Handy Hardware Options That You Can Do Without For Now, But…
[Grinders, Stuffers, Mixers, Weigh Scales, Smokers]
Recipes: Picadillo, party cheese+sausage dip
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Just between you and me, it’s a real pain making all those conversions. Once you depart from a recipe by, say, having 3.83 pounds of meat on hand and wanting to use it all in a recipe, you discover that multiplying eighths of a teaspoon gets really messy. We’ve already talked about converting everything from volumes to weights, then using grams instead of pounds and ounces. Now, let’s talk about some equipment that makes it all possible, freeing you from the tyranny of having to stick exactly to original recipe quantities.
The main one is a good kitchen scale. Yours should have a read-out in both pounds and grams. Close behind it, perhaps greater in importance, is a good small-weight scale with better resolution.
I started out with an electronic kitchen scale which I bought in a kitchen supply store at the mall, but it couldn’t resolve better than four or five grams. Still, it was good for weighing multiple pound chunks of meat.
Weighing herbs and spices called for a different scale. I bought what I called a “drug dealers’ scale” from a pawn shop. This weighed to the nearest tenth of a gram, but had a problem called “hysteresis” in that it wouldn’t weigh accurately below a couple of grams and didn’t always retain its zero. I finally solved the problem with an internet order of an “American Weigh” brand 100g x 0.01g Digital Scale, which cost about ten bucks. I have never been disappointed with it.
Soon tiring from buying ground meat, I shopped around and bought a grinder. I usually produce sausages in one to five pound batches, so I needed only a small grinder. I had an old hand-cranked one that my mother-in-law had inherited from her own mother. It was dull, and of an odd, rounded design that couldn’t be sharpened. One batch, and it had to go.
I wound up buying an electric model, not the smallest size but far from the largest, for a little over a hundred bucks. The shopping process identified several good internet order spots which supply all sorts of sausage making goodies. Amazon supplies most, but I went directly to sources, where a wider selection could be easily found. For grinders, SausageMaker.com, Butcher-Packer.com, and LEM.com are great. Bass Pro and Cabela’s also sell lots of items, and if there’s a local store near you, you can actually go there and see what you’re buying. Others also carry grinders- – I bought a Kitchener brand from Northern Tool, and landed a small grinder at Wal-Mart on close-out . This latter one is inadequate- – underpowered unless you feed it very slowly and use a plate with large holes, but… Moral- – get a good one. A friend has a grinder attachment to her stand-mounted mixer. This gets the job done, albeit slowly. …but that’s okay if you do more mixing than grinding.
My grinder, and apparently all grinders, had a set of plastic stuffer tubes sold with them. This should get you going. All you need to do is buy some casing, which is sold at the above=mentioned mail order or “big box” stores, and in grocery stores where large numbers of hunters abound. Get the most common size, 28 to 32 mm (or thereabouts) hog casings. Then, use a “blank” die, one with big sluts in it instead of holes, and leave out the cutter blade. Attach the tube with casing loaded onto it, and you’re in business.
…except that this method generates heat due to the pumping action. Many people who use this method also put ice chips down the throat of the grinder when stuffing. Keep that mince cold! Stop occasionally, clean out the grinder parts, and cool everything down again in the freezer. You need to keep everything below 40 degF, remember?
Casing comes in “hanks,” the total length defined as “about a year’s worth, but never enough. (I’d buy two if I were you, now that you’re entering the Big-Boy Toy league.) They come in a plastic bag also filled with salt as a preservative. A “hank” of 28-32 mm casing will stuff 100 to 125 pounds of sausage. A typical length will stuff 3 to 5 pounds.
You can also buy “shorts,” which are considerably cheaper. A typical bag of “shorts” will case 25 pounds of sausage. The name belies the problem- – they vary in length, and invariably will run out before you use up your supply of mince, or you will run out of mince and still have a long length on your stuffer tube.
This is also true of those off-brands that you can buy fairly inexpensively in grocery stores throughout deer country. These are usually locally-produced, inferior-quality casing of varying lengths. They work fine, but you will have a larger-than average number of “blow-outs” due to holes and they are sometimes difficult to get started when putting them onto a stuffer tube.
But it’s a hobby, right? …no big obstacle.
Yes, you can stuff sausages with a grinder, which after all is just a meat pump with blades in it. Much better, though, is a dedicated stuffer. This is essentially a piston with a stuffer tube on it. You turn a crank, which supplies enough energy to force the sausage mince through the stuffer tube and into the casing. If you bolt the stuffer down with, say, “C” clamps, you can turn the crank with one hand and guide the casing as it fills with the other, and use a third to coil it, and… Yes, it can be done with one person, but it often is easier if you have a friend handy. …or an electric drive with a foot pedal switch, which I’m dying to have but can’t quite justify. …yet.
I have a 5-pound model. They come in bigger sizes. LEM makes a really nice one, and Grizzly Manufacturing puts out an almost identical model. I’ve seen Chinese models which use the same design. But you may ask, why all the crank-and-gear equipment? Why not just do it by hand?
Well, okay, that’s what I started with. I bought a hand-powered five-pound-size “horn” stuffer from Sears mail order catalog for about forty bucks, thinking that I’d save the other sixty or eighty bucks to spend on something useful like pork butts or ice cream and chocolate sauce. There were several problems. The thing had about 30 pounds of metal in it, which needed to be cooled own to freezing. It was awkward to carry and to fasten down to the kitchen counter. Of the five pounds of mince, only about three could be extruded. The rest filled the head space between the flat plunger and the bell-shaped mount for the stuffer tube, leaving something similar to one of Dolly Parton’s…
Well, you get the idea. I used it twice. It briefly entered service as a boat anchor, but wouldn’t dig in properly like a kedge. It now decorates the yard during each garage sale, lonely and unwanted.
My next stuffer venture worked, kinda-sorta. Our old buddy, Ross Hill, and I brainstormed the “Russ-n-Ross Ram Rod” stuffer, made from a “Liquid Nails” oversized caulk gun, a stuffer tube from my grinder, a circle of rubber gasketing material, and some PVC fittings and pipe. For quantities of about a pound, it worked fine. I don’t know about you, but I rarely make one-pound test quantities of a sausage. I typically five or ten pounds at a pop. The constant tearing down and reloading precluded using the thing very much. Even having spare barrels (lengths of pipe) pre-filled with mince didn’t help much. We couldn’t scale it up and remain hand-powered.
In its defense, however, look up “Kirby Cannon stuffer” on the internet. This hydraulic (water pressure) powered stuffer has a few design similarities, but is well-thought-out as to power requirements and strength of materials. (Schedule 80 PVC pipe!) You could set up a large-volume operation with one of these, but at five pounds a batch, I can’t justify it for my “collection.”
When you mix the ingredients into a batch of ground meat, if you’re doing in right and watching them temperature, your gloved hands will rapidly approach the 32 to 40 degrees F allowable temperature. What to do?
I’ve tried using a mixing paddle, a wire potato masher, various folding and squishing motions, heavier gloves, and have come to the conclusion that if you don’t make at least one of your hands ache, you’re not doing it right. My brother, at this point, snorts and says, “Look at this.” His paddle mixer accommodates up to 20 pounds of mince. You probably need ten pounds or more to do it justice. …sounds interesting. Maybe next birthday or Christmas…
Ah, here’s a hotly-debated topic, no pun intended. Be sure to think of your preferences, here, because smokers run the gamut. You can build one out of a cardboard box, as Alton Brown once did on his “Good Eats” show. Your choice will depend on
- how much smoked meat you want to turn out
- whether or not you want low temperature operation like we need for smoking sausages (remember that “140 to 170 degF” requirement?)
- whether you also want to smoke barbecue “low and slow” (ideally 225 to 285 degF)
- whether you want high temperature operation for grilling operation,
- whether you want high temperature operation for baking-type applications,
- whether you need wood smoke or pellet smoke or biscuit-form wood smoke or charcoal or electric heat or gas heat or propane heat or…
- whether you generate smoke with a “smoke gun,” a chip pan or metal box, a venturi smoke generator, an “Amazin’ “ pellet-fired smoke generator (two types!), wood chunks, logs, wood-based charcoal, or regular (contains lignite coal) charcoal.
And you think I’m going to solve that problem for you? Perhaps you’d like to buy the Brooklyn Bridge while you’re at it?
This is not an easy question to answer, which is why I own, between our two houses, two offset smokers for wood or charcoal, three electric smokers for low temperature sausage smoking, a propane smoker which can be used with an auxiliary electric heating element, for cooking chickens and turkeys, and three gas grills of various sizes for grilling. We use our two kitchen ovens for baking, and I have a portable Auber PID controller and a tunable off/on “bang-bang” controller that I use with the electric equipment. There are two types of cordwood stacked (well, okay, piled) in the yard. Two types of charcoal in bags in the garage, and five or six types of wood pellets bagged at each house.
“That way, you can spend more money,” my wife admonishes me. Actually, I continue to improve my equipment, making mistakes along the way. If truth be known, you can use an electric smoker to do sausages as well as cook brisket “low and slow,” and they’re very good at temperature control, but they don’t do as good a job on brisket as charcoal or wood-fired offset smokers. Likewise, my gas grills don’t do as good a job on grilling as the wood-fired or charcoal-fired smokers do when operated in grilling mode, but they’re a whole lot easier to use.
You probably have a gas grill for general backyard grilling. Keep it. You’ll use it more frequently than any other type of smoking/grilling equipment. Then, if you’re serious about barbecue, go for an offset smoker. If you’re serious about smoked sausages, go for an electric smoker instead. Chickens or turkeys can be done in either, but if that’s all you do (and if you are susceptible to advertising hyperbole), consider one of the various egg-shaped ceramic “kamodo” brands. They’re pricey, but people seem to love ‘em.
The propane smoker, like gas grills, does not turn down low enough to smoke sausages. I had to use an electric hotplate and temperature controller to use it for sausages. It’s fine for cooking turkeys or chickens, or roasting meats, but that’s about it. If I had to do it over again, I would not have bought it, but as it stands, sticking a hotplate and controller in it (electric option) makes it useful for smoking sausages.
People wax eloquent on the subject of offset smokers for barbecue cook-offs. I can’t argue with them. Neither can I compete with them. I keep mine for cooking brisket, and do about one a year in each. Beef is expensive as of this writing, due to the prolonged drought in the west, grassland drying up, herds being sold off, plus we live in a part of Texas known as the “Barbecue Trail” where really good brisket is widely available. It’s only outside of Texas, where our style of barbecue is unknown, that I can justify a fancy offset rig. If you feel passionate about barbecue, though, go ahead, take out a home equity loan and buy a good rig.
Of my three electric smokers, all are the cheapest Masterbuild “Electric Smokehouse” model. Knowing what I know now, I should have bought one of the better ones- – Bradley and Traeger come to mind. You can spend a fortune here, too, what with all the fancy smoke generator options and pellet/biscuit feeder options and electronic controllers and such. These things will put out excellent sausages as well as excellent brisket (the two ends of the useful temperature range). My Masterbuilt, my original one, came with a temperature controller that not only read twenty degrees low, the error got worse as the temperature went up, and it had a “deadband” (range that the temperature cycles between “on” and “off”) of 4 degrees low, 6 degrees high, about its set point. This may not pose a problem for some, but it does for us sausage makers- – we need to accurately control between 140 and 170 degreesF, and not waltz all over the place or we’ll either overshoot or undershoot.
I called the factory and complained. They sent me another smoker box with electronics attached. It did the same. I called again and complained. They sent me another. …same results. I called again, but this time thanked them for their good customer service. I bought a second (high-priced) door, and kept the third for parts. I “made do,” but started doing some research.
I have the advantage that I worked as an engineer for 43 years, and have had lots of exposure to process control equipment. I found a dual-probe “PID” controller on the internet- – couldn’t believe my eyes! It was obviously designed by someone like me to handle my exact problem. I bought one, disabled the original Masterbuilt electronics and hooked it up in their place, and voila! No more setpoint offset. No more wild gyrations in temperature. And to boot, it featured six different programmable steps, each of which could hold a specified temperature for a specified time, or hold a specified temperature until the meat temperature reached a certain value.
…a little sidebar, here. “PID” means “proportional, integral, derivative.” If you measure a temperature, say, and put in a signal to a relay that turns on a heating element and keeps it on until the measured temperature exceeds the desired temperature, then turns it off, then turns it back on again when the temperature drops, then… you get the idea. This is an off/on control referred to in the industry as “bang-bang.” The actual temperature attempts to oscillate around the desired temperature (so-called setpoint). However, because there’s heat loss, it can never average out right at setpoint- – it’s always a bit low. Depending on how much “gain” is in the equipment and circuits and smoker box and meat, the oscillations may include the setpoint for a while, but as it settles down, it will settle to an average lower than the desired setpoint.
Enter a mathematical function known as integration. What this does is calculate the difference between setpoint and actual temperature, and add in (or subtract out, if it has to) a bit of extra signal that slowly, steadily, drives the offset to zero. In addition to damping out the oscillations, it gets rid of the offset.
But what if you change the setpoint? You want the heating element to respond quickly. This is the derivative function, its purpose being to respond to rapid changes quickly. Since this is inherently unstable (think about over-reacting!), controllers typically don’t include a very strong derivative component.
Translation: PID brings your temperature quickly to where you want it, then holds it there. Smoker controllers like mine use a silicon controlled relay, “SCR,” to switch the current off and on. There’s still a small oscillation, because we’re still switching off and on instead of throttling current flow. It turns out that this is much easier than a transistor throttle, in that the power transistors needed would be pretty big, expensive, and would dissipate a lot of heat.
So, anyway, a PID feature is desirable in your new smoker. So is a continuous (or nearly so) chip or pellet feeder, such as is found in Bradley and Traeger equipment, among a few others. Equipment that depends on heating a pan of water-soaked chips is marginal at best. You need a good, long-lasting, dependable source of smoke.
The next thing I did to my Masterbuilt smoker was to rip out the chip addition chute and pan. This helped cut down on the amount of metal surrounding the heater element, which improved heater control response time. The downside was that it allowed meat juices to drip down onto the element during higher temperature meat roasting. When a drip hits a hot element, it “flashes” (evaporates suddenly), causing localized cooling, which causes stress. Over a period of a year or two, this will weaken the element, which gets brittle, heats up at that spot, and burns through, causing the element to fail. In retrospect, it would be better to leave the metal above the element in place to protect it. …which is my next modification.
Okay, so you’ve ripped out the chip loader. What to do for smoke? I tried several things. First, I installed a length of gutter downspout to a flange mounted over the hole where the chip loader had been. I then tried feeding the downspout with a couple of different smoke generation methods:
- Cardboard box containing a heating element, cast iron pan, water-soaked wood chips
- Tin can, air bowing over the top, smoldering chips inside
- A 12” long or so “Amazin’ “ tubular perforated cylinder smoke generator filled with wood pellets
All of them worked, but the first two suffered from the problem that the original Masterbuilt chip loader did- – smoke quit after a short time.
The “Amazin’ “ worked fantastically well. Depending on air flow, I could get up to eight hours of continuous smoke, far more than I needed. (I was shooting for four hours.) These folks make two designs, a flat “maze” type which was their original offering and a cylindrical type in various lengths (including one that you can change). The flame front (actually smoldering front) moves downward, slowly, giving a continuous supply of smoke. I bought the long one, but would up cutting it in two because, one, it supplied smoke longer than I needed, and two, it was too tall to fit inside my equipment without placing it diagonally in the bottom of the box, which directed smoke upward, bypassing much of the meat.
I then pulled out the bottom grill rack and replaced it with a smoke distributor made up of a pair of two-piece “Char-Broil Adjustable Length Rectangle Porcelain-Coated Steel Cooking Grates” from Lowe’s Home Improvement. The adjustable lengths enabled me to span the entire smoker from one rack support to the other, and a small bit overlap between the two of them ensured no smoke leakage up the middle. The bottom rack supports are mounted high enough that half of an “Amazin’ “ tube can stand upright, closer to the middle of the box. If I want heavy smoke, I can light two of ‘em.
…and by the way, use a blowtorch to get the pellets going. Make sure the pellets are lit, or they’ll quit after a few minutes and you won’t have smoke. I like to load the “Amazin’ “ and put it in the smoker during heatup and drying at 100 degF, prior to loading meat. Then, after I load the sausages in, at the end of drying, I pull the “Amazin’ ”out as the controller kicks on for 140 degF smoke operation, get it started, stick it back in, and off we go!
Note that I smoke at 145 degF, outside the “danger zone,” and only smoke meats which have nitrite cure in them. DO NOT, under any circumstances, smoke fresh sausage. Add the proper amount of cure #1 before stuffing.
Picadillo – Party Cheese+Sausage Dip
The Cubans, assisted by various and sordid, uh, assorted “celebrity chefs,” appear to have taken over the picadillo recipe market. It’s a bit like investments, though- – when the doctors and dentists move in, it’s time to sell. But long before things Cubano became popular on the backs of the embargo and Cuban diaspora, there was the Mexican version. This South Texas favorite is often made from venison, pork, beef, or combinations thereof.
Here’s a “Cuban” version ingredient list.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced, or more to taste
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 6 large pitted green olives, quartered
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1 tablespoon capers (optional)
- 1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
- 2 (1.41 ounce) packages sazon seasoning (such as Goya®)
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon white sugar
- salt to taste
Here’s a Mexican version ingredient list:
- 1 Tbsp Olive Oil (or any oil you use)
- 500 gr. ground lean beef, pork, venison, or combination
- 1/2 white onion (finely chopped)
- 2 small garlic cloves (finely chopped or minced)
- 2 jalapeños, chopped with stems and seeds removed
- 4 Roma tomatoes, chopped
- 1/4 cup of cilantro, roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp chicken bouillon or 1 chicken bouillon cube.
- 1 tbsp chili (chile) powder (or a 50/50 mix of seeded, powdered chilis anchos & pasillas)
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 1 large pinch of oregano
- salt and pepper to taste (take it easy with the salt, as the chicken bouillon already has it)
- 1 cup of water
- 2 tbsp lime juice (optional)
Preparation is the same for both:
- In a large Skillet heated with olive oil over medium – high heat, cook onion and ground meat until onion has turned transparent and ground meat has browned. (5-8 min)
- Add everything else to the skillet. Stir until well mixed (combined).
- Add water, turn down the heat and cover. Cook for 30 min +- . Taste for seasoning and add the lime juice. (…very Mexican touch! Optionally, let each person squeeze some on when “loading” a tortilla.) Set skillet aside.
- Warm up your tortillas and enjoy!
Note the difference- – the Cuban version has exotica such as olives, capers, raisins, and sugar. The Mexican version uses jalapeños and chilis, cumin, cilantro, and the traditional splash of lime juice typical of Mexican foods, both Tex-Mex and interior.
Picadillo is delicious as a dip, or served in steamed tortillas. Flour tortillas hold together better, but the flavor of corn tortillas, especially yellow corn tortillas, adds to the dish. !Buen provecho!
Party Cheese+Sausage Dip
“It’s a Texas thang,” I suppose- – a ubiquitous party dip served at nearly every gathering during November and December (also between January and October). The two constants seem to be Kraft Velveeta cheese (hydrogenated corn and soybean oil, sold in blocks) and “RoTel” brand canned tomatoes and green chilis. If these are not available where you live, well… maybe you’ll avoid coronary problems and outlive us, but we’ll die happy. The most significant variable is the meat. The best ones are made with sausage, of course. (Otherwise, I would have left the recipe out.) You can, of course, make it with plain ol’ ground beef, but you’ll be missing a lot of flavor. (…unless you ain’t from Texas, and therefore have uneducated taste buds.) At least use some ground pork in it, okay?
The basic recipe comes from the RoTel folks, at http://www.ro-tel.com/recipes-RoTel-Famous-Queso-Dip-2693.html can be multiplied easily. A slightly modified procedure follows. The proportions are:
- 1 can (10 oz each) ConAgra’s “Ro*Tel® Original” Diced Tomatoes & Green Chilies, undrained
- 1 pkg (16 oz each) Velveeta®, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- Combine undrained tomatoes and Velveeta in medium saucepan. (Try draining and saving half the liquid from the tomatoes before adding. Otherwise, it may be too thin. You can always add more, later, but you can’t remove it once it’s in.)
- Cook over medium heat 5 minutes or until Velveeta is melted completely and mixture is blended, stirring frequently.
- Serve warm as a dip with tortilla chips, crackers or cut-up fresh vegetables.
During the Cold War, soldiers stationed at “DEW” Line (Distant Early Warning) radar installations discovered that, if they walked their guard posts in front of the radar dish, they could keep warm. (Sorry about the cataracts, guys, and thanks for your service.) Nowadays, it is suspected that the microwave oven was invented, or perhaps perfected, to prepare this dish. The crock pot also derives much of its success from this dish. Perhaps civilization as we know it might not exist without this recipe. Certainly, two of America’s greatest FrankenFood corporations and many cardiac surgeons nationwide have benefited.
Enterprising hosts and hostesses have added all sorts of things to the basic mixture over the years. (We call that “progress.”) Take it to the next level with such additions as:
- One pound of any sausage, “scattered” or sliced, browned.
- One pound of ground beef, pork, venison…even ground turkey, browned
- Canned or homemade chili con carne
- “Ranch Style” (brand name) beans
- Firm Tofu or Tempeh (believe it or not)
Others have been known to add:
- Shrimp and cream cheese.
- Cream cheese and cilantro
- Small mushroom stems & pieces
- Chopped onions, bell peppers, broccoli, or other veggie pieces
- Sliced black (California, “ripe”) olives
- Canned cream of mushroom soup (used for thinning. …or not.)
So, go ahead and indulge your friends and family, this holiday season. …or year. …whatever. Hum to yourself that popular country music song, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger,” as you carry it in from your prep area. Have a few bites of it yourself. …just to show that it’s safe, of course. Then, step aside as the whole flock flocks to the table, devours your offering, and asks for more. …and tell yourself, “It’s my sausage! It’s MY sausage! They love it!”