Welcome to the final post in the sausage making series. This is where we turn those wonderful chicken sausage links into juicy, caramelized beauties. Smoking is an age-old tradition. It has been a practical and delicious technique to preserve and flavor food for centuries.
In my last post, DIY Chicken Sausage, Part 2: Making the Links, I discussed how to grind the chicken meat with spices, and how to fill the casings with the sausage mixture. Once you get to this point, you can cook the sausage in any manner you prefer. Grilled on the grill with sauerkraut topping, baked in the oven with home-style beans, sautéed with peppers and onions, browned and bubbled with marinara, or my favorite … smoked in the smoker.
If you don’t have a smoker, don’t despair. So much of this process can be altered to accommodate sausage newbies. I’ll start by showing what we do with our smoker, then give some alternative methods for those of you who want a smoky flavor, but aren’t ready to invest in a “smoke specific” piece of equipment.
Our smoker is an inexpensive model with an electric heating element. It has four basic parts: the bottom segment with the heating coil; the water pan; the middle drum, where the meat is hung or laid on the grill or jerky screen; and the lid.
To prepare for smoking, we soak our wood chips in water for about an hour. This slows the chips from burning too quickly. We’re using a store-bought hickory chip here, but there are many different flavors of wood to choose from; each lends a different smoky note. There’s apple-wood, hickory, mesquite, cherry, maple and even chips that have been made from old whiskey barrels, with the aged alcohol adding its own depth.
Once the chips have soaked, we set our smoker outside on the driveway by my husband’s blacksmith shop and plug it in. It’s a good distance away from anything flammable.
In the bottom section of our smoker is the heating coil. We spread coals around the coil; these can be used over and over again. Then we spread the soaked wood chips on the coals. We try to avoid placing the chips directly on the coil, as they will burn too quickly. The coil will heat the coals, and the coals will heat the chips, eventually evaporating the water in the chips and turning to smoke.
Suspended over the top of the heating coil is the metal water pan. The liquid in this pan is heated by the coils and the rising smoke. The water turns to steam and helps keep the meat juicy during the smoking process. It also helps regulate the temperature. The water pan can also be used as an opportunity to give subtle flavors to the meat. We sometimes fill the pan with apple cider or earthy alcohols like whiskey or dark ale. The flavors of the liquid marinate the smoke and give the meat one more step of complexity.
On top of the heating coil goes the barrel where the meat is placed. Our smoker came with two grill racks and a jerky tray. We placed the sausage on the grill rack and topped with the lid.
While the smoker is working its magic, the entire yard fills with a delicious smoky wonderfulness that reminds me of the bonfires of the Smoky Mountains, where we used to camp as a child, and succulent, sweet Texas barbecue. The dog usually asks to go outside 50 times just so he can prowl around the smoker with his nose in the air.
In about an hour we peeked at the sausage. Our smoker has a small door on the side that lets you see the meat without opening the top. You lose some smoke, but not as much as taking off the lid. Don’t peek too often: Every time the lid is opened, the smoke escapes and the temperature drops.
The meat looked done … juicy, golden and caramelized. We use a meat thermometer to check for thorough cooking. For chicken, you should be at 170 degrees in the center of a link.
The Smoker Vs the Charcoal Grill
If you don’t own a smoker, but would like to experience the delicious flavor of smoked chicken sausage, you can use your charcoal grill. Sausage is a great candidate for the grill alternative, because it’s a small portion of meat and cooks quickly.
To use your grill, start by soaking your wood chips. Large pieces of wood work better in this method, because the burning charcoal will smoke the wood more quickly. Heat the charcoal in the usual manner. Place a metal pie pan filled with the liquid of your choice on the bottom rack above the coals to act as the steam element. When the coals are nice and hot, place the soaked chips directly on the coals. Put your meat on the grill and allow to smoke with the lid on. You will need to tend the coals often to keep the smoking process going.
We purchased a smoker because we smoke a fair amount of food. We also like to smoke larger portions of meat like pork butt, several whole chickens, or large pieces of salmon at a time. For us, the convenience of a smoker was a good investment. The nice thing about having a smoker is that it becomes the “set-it-and-forget-it” of the grilling world. You want the meat to smoke “low and slow” for optimum juiciness. Because of this, larger pieces of meat can take hours to complete. While you can use a charcoal grill to accomplish a similar flavor, the coals need tending quite often, and with a 14-hour pork butt, the process becomes quite involved. I also find it more difficult to keep a constant temperature with the grill method because every time the lid is removed to tend the coals, the smoke is released and the grill has to start over again.
When it comes to smokers, there are a ton of different designs, options and technology, but the more gadgets and whistles, the faster the price goes up. Because of this, there are many homemade alternatives when it comes to smokers. Smokers can be made out of anything from hollowed-out logs to food-grade storage barrels … even old refrigerators!
Whatever your degree of DIY involvement, I hope I’ve inspired you to give sausage making a try. These posts are a mere drop in the bucket when it comes to the creativity, technique and experimentation that comes with making your own sausage. Have fun, and let me know how it goes!
For more fun with sausage making, read my other posts:
Tough Meat, Tough Decisions: Intro to Homemade Chicken Sausage
DIY Chicken Sausage, Part 1: De-boning the Chicken
DIY Chicken Sausage, Part 2: Making the Links