so when you're first dabbling in sausage-making, it's simpler just to shape your sausage into patties. You can make them any size, from 2 ounces to 4 ounces for a sit-down breakfast, but smaller 1-ounce or 2-ounce patties are a better size to go on an English muffin for sandwiches. If you want the traditional shape, roll your finished sausage mixture into logs, set them on a parchment-lined pan and freeze them. Once they're frozen, you can bag them up and use them like any other breakfast sausage.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.