What will be sizzling on your backyard grill this summer?
Will it be the usual suspects – ribs, tri-tip, chicken, burgers and hot dogs? Or will you take a leap and broaden your grilling repertoire with sausages?
We’re not talking prepackaged, presmoked sausage links in the meat section of the supermarket. Instead, we’re cookin’ up handcrafted raw wurst seasoned with the likes of sage, garlic, basil and cilantro, and spiked with such goodies as chiles, mangoes, pineapple, peaches, cherries and cheese, stuffed into natural casing.
“Many people are hesitant to grill raw sausage, but once they try it, they’re hooked,” said Matt Sutton, meat and seafood team leader at Whole Foods in Folsom. “Even though it’s a lot easier to let precooked sausages roll around on the grill, you don’t get the same juiciness and flavors as when a sausage is made correctly.”
Sausages are versatile as appetizers or a full meal, cook quickly (15 to 20 minutes over indirect heat, quicker if you parboil them first), and are available in a smorgasbord of textures, flavors and meats (pork, lamb, salmon, chicken, turkey, duck, beef, venison and elk, and combinations).
Experiment with different varieties
They’re also seasonal, with Italian and bratwurst leading summertime favorites, and turkey and duck flying out of butcher shops in the fall.
“The varieties are endless, from traditional styles to inspirations you can just go off,” said butcher Eric Miller, owner of V. Miller Meats, which sources its products within 100 miles of Sacramento. “They’re comfort food. You show up at a party with sausages, put them on the grill and they’re pretty great.”
Butcher Tristan Gallo makes six kinds of sausages at Corti Bros. Market, including one from salmon fillets. “People are excited to buy sausages that are specifically made by the store they shop at, and not brought in from who knows where,” he said.
“The fun part is cooking a variety for a crowd. If you have five different sausages, you can have five different sides to go with them, and more variety makes people happy. As a cook, you can’t control the seasonings in sausages, like you can with a steak, so there are always surprises.”
“You can darn near put anything into sausages,” said butcher Danny Johnson, co-owner (with wife Kathy) of Taylor’s Market. But a critical part of sausage-making, he pointed out, is creating a balanced blend of seasonings (spices and herbs), two different things that complement the protein and other ingredients. It’s the individual blend that can take a sausage from the ordinary to the sublime.
Sausages are more popular than ever, largely because of a growing demand for unusual flavor combinations, says the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. As an indicator, sausage sales last year were $3.72 billion, up 1.4 percent over 2017.
“Consumers have been looking for more creativity in their sausages over recent years,” Johnson said. “They want something with more pizzazz than the standard bratwurst.”
On the other hand, the loyal clientele at Morant’s Old Fashioned Sausage Kitchen go there specifically for owner Dirk Muller’s array of sausages in the Old World style, which he has made for 30 years.
“You just can’t beat the original old recipes,” said Muller, who holds a sausagemeister certificate from a trade school in Frankfurt. “We have a lot of customers who have spent time in Germany and fell in love with the food. They’re still looking for it, and have found it with us.”
Adam Abramowski, owner of Adam’s Meat Shop in Folsom, said his handcrafted sausages “are our No. 1 seller. We go through 250 to 300 pounds a week. People come in from the Bay Area with their ice chests and fill them up with sausages.”
It seems that every time a conversation among foodies turns to sausages – as it so often does – someone throws out a version of the quote attributed to German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, about it being better all-around if one avoids the back rooms where laws and sausages are made.
Maybe, but as any sausagemeister will tell you, making sausage by hand is a dying craft that approaches an art form.
“It’s the creativity and variety that we work on really hard,” Miller said. “There’s intention behind everything we do, from sourcing seasonal produce at the farmers’ market, to agreeing on the final grind.”
“I make sausage four times a week, it’s one of my favorite things to do,” Sutton said. “It’s the creativity of starting with a whole muscle and ending with a piece of gourmet food. It’s a lot of work, but it’s really fulfilling.”
What’s the best way to cook sausage?
Now that the sausage has been made, what’s the best way to cook it on the grill? The sausagemeisters in this story offered their tips:
(A word about natural casing, into which the sausage is extruded and which holds the sausage together: It’s sourced from a part of the small intestine in sheep, pigs and cows that’s rich in the protein collagen. It’s been processed and preserved by the time it reaches the butcher.)
1. Let the sausages sit at room temperature for an hour before cooking.
2. Create a “hot zone” and a “cool zone” inside the BBQ kettle by arranging hot coals on one side of the bottom grate, with none on the other. Some of the heat from the hot zone will transfer to the cool zone. Adjust the bottom vent to “medium” and put the lid on. Keep the lid on as much as possible during the cooking process.
3. Optional: Parboil the sausages before grilling, to plump them up, partially cook them and toughen the natural casing.
4. Natural casing will split if exposed to too much heat or mishandled, so place the sausages in the cool zone for about 20 minutes, turning them with tongs as they brown to doneness. Why tongs? Because a fork will pierce the sausage and the liquid will run out
5. Next, place the cooked sausages in the hot zone to sear and darken, turning them often to avoid charring. Leave the lid off and be quick, and watch for flare-ups.
6. Remove and let rest for 10 minutes, to distribute and settle the juices. As Miller puts it, “The only issue then is how many napkins you’ll need.”
One more thing: October is National Sausage Month, which gives you plenty of time to practice before the main event.