Story and photos by Meredith Leigh
You’ve braised, grilled, fried, spatchcocked, and stuffed. Why not try your hand at poultry sausage? In the modern kitchen, whole birds rule the day, giving families multiple meals from one purchase. Sausage from chicken, duck, or other fowl is easy to make, lean yet juicy, and fun to flavor in creative ways. Here are the tips and tricks for composing a delicious poultry sausage that you can adapt to accommodate any species of fowl and any flavor combination you can dream of.
Bone the Meat
Darker meat makes great sausage, so you can approach your recipe in a few ways. Buy several whole birds and take off the breasts for later use, and compose your sausage with the rest of the carcass. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll just put the whole bird into the recipe, favoring a combination of light and dark meat in your sausages. I buy only pastured poultry, and favor breeds that live longer and move more before harvest, leading to inherently darker and more flavorful meat.
Take all the meat off of the bone. Don’t worry about the skin; you’ll need that too. The best way to get bones out of a bird is to cut along the length of the wing, thigh, or drumstick, and then “pop” the bone out of joint. They remove easily from there. To remove the breast meat, cut from the wishbone straight down the keel bone or breastbone, and, keeping your knife close to the carcass, lift the breasts off either side. Don’t forget the oysters on the back of the bird— two on either side of the upper back near the joint between the shoulder and the main carcass, and two on either side of the lower spine, about halfway up the back. Once you’ve removed all the meat from the bones, cut the meat into 2- or 3-inch strips, and lay it in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place it into the freezer to chill while you prepare seasonings. Be sure to place all the bones and any other bits from the carcass, such as cartilage, into a stockpot and cover with cold water. Set it on a burner and let it simmer for several hours. When it’s done, you’ll have a rich stock to use when cooking grains or beans, or for making soup. You’ll also be able to cool the bones and pick any remaining meat off of them for another meal such as tacos, soup, or chicken salad.
Fat for Flavor
Sausage needs fat, both for moisture and for flavor. If you choose to add fat, go for duck fat or pork fat at 30 percent. If you do include pork fat, be sure to use back fat, which has a firm texture and a high melting point, so it’ll hold up well through processing and contribute to the perfect texture in your finished sausage. When making chicken sausages, you can just use the chicken skins, as I’ve done in the recipe included below. The result is amazing, lean, and moist. You can weigh the skin and the meat separately, if you’re concerned you may need to supplement the skin with additional pork fat. In the recipe below, I used two chickens and just trusted that the skin on them is enough. The result was less work, and delicious sausage.
Seasoning is Key
Salt is the key ingredient. Calculate 1.5 percent of the weight of meat and fat or skin, and that’s your salt content. To that, add what you like. The recipe I’ve composed calls for preserved lemons, fresh garlic, sweet smoked paprika, rosemary, and white pepper. In general, simpler is better. If you’re just starting out, I recommend salt, black pepper, garlic, fresh herbs, and a dash of white wine. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for how much dry spice or other ingredient to add to a sausage recipe. Consider adding 1/3 the amount of pepper than salt. Add other ingredients as your senses guide you, paying attention to color and smell. Keep in mind that you’re aiming to balance ingredients. If something is inherently spicy, consider adding something sweet. If something is bitter or astringent, balance it with something rich. The brightness of the preserved lemons in my recipe stands out, for sure, but the earthiness of the paprika and the rosemary, and the spice from the garlic and pepper round out the flavor.
Grind and Mix Everything
You’ll need a way to grind the meat. For this recipe, I used an LEM Big Bite Grinder No. 8, which does a fabulous job of making up to 15 to 20 pounds of sausage at one go. You can also purchase an attachment for a KitchenAid mixer, if that makes more sense for your home. I recommend the Chef’s Choice attachment, because it’s stainless steel. Put the working parts of your grinder into the freezer, along with the poultry meat and fat that you’ve prepared. Because poultry carries the highest bacterial counts of any meat we consume, it’s important to keep the process very cold throughout, in order to limit contamination. Keep surfaces clean using a mixture of 60 percent alcohol and water. When you’re ready to grind, mix your seasonings with the meat and fat, and send it through the coarsest plate of the meat grinder. Then, take half of the mixture and send it through again. If you want a finer texture, send a portion of the mix through a third time. With gloved hands, mix the sausage thoroughly for at least a minute. This will ensure the buildup of myosin, a protein that creates the glue-like substance to bind the sausage. When you’ve mixed and the sausage is sufficiently sticky, place the meat mixture into the refrigerator and clean the grinder. Before stuffing the sausage, make a test patty from the ground meat and cook it up in a little skillet. Let it rest a moment and then taste it. Does it need anything? If so, adjust as needed.
Stuff the Casings
Make sure your counters are clean before you stuff the sausage. The best machine for the job is a vertical hand-powered sausage stuffer. For this recipe, I used an LEM Mighty Bite 5-pound capacity stuffer and 32- to 35-millimeter natural hog casings. Sausage stuffers usually come with 3 to 4 interchangeable stuffing tubes. For this recipe, you’ll use the medium-sized tube, which is meant for bratwurst-sized links. Put all of the sausage mix into the canister. Ensure that the press is screwed onto the auger correctly, and then begin to turn the crank and force the press down into the canister. This will compress the meat and begin to evacuate air from the product. When the meat is just starting to come out of the end of the sausage tube, load all of the casings onto the stuffing tube. Tie a double-overhand knot into the end of the casing, and then, keeping your hand on the sausage tube to guide the casing, begin turning the crank. Allow the meat to fill the casings before releasing more casing off of the sausage tube. You’ll get a feel for it as you go. The meat will fill the casing, and you’ll simply be guiding the amount of casing that is released from the sausage tube, so that you can control the fullness of the sausages. You want them to be full and firm but still supple. This is so that when you link them, they’ll have room to compress into links without bursting. If you do get a tear, just remove the meat from the problem spot and cut and tie the casing before you start stuffing again. Any meat lost from busted casings can be returned to the canister and re-stuffed, or packed as bulk sausage for cooking up into patties or mixing into meatballs.
Make the Links and Dry
Once the sausages are stuffed, decide how long you want your links to be. Five to six inches is standard. Pinch the place where you want to make a link in between your thumb and forefinger. Then, twist 5 to 6 times to form the link. Go down another 5 to 6 inches, pinch, and twist in the opposite direction. Continue pinching and twisting, alternating the direction you twist each time, until you’ve made it through the entire coil of sausage. Once the sausages are linked, arrange them on a plate or baking sheet and leave them to dry in the refrigerator, uncovered, while you clean your workspace and prepare for cooking.
Poach and Sear
The best way to cook your sausages is to poach them first, and then grill them or sear them in a pan. This ensures that they are cooked all the way through without being overcooked on the outside. Poaching is water cooking under boiling point, so simply get a stockpot or Dutch oven full of water and bring it almost to a boil, but not all the way. Carefully lower the sausages into the poaching water and allow them to poach for roughly 6 to 8 minutes. Then, remove them from the poaching water. At this stage, you can hold them in the refrigerator for up to three days before searing them off, or you can sear or grill them right away. The drier they are before you sear them, the better browning reactions you’ll get on the surface, enhancing both flavor and texture.
For the following recipe, I used pastured chickens, and served the sausages with sautéed kale and white beans cooked in chicken stock. Vary the recipe with other flavors, and you’ll be well on your way to building your own recipe book of fabulous poultry sausages.
Chicken Sausage with Preserved Lemon and Smoked Paprika
- 1760 grams poultry meat and skin (2 whole chickens de-boned, at 4 to 5 pounds each)
- 26 grams sea salt or kosher salt
- 7 grams white pepper
- 10 grams sweet smoked paprika
- 8 grams dried rosemary, ground
- 28 grams fresh garlic, chopped
- 95 grams preserved lemons (about 2 whole), rinsed and chopped
- A splash of chicken stock (important moisture if you use skins only and no added fat)