The Newfangled Wrangler
Smoking Your Sausage
- — Smoker Operation: Introduction
- — Cooking Regimes
- — The Objectives (The Steps)
- — SIDEBAR: Process Control
- — Notes on Smokers
- — el Ducko’s Smoker Rigs
- — Conclusion
Introduction: We should get this straight at the outset. I am NOT the “Earliest Risin’ Wrangler” described on SausagesWest.com. That’s a position of great responsibility and, frankly, at my age, I forget that I’m getting forgetful. But making sausage is something that (CW may disagree) keeps me sane. It’s a great, detail-filled hobby if you want it to be. …or, it can be relatively detail-free. Everything except, it seems, the FSIS temperature/time guidelines, is relatively rule-free. The FSIS guidelines are hard numbers, but you can usually slide your sausage type into an adjacent one with guidelines that cover YOUR production. So relax, Bunkie, while we cover one man’s version of how to smoke sausages.
Remember the old television ad, pharmaceutical-related, where the guy in the medical scrubs starts with “I’m not a medical doctor, although I play one on TV”? …seems like it was the old “Marcus Welby, MD” show, but I’m probably wrong. At any rate, that goes for me too- – I’m not formally trained as a sausage expert, but I was an engineer for 43 years and I know a bit about how to process everything from hydrogen to tar, monomer to polymer to… uh… tar, food-grade material from raw ingredient to… that damned tar. …or char, if you will. We’ve high-pressure hydroblasted a number of my experiments from the cracking furnaces, distillation towers, vessels, and reactors of the world. It costs money to operate that way, but overall, my employers came out ahead.
And that’s how you learn- – have an idea, try it, clean up the mess, and sooner or later (actual R&D statistics peg it about 10% for research, 40% for development), one of your ideas actually makes it to the real world. People who follow in your footsteps have a much greater chance of success, so you out there, whoever you are, for goodness sake share your ideas. …or like Blanche DuBois in the Tennessee Williams play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” you’ll be hauled away in a long-sleeve white coat, saying “Whoever you are… I’ve always been dependent on the kindness of strangers.”
Cooking Regimes: There are many ways to cook meat. A few indirect methods are listed below. We will be interested in the sausage version, which walks the line between botulism on the lower end and rendering fat at the upper end.
• Sausages: Dry at 130 degF, smoke at 130 degF, gradually raise temperature to give 154 degF IMT
Another smoker regime, used for most hobby-style smokers, is geared toward barbecue.
• Barbecue: Set temperature to 250 -275 degF stack temperature, baste, cook to 175-195 IMT
The oven version, used for centuries to cook all types of meat, is often simpler.
• Roast: Set temperature to 325 degF. (Optional preheat to 425.) Baste, cook until 175 – 185 IMT.
We attempt, here, to control within those sausage process limits with equipment that is usually designed for barbecue process. This can be done, but requires a bit of watchfulness and understanding. Hopefully the following commentary will be of use.
The Objectives (The Steps): There are several things which need to be accomplished in order to convert your sausage from “fresh” to “smoked” or its several varieties. They include (along with the steps to accomplish them):
1. Botulism prevention: This is a must. Ensure against botulism by formulating your sausages to contain 150 to 200 ppm of nitrite (depending on FSIS guidelines). Without this, don’t bother to smoke your sausages. You could seriously injure or kill somebody, most likely yourself, if you try. If you forgot to add nitrite, cook your sausage, don’t smoke it.
2. Mellow: Condition your sausage by allowing it to “mellow” in refrigeration overnight or up to 24 hours.
3. Dry: Dry your sausage, first at room temperature (and shielded from insects, if that is an issue where you live), then in the smoker. I tie them and hang them from one of the cooking grates from my smoker. Some people suspend their sausage from smoking sticks. (You can do this with a cooking grate, too. Tie a loop of cotton string, secure it to a sausage or pair of sausages, run the loop up through the grate, then slip a bamboo skewer through the loop.) The objective is to allow free air circulation, so the surface of each sausage is dry. (See below for drying in the smoker.)
4. Pre-Heat: Meanwhile, pre-heat your smoker. Mine is a Masterbuilt bottom-of-the-line model. I open the vent to 100% and turn it on with a setpoint to give an actual stack temperature just above 130 degrees F. This “magic” number is the temperature that you would like not to go below, because botulism is a risk at temperatures between 40 degrees F and 130 degrees F (4.4 and 54 degC).
You’ll need to use a good thermometer to measure stack temperature. The reason- – temperature controllers in nearly all smokers are notoriously bad. (Those cheap dial thermometers built into smoker doors are just as bad. Disregard them.) Mine reads anywhere from 18 degrees F low to two or three degrees high. The reasons for that are several:
–the thing only protrudes an inch into the smoker box and is surrounded by metal. All this metal is guaranteed to throw it off, usually low.
–As drying progresses, water evaporates from the sausage, cooling the surrounding gas. As the evaporation rate decreases (the amount of water in the sausages declines), the cooling rate decreasesand the heat capacity of the gas decreases, so the gas temperature increases.
–There are wide swings in temperature, caused by the cycling on-and-off of the electric heating element. This type of control (we called it “bang-bang” control, off or on) is subject to delays in the gas heating, due to the metal heating, and due to the fact that having off temperature and on temperature separated by any amount will naturally result in a gap. My Masterbuilt has about a two-degree gap in the controller setpoint between ON and OFF. The much wider swing in stack temperature is caused by the amount of gas, water composition, and metal wall temperature, plus the heat capacity of the metal heating element. I’ve stripped out most of the extraneous metal (the goofy chip addition hopper was a prime candidate), and that helped, but the problem is still there. For a given hardware setup, temperature cycling can be reduced by reducing the vent opening (reducing cool inlet gas quantity), and by the drying process which goes on. Stack temperature will naturally rise during smoking, especially at the end. …but more about that elsewhere.
SIDEBAR: Process Control: Here’s a little more about process control. (Please don’t doze off. Skip it if you must.) As I mentioned, “bang-bang” or “Off-On” control is a basic scheme for controlling, in our case, temperature. You enter a setpoint. You measure a temperature. If the temperature is below setpoint, the controller turns on, say, a heating element. When temperature goes above the setpoint, the controller turns it off. …sounds pretty good, eh? …except that you can never settle in at a constant temperature. Due to the heat capacity of the gas, the surrounding metal, the heating element, heat conduction convection out of the smoker cabinet, and the fact that the heating element doesn’t instantaneously turn on or off, there’s always overshoot and undershoot. My Masterbuilt undershoots by two or three degrees, and overshoots by ten or twelve. Yikes! You can improve control response by minimizing the amount of metal that has to be heated up, but that’s about it.
…or, you can change to a different type of controller. The industry standard, these days, is called a PID controller. (That stands for “Proportional/Integral/Differential.” Tell that to anyone and watch how fast their eyes glaze over.) The proportional part of the controller acts like this: the farther below the setpoint, the larger the signal and thus, the controlled property (say, electric current to the heating element). Likewise, the farther above the setpoint, the smaller the signal and thus the controlled property (the current). As the temperature rises toward setpoint, the current gradually decreases, so that at a certain set of conditions, there is a constant offset. The current never gets entirely shut off because there;’s always heat loss, so there’s always a certain amount of current required to produce heat, so there’s always an offset. If temperature ever matched setpoint, current would cut off and the temperature would fall, turning the heating element back on again. Thus it can never settle down exactly ON setpoint, always (in this case) BELOW it.
Depending on how fast the heating element gets hotter or colder or how slowly the metal cabinet heats up, the system can be over-damped, meaning that the temperature gradually approaches but never reaches setpoint. It can be under-damped, in which case the temperature will overshoot, oscillate about some value below setpoint, and gradually settle down.
You can live with that, since the offset is often smaller than the oscillations of “bang-bang” control. However, people took things a step or two further. Suppose we add an “integral” function, one that looks at the difference between actual and setpoint temperature and, over time, gradually increases the current to drive the difference to zero. …pretty neat solution, usually. Given an application such as our smoker temperature controller, where things don’t move very fast, this works quite well.
Interestingly, it also works well in an automobile speed control. But have you noticed that, when driving over a series of small hills, the speed controller sometimes loses control? Whoa! This is called “reset wind-up,” after the traditional name for integral control, “reset.” What happens is that the controller tries to drive that difference to zero, but the actual measurement changes rapidly, adding to the amount of correction needed, which makes the control action even stronger, which leads to bigger and bigger overshoot and under-shoot. Yikes again! These days, speed controllers have been modified so that reset windup cannot exceed a certain amount. If it does, the controller “kiscks off” into manual mode. This is fortunate- – in the early days of add-on speed controllers, my family nearly had a wreck while going over Raton Pass, New Mexico, due to reset windup. I still shudder to think how close we came to losing three generations of immediate family because of some stupid piece of add-on automotive equipment.
Fortunately, for our temperature control, this oscillation behavior is very unlikely. A PID controller with plenty of “P” gain and a small amount of “I” reset will settle in at setpoint quite nicely. It may oscillate when the setpoint is changed, depending on its tuning, but if tuned correctly, should respond quickly and settle down.
What is the Differential part, you may ask? Well, that part is used where rapid response must be made. I have only used it with flowrate controllers where the signal is noisy and a little bit of input signal change requires a large change in response. If you install a PID controller, do what we did in the chemical business- – start with “P,” then add in a bit of “I,” then leave the “D” at or near zero.
“…and there endeth the (controller) lesson.”
5. Load: Load the smoker with your sausages. Leave the vent at 100% for now. Give the sausages a half hour or more to dry. Note that this period does NOT subtract from the available time to smoke. Smoke absorption is best at lower temperatures, and most people say it does fine until the outer skin temperature of the sausage or meat reaches 150 degF or so. However, sausages are said to taste bitter if smoked wet. For smoke absorption reasons, most of my smoking is done at 130 degF or thereabouts. You’ll need to start raising the temperature, later, to reach an Internal Meat Temperature (IMT) target without overshooting it badly, but for now, we need to dry the sausage.
I like to hang my sausages vertically. I have modified the Masterbuilt by inserting a couple of “Flavor-Grate” slotted gratings from a gas grill which distribute the smoke pretty well. You may find that your equipment doesn’t distribute smoke very evenly within the box. Try my suggestion, but before you do, lay your sausages flat on the grate and move them around every hour or two. They’ll do just fine
6. Introduce Smoke: Assuming the surface of the sausages is no longer wet, you can now introduce smoke. Inspect visually. Ten minutes before you plan to introduce smoke, charge your smoke generator.
— I use an “Amazin’ “ brand tubular-style smoke generator. It’s a 1inch-or-so diameter mesh tube with a solid end cap on the bottom and an open cap on top. You fill the tube with wood pellets, use a blow torch to get the thing lit (at the top), and it smokes for as much as eight hours, depending on vent setting (oxygen availability).
–Venturi-type smoke generators are popular. A stream of air draws smoke from a smoldering quantity of pellets, and is directed into the smoke box. A small-volume air pump (I used an aquarium pump) can be used to generate the motive air. I have used a home-built venturi-type smoke generator in the past, but didn’t get the design right. Hopefully you’ll fare better.
–The Masterbuilt came with a built-in contraption used to dump wetted wood chips onto a pan just above the electric heating element. I found that the chips didn’t smolder for long. The moisture introduced from the chips was something I didn’t want (although for higher-temperature cooking, it’s not bad). It gave a high volume of smoke for a short time, cycled with the temperature controller, and didn’t last but fifteen or twenty minutes. Bear in mind that the Masterbuilt was designed for smoke cooking at 250 degrees F, and that I was attempting to control at 130 degrees. This far away from the original design, performance is bound to be different. I took out the chip loader, box, pan, and all related metal. This improved temperature response considerably.
–Load the smoke generator with the appropriate amount of wood chips or pellets. If it’s a multi-shot setup, like the original Masterbuilt rig, ready the first charge. Otherwise, be sure to load enough pellets for the full run, if you’re using the Amazin’ smoke generator. Venturi- users will have to use their experience. At any rate, light it (if you have to), and once it is stabilized, load.
7. Partially Close the Vent: With smoke introduced, close the vent to 25%. I have a couple of thermocouple wires threaded through my stack vent, so the adjustment is about that. Smoke should be coming from the vent, and can easily be monitored. Check it each time you check your temperatures. For example:
IMT. . . . . . . Stack Temp . . . . . . . SetPoint . . . . . . . Smoke
56 . . . . . . . . . .138 . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121 . . . . . . . . . .good
…and so on. Keep a running log, every half-hour to hour. Even though the setpoint stays the same, the actual (stack) temperature will creep upward as the humidity in the smokebox goes down.
There need not be smoke for the full run. In fact, two, four, or six hours is usually sufficient.
8. Raise Temperature to hit IMT Target: Toward the end of smoke duration, start raising the temperature setpoint. Bear in mind how high the temperature will cycle each time you do it, and don’t raise the setpoint too much or too rapidly. I add in five degrees per new setting, every half hour or so, keeping in mind that I don’t want to go above 170 degrees stack temperature or 154 degrees IMT. Factoring in a 10-degree swing (which varies, so keep an eye on it), I keep raising until I hit the stack temperature limit, then let it ride until IMT hits target.
…and why have the IMT target, you might ask? Well, the FSIS has various times at target temperatures which will kill off microorganisms to the proper level. They are listed at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/rdad/FRPubs/95-033F/95-033F_Appendix%20A.htm
and are summarized on our own website at http://sausageswest.com/fsis-guidelines-on-internal-meat-temperature-and-cooling/
Don’t argue with them. Do it as specified, for your own health as well as that of your friends.
But what if Aunt Gertrude is due at 5:30 for dinner and your spouse insists that you wrap it up? Well, the good folks at FSIS evidently are married, too, and give the alternate classifications “partially-cooked” for meats not done to the specified temperature. You’ll be heating your sausage in order to cook it, right? For most sausages, items like snack sticks excluded, that’s not a problem. Cook or freeze within three days. If frozen, thaw and cook within six months. Kabanosy and Landjaeger fans out there- – hit the IMT target. No exceptions!
9. Cool Rapidly: Congratulations! You’ve hit IMT target. Pull out your sausage, turn off the electricity to the smoker, toss the sausage into a suitable vessel, add ice and water, and cool it rapidly to below 80 degrees IMT. Dump the water, dry off the sausages, and let them continue drying while you prepare your packaging.
10. Package: Zip-Lock and similar bags are good for short-term storage (that 3-day limit, for example), but for freezing, I recommend FoodSaver or similar vacuum sealing equipment. I bought mine at a second-hand shop for twenty bucks. Nice ones retail for $85 and up.
Seal whatever is a typical helping size for your family, or whatever is convenient. For my breakfast chorizo, I plop 4-ounce portions into “snack bags”, form them into small logs, and fit them into a larger FoodSaver bag. To use, clip the end, not the top, off a FoodSaver bag, and empty out one of your “logs.” This leaves enough FoodSaver bag that you can vacuum-seal the remaining “logs” and put them back into the freezer. One 4-ounce log, thawed, is enough to scramble into four eggs for two people, or to store in the refrigerator for the next day.
There’s no need for the “log” treatment for fresh-style loose sausages like Italian sausage, unless you freeze multiple batches in a single bag. Weigh out enough for a batch of tomato & meat spaghetti sauce, a half-pound to a pound, pack it in loose form into a FoodSaver bag, and flatten it out a bit. Freeze it. They stack fairly well, once solid.
For andouille and the like, I typically seal a pair of smaller sausages or one larger one per FoodSaver bag, enough for one pot of gumbo or whatever. For kielbasa or bratwurst or the like, I seal two per FoodSaver bag, one each for my wife and me. If you have hungry teenagers, increase appropriately.
11. Cleanup: “The job ain’t finished…” Let the smoking chips smolder, although if you judged the needed amount correctly, they will have burned out already. I leave my Amazin’ tube in the smoker, having once dumped a live one into a flower bed with fresh mulch. (“Boss Lady” was not impressed.) Pull out the temperature gauge thermocouples, if you haven’t already, and close the vent so flies can’t get in. Take any grates inside, clean off the grease and solids, and either load ‘em into the dishwasher or wash by hand with hot, soapy water. Clean off the thermocouples or thermometer stems, taking care not to immerse them in water. (This can short them out. …not a disaster, but next time you’ll have to re-heat them to drive the water out.)
Notes on Smokers: Some people attempt to clean the inside of the smoker. I don’t, other than perhaps once a year. There is electrical equipment inside which can be ruined by exposure to water. Don’t chance it. One friend wipes down the inside by hand, and uses hot, soapy water to clean out the grease on the bottom of the smoker box. She’s a neat freak! Maybe a once-a-year wipe-down would be a good idea if there’s grease buildup, but mine has two years on it (knock on wood) hasn’t caught on fire yet.
When the grates are cleaned, re-install them in the smoker. …cuts down on the amount of storage required. One of my electric smokers and a spare reside in a plastic storage unit which can be opened up for use- – the lid lifts and the doors open outward. Another of my electric smokers, at a second house, is mounted on a furniture mover dolly. I stash it in a corner of the garage when not in use. The idea, on all of them, is to shield the electrical portions from the weather.
My Smoker Rigs: Not to brag, but I have (accumulated?) a gas smoker and several charcoal smokers as well. I find that the gas one can’t go low enough for my sausage needs. When I use it for sausage, I put a hot plate inside and hook up an external temperature controller. This is a nice rig- – controls within a half-degree, which still swings the box five degrees or so, but it’s better than the stock Masterbuilt unit.
The other two smokers are Brinkmann units, a horizontal smoker and a vertical smoker. I fitted the horizontal unit with steel rods for use as “smoke sticks.” In order to control the temperature, a carefully-measured amount of charcoal has to be loaded, and maintained every half hour, or the temperature gets too hot or too cold. At that temperature and with restricted air flow, the main problem with this unit is that the smoke stratifies in the upper half, so the sausages get only half-smoked. I have laid sausages horizontally on the grill grates, but there isn’t enough smoke contact to do a good job with sausages. This equipment is better used as a brisket smoker, which operates great at 250 to 275 degrees F. …but that’s a different subject.
There would be better smoke contact with the Brinkmann vertical smoker. However, it works best at 250 to 275 degrees F, too hot for use with sausages. It’s a larger box than the electric smokers, too big for my current needs. Someday, perhaps I will install a heating element or two. For now, though, the Masterbuilts, even with their flaws, continue to serve well.
Conclusion: There are lots of refinements and variations in technique that you will develop (or fall into) while smoking sausage. Innovate! Share with us, too. There’s always something new (and tasty) out there. The publications of the 1950’s predicted atomic power for everything, and little of that came to pass, but the controls grew directly out of some of that work. Don’t hold back! Although we’ll hold off publishing items that involve radioactive sources (well, maybe not), we’re open to whatever crack-pot, screwy, innovate, safe, helpful variations you might dream up.
Best regards, con mucho gusto, et cetera,
Chief Waterfowl Officer