Sunday, July 8, 2012

Bring On the Bratwursts!

I've said before how much I love my Kitchenaid mixer. Not only does it serve in its primary function as a mixer, it has oodles of attachments to play with. By far, the one I use the most is the meat grinder. Often, there are cuts of beef on sale for cheaper than ground beef (and without the potential presence of the dreaded “pink slime”). Even better, it has a sausage stuffer on it, enabling us to make our own bratwursts.

Making bratwursts is remarkably simple: grind the meat, add seasonings, and stuff into casings. The hardest part is finding the casings...and that's as simple as going to your closest meat market. If you're squeamish about using natural casings, you can also order collagen casings online.

Enough hog casings for 100 lbs of bratwursts
How the casings come packaged will vary based on the store selling them. At one of the markets near me, they just cut off a length from what they have soaked and prepared for their use that day...if they have enough out, they'll cut some off and put it in a baggie. The other only sells it by the hank – which is enough for about 100 pounds of sausages. Luckily, it can be sealed up with a Food Saver – making 100 lbs of sausage in one shot would be difficult! Regardless of which store I go to, I've never paid the same price twice for casings. I think the person working just guesstimates a price based on...something. The hank is more standardized in price – $25-30, and is much more economical in terms of per-pound cost; the shorter length tends to run about $1/pound. This time, the hank cost us $30.

We've been slowly buying meat to turn into bratwursts for the past few months; every time we go shopping, we buy a pork shoulder or a turkey. This month, we had trouble closing our freezer after we got back from shopping, so knew it was time to get to work making brats (and time to get a bigger freezer!)

Before we started, though, we had to strategize – this much sausage would take a while to make, and with a toddler and an infant, we just weren't going to have the time to get it done in one shot, unless we stayed up all night, sacrificing precious, precious sleep. Since that wasn't going to happen, we decided to spread the process out over three days (if we were making a smaller batch, we would have made it in one day).

DAY ONE: Cutting and Grinding

Gotta sharpen the blade!
We decided to focus on pork for the simple reason that one of our pork shoulders was thawed and we couldn't fit that and all three turkeys in the fridge. I think they were the same cut of meat, but they were labeled differently – one was called a “pork picnic roast” and the other was a “pork shoulder roast”. The only difference I saw was the pork picnic roast had more bones. In the end, $45 of pork shoulders yielded 29.25 lbs of ground meat.
One of three hunks o' pork

All cut up
Randy cut the meat into strips small enough to feed through the grinder (the instructions call for 1” chunks, but I've found that strips work just fine, as long as the diameter is not too large) and ground it all up. He then packaged it in gallon Ziploc bags – five pounds per bag. This process took two hours and three beers.

Get your grind on!
When all the grinding was done, we threw the bones in the crock pot and let it simmer overnight both to make stock, and to get some more meat off of the bones. This sounds a little penny-pinching, I know, but we ended up getting nearly two pounds of additional meat, which we drenched in barbecue sauce for sandwiches. We also got three quarts of stock.

DAY TWO: Seasoning
While Randy cut, ground, and packaged the meat on day one, I had child duty and looked up recipes in our sausage book this wonderful book. Luckily for my decision-making abilities, I was limited in my choices by the ingredients we have on hand. Plain bratwursts were a guarantee, as was a spicy version – we made double batches of both of those. However, with nearly 30 lbs of meat, we wanted to try some new variations as well. I settled on Garlic Sausage and Southwest Sausage.

Just a touch more heat, please!
That meant on the second day, we were ready to season the meat. We were not precise in our measurements according to the recipes, since most of them called for four pounds of meat and we had five pounds for each recipe. Also, we wanted to make the spicy sausages much spicier than the recipe (we had made it before).

Randy had the pleasure of mixing the seasonings into the cold meat. I was excited for him to do it; usually it's my job and I know how much it hurts after a least until your fingers go completely numb! By the last couple of batches, he had figured out how to minimize the time required. He spread the meat out in the bowl as thinly as he could and evenly sprinkled the seasonings over it so there were fewer clumps of spices. It still requires several minutes of mixing to get everything evenly distributed.

Randy before he mixed the meat.  That joy left about 20 seconds later
At that point, we put the ground meat back into the bags to sit overnight. This was mainly because it's much easier to stuff the casings when you have two people, so we had to wait until Zoey was asleep. It's too much to hope that both kids will sleep at the same time at this stage, but Parker is at least more or less stationary. The thought of chasing a toddler down with sausage hands is not fun.

A secondary, but also valid, reason was to let the spices meld and develop the flavors in the sausages. Given our general lack of patience, we were going to cook the brats the day we stuffed them; if we had seasoned and stuffed on the same day, the flavor wouldn't be the same.

This doesn't adequately show the loss of feeling in his fingers
The final step for day two was to prep the casings. They come packed in salt, which has to be rinsed off thoroughly. We pulled one long strand of casings out of the hank and rinsed it under cold water, then put it in a bowl of cool water to soak for 30 minutes. Then we put the casings in a Ziploc with fresh water and put it in the fridge to wait for the next day.

This process took one hour and one glass of wine to complete.

DAY THREE: Stuffing and cooking
This started with putting Zoey down for her nap and convincing Parker that he liked his swing. Once both kids were contained, we rushed to action. Sadly, this meant we didn't get any pictures of the process.  While it is tempting to use the longest strand of casings possible – both to maximize the look of the final product (who doesn't want a 30-foot string of sausages?) and to minimize the times I have to tie a knot in slippery casings, I've learned that anything over around six feet makes it difficult to twist the sausages into links.

Stuffing the sausages takes quite a bit of patience and a little trial and error in the technique used. The ground meat feeds through the stuffer quite slowly. To complicate matters, if you push too much meat through at a time, the plunger gets stuck and pulling it out creates an air pocket, which turns the casings into a balloon. Randy has mastered this end of it; he pushes the plunger down 2/3 of the way and then feeds more meat in. This ensures a steady flow of meat into the casings with no air pockets. Yet again, patience is the key – if you rush this, it will end up creating more work and frustration. If you do end up with an air pocket, just pop it with a toothpick and keep going.

The other aspect is holding the sausages as they are stuffed. Because our stuffer is an attachment to the Kitchenaid, it's about a foot over the counter. This means the weight of the stuffed sausages drags down the casings, resulting in thin, sad sausages unless someone supports the sausages as they are stuffed. The trick is moving the casings along so the sausages are full but not overfull; overfilling means the bratwursts will burst when twisted into links. We were reminded the hard way of this, as I overstuffed the garlic brats and had several split open while I was twisting them into links; I had to remove some of the sausage and try to tie off casings that had already been stuffed. Profanity ensued, and I ended up relegating those sausages to immediate cooking.
Casualties of over-stuffing;See the meat exploding out of the end?  Tragic, but still tasty!

It's also important to remember to leave a few inches of empty casing at the end, so you can tie a knot. Thankfully, this is easy to remember, and I didn't have to swear at this stage! It's better to leave a little more room than you need than not leave enough. Twist the stuffed casing into 4-5 inch lengths – you want to give it three or four turns. When you cut the links apart, the ends will stay sealed. I really don't know how it works, but it does – I suspect magic.

Some meat will always be lost – what is left in the tube of the stuffer. Because we had so many different batches, we didn't bother to clean the stuffer after each one; instead, we tried to sequence our stuffing to flavors that would match well, as we knew we'd have some blended sausages. Spicy-Southwest, Southwest-Garlic, etc. This way, we ended up losing the least amount of meat possible – maybe enough for one bratwurst.

Totally worth all of the effort!
The stuffing process took the two of us (in varying degrees of cooperation due to necessary child wrangling) three hours and three beers.

We ended up with 111 bratwursts. Even with overestimating the cost of the seasonings at five dollars, that comes out to a price of $0.54/brat, or $2.00/lb. The WinCo brand bratwursts sell for $3.99/lb and have who knows what quality of ingredients. I couldn't find an ingredient list for the WinCo brand, but Johnsonville (which costs a little more) has the following ingredient list:
         Pork, water, corn syrup and less than 2% of the following: salt, dextrose, monosodium            
         glutamate, flavorings, BHA, propyl gallate, citric acid.
I like the vagueness of “flavorings”; it lets me use my imagination!

Zoey and her grandpa waiting for bratwursts
Aside from knowing exactly what “flavorings” are in my sausages, I discovered – completely by accident – another health benefit. My dad has breathing problems, and some additive in the store bratwursts messes up his breathing. These don't. Needless to say, he likes the freshly made version a lot better. We are making him about 15 pounds of them – enough to keep him in stock for a while!
Some of these recipes call for differently ground meat – some call for a double grind (coarse, then fine), some call for one grind on fine, some for one on coarse. We did one coarse grind for all of it – the batch was big enough to make switching out the blades a pain in the butt - and didn't double grind any of it. I didn't notice a difference between these and the previous batches where we did the double grind.

My favorite of the four variations was the spicy, followed by the garlic because of their stronger flavors. The other two were also tasty, but it's hard to beat a good spicy bratwurst, and I believe garlic should be one of the main food groups, so that's an automatic win. Actually, with both the spicy and garlic recipes, we doubled the quantity of the main seasoning to enhance the flavor a bit more.

We also altered the directions that call for the meat to sit in the freezer for a short stint between steps. Since we refrigerated the meat overnight between steps, we didn't need to freeze it. All this does is chill the meat so it travels through the grinder better. A long stay in the fridge has the same effect. When making a smaller batch, I include the freezer step.

Process for all variations:
Prepare the casings if needed, by rinsing off any salt, then placing in a bowl of cool water for 30 minutes. Run cool water through the casings before stuffing.*

Cut the meat into 1-inch cubes. Freeze for 30 minutes to firm up before grinding.

Grind meat through the coarse plate of a meat grinder

In a large bowl, add seasonings and mix well, using your hands.

Stuff mixture into prepared casings, prick air pockets, and twist into 4-to-5-inch lengths. Cut the links apart with a sharp knife or scissors.

Refrigerate for up to three days or freeze.

6 feet hog casing
5 lbs ground pork shoulder or butt (make sure there is some fat!)
1 t white pepper**
1 t kosher or coarse salt
½ t crushed caraway seed
½ t dried marjoram
¼ t allspice

Garlic Sausage
6 feet hog casing
5 lbs ground pork shoulder or butt (make sure there is some fat!)
½ c white wine
3 T minced garlic**
1T plus 1t kosher or coarse salt
2t sugar
1t black pepper
½ t ground ginger
¼ t allspice
¼ t cinnamon
¼ t nutmeg
¼ t ground thyme

Sicilian-Style Hot Sausage
6 feet hog casing
5 lbs ground pork shoulder or butt (make sure there is some fat!)
2T kosher or coarse salt**
1T black pepper
2T habanero chili powder
¼ cup crushed red pepper

Southwest Pork Sausage
6 feet hog casing
5 lbs ground pork shoulder or butt (make sure there is some fat!)
1T plus 1t kosher or coarse salt**
1 T black pepper
2t crushed red pepper
1t coriander
1t cumin
½ t chili powder
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

*If desired, you can soak the casings again, this time adding 1T white vinegar for each cup of water. This softens the casings and makes them more transparent so the end product looks nicer.

**all measurements are for rounded spoons, as the base recipe was for four pounds of meat rather than five

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