How to Make & Smoke Sausage: An Interview with Arnis Robbins
Hopefully you’ve read our other fascinating smoked meat blog posts that came from time spent with Arnis Robins, Owner and Pitmaster at Evie Mae’s Pit Barbecue in Wolfforth, Texas. If not, make sure you check out How to Trim a Brisket, How to Smoke a Brisket, and How to Slice and Serve a Brisket. And now we’re going to share what he had to say about making and smoking sausage. We were fascinated with everything he shared!
Big Plate: Arnis, you’ve proven to be an encyclopedia of knowledge about brisket, so we’re dying to hear what you have to teach us about sausage.
Arnis: Originally, Evie Mae’s didn’t make our own sausage. I’d never made sausage before. But Nathan Pier who is over Production Management here at the restaurant is from Wisconsin and knows sausage, so he helped get our sausage program off the ground.
Why Make Sausage?
Big Plate: What made you interested in making your own sausage?
Arnis: I got interested in sausage when I saved my lean trim all week and realized I had 100 pounds at the end of the week. That’s 100 pounds that I paid prime beef price for. So, I bought a grinder from Cabella’s and began experimenting making sausage so I could start selling that lean trim that had been going in the garbage. We experimented about three weeks before we started selling it. The experimenting went on for a while still, but now we’ve been using the same sausage recipe for four years. So that was a huge game-changer for the business.
What Else Can Lean Trim Be Used For?
Big Plate: It makes sense that you started making sausage at the restaurant as a way to help your bottom line. But do you think it makes sense for someone at home to try making sausage?
Arnis: It can seem overwhelming if you’ve never done it, but I recommend you try it. Making sausage is very rewarding. If you’ve got a mixer that will take a grinder attachment, get that grinder and get started. Also, there’s nothing better than a ground brisket hamburger patty, so if you don’t want to make sausage, grind your lean trim and make hamburger patties or chili with it!
What Equipment Do I Need to Make Sausage?
Big Plate: So is it expensive to get the sausage making equipment?
Arnis: It’s not as bad as you’d think. You need a grinder, a stuffer, casings, and a sausage fork, so it’s not really that much.
Big Plate: You had Nathan’s help getting started in sausage. Any other help or inspiration that you pulled from?
Arnis: As I was pursuing how to make sausage, the book Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman was recommended to me. I got the book, and it’s a good investment. It’s all things cured meat. I used the book to identify basic, foundational sausage recipes. Evie Mae’s has a ton of beef trim, so we landed on an 85:15 beef:pork ratio.
Gluten Free Sausage
Big Plate: I know your sausage is gluten free, so can you tell us about that?
Arnis: Sausage typically has a cereal binder. I have celiac disease, so I can’t have gluten unless it’s in beer. (Laughter.) So we made a choice to stay away from grains as a binder. Powdered milk is also commonly used, but due to that being a common allergen, we decided to stay away from dairy, as well. We use pink salt, the stuff you use for curing meat, as a binder. It’s not a high enough ratio that it cures our sausage, but it does work as a binder replacement. Plus the nitrates make the sausage really pretty.
Big Plate: This isn’t pink salt like the Himalayan pink salt you get in the grocery store, is it?
Arnis: No. I’m talking about the sodium chloride and sodium nitrite mixture called pink salt. You’ve got to be really careful with this stuff. You can find it at Cabella’s.
Evie Mae’s Sausage Recipe
Big Plate: What else can you tell us about your process?
Arnis: Our sausage recipe is very simple: 85% prime, certified angus beef; 15% high quality pork shoulder; salt, pepper, paprika, garlic, pink salt, and natural hog casing. For the green chili & cheese, we add green chilies and cheese. I’m from New Mexico so green chili is near and dear to my heart. We serve a green chili cheddar sausage and a basic German sausage. We started out using a high temp cheese, which is a specialty item for the cured meat industry. It would come in ¼” cubes. It’s very difficult to get, and it’s a very processed cheese. After using it for about a year, we decided to try using some of our mild cheddar. And we found the larger we made those cubes, the better they would survive the smoking process. So now we make it with ¾” cubes. It’s really fun when you get one of those in a bite.
Temperature and Sausage Making
Big Plate: You’re making it sound easy, but I know there’s more to it than just stirring those ingredients together.
Arnis: Temperature of your meat is the big key. When we started making sausage, we did it in the pit room in the wintertime, and it was safe. But when it started warming up, it became very, very difficult. When you’re working with sausage and you’re grinding meat, that fat starts to render and get soft. When you try to run it through a grinder, that fat will “smear,” which will ruin your sausage. It’ll take your clean ground protein and fat and take it from an emulsion to something horrible. If it smears, it has to go in the trash. So work with your meat cold. Keep the cubed meat in the freezer almost frozen until it’s time to grind it. Small home grinders generate a lot of heat. Once you introduce that heat to the protein, you’ve got a limited amount of time to work before that fat starts to smear. And there are some tricks you can use to keep things cold. You can keep the metal elbow of the grinder in the freezer before you use it to help prevent smearing. You can put freezer packs around the grinder shoot. Stuff like that.
Big Plate: Tell us what you can about casings.
Arnis: There are synthetic casings and natural casings. Lamb casing will be 5/8 to 1/2 inch diameter, and hog casings will be 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inch diameter. You can get casing from Cabella’s and Academy, I believe. We order natural hog casing from World Casing, and even with that being a really high quality product, they’re still inconsistent. A link is called a hank, and these come packed in salt and will last forever. Make sure you rinse the casings in water before using them. We run water through the casing, then we put a week’s worth of casing in a solution of vinegar and water, about 4oz vinegar in a gallon of water. Vinegar tenderizes the casing.
Big Plate: What can you tell us about the stuffing process?
Arnis: When you stuff the hank, you can use butcher twine to tie each link off, or you can pinch and spin. With that method, skip a link or you’ll untwist what you just did when you twist the next one. Then prick the casing—don’t worry, it will not allow sausage or moisture to escape, but it allows you to squeeze out the air as you create the links. Then cut the twists about ¼” long. We allow our sausage to dry in the walk-in at least 24 hours. Two to three days is ideal because it helps make the casing a little more tender. The more it dries out, the more tender and snappy your sausage will cook up.
How to Make Your Sausage Snappy
Big Plate: So you want that snappiness?
Arnis: You want your sausage to snap, or pop. A lot of that final quality is developed in the cook itself. We’ve done hot smoking, cold smoking, and hot smoking with an ice bath. Our best results are when we slow smoke at a very low temp, like 200°F, and then put it right into ice water. It shrivels it up, but then we bring it back up to 140°F quickly, and it’s beautiful. This method gives it a lot of color and smoke. It’s labor intensive and doubles the amount of work, but it yields the best product.
Big Plate: So how would that process translate to someone smoking sausage at home?
Arnis: For those making sausage at home, I’d recommend you slow smoke it and freeze what you don’t eat. Then bring it back on a hot grill.
Big Plate: Wow. You’ve taken an intimidating process and made it seem doable. Thanks so much for your time!
Arnis: You bet. Feel free to come see us at Evie Mae’s if you don’t feel like making your own. We’ll be glad to serve you!