RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Processed meats can lower your life expectancy, increase your lung cancer risk, and even give you blurry vision. Most of these health risks owe to the existence of nitrate and nitrite preservatives, which exist even in "natural" or "uncured" processed meats labeled "no nitrates or nitrites added," according to a study published earlier this year in The Journal of Food Protection.
So why on earth would you want to eat it? Because it tastes good! What's a Saturday morning without sausage and pancakes or a winter stew without a little sausage added for flavoring? And when you make your own "processed" meats at home, you don't have to add those harmful preservatives, which are usually added because the meats are partially or completely cooked, or need to withstand a long shelf life. There are lots of processed meats you can make at home, but one of the easiest is homemade sausage.
At its most basic, sausage is nothing more than seasoned ground meat. Virtually every corner of the world has developed its own version, from hot Italian sausage to Cajun andouille. Perfect for making the most out of leftovers or tougher cuts of meat, the art of sausage-making can impart delicious textures and flavors bearing little resemblance to the original, just by varying seasonings, casings, grinding or liquefying techniques, cooking, brining, smoking, and aging methods.
And it doesn't have to be complicated. You can whip up a batch of fresh (as in, uncured) loose (not stuffed into links) sausage in as little as a minute or two, starting with pastured, organic meats and organic spices (though I like to let the mixture sit in the fridge overnight to let the flavors meld before cooking if I can).
Your Meat Mix
Most of the time, sausage is made from pork or a combination of pork and beef, but you can use any meat or combination of meats: poultry, goat, lamb, buffalo, wild game, or whatever you have access to. For variety you can replace a small percentage of the meat with veggies like onions, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted chili peppers, or partially cooked potatoes or with fruit such as raw apple.
I make a lot of chicken sausage (we raise our own chickens), which is very lean, even though I include all the fat and skin from the birds. Sausage recipes usually call for fatty cuts and even add extra fat (up to 1/3 fat to 2/3 lean meat) for a specific reason: Fat is what keeps sausage moist and soft after you cook it. And if you're using pastured or grass-fed meat, its fat is high in healthful omega-3 fatty acids (unlike commercial grain-fed meat), so you get an extra health boost from the less-desirable, fattier cuts of meat.
What You'll Need
For super-easy sausage, just buy ground meat at the store or from a local farm or farmer's market. While you won't need one if you buy ground meat, I have my great-grandmother's hand-cranked meat grinder as well as a dedicated electric model, both of which are perfect for grinding whole cuts of meat into sausage at home. Multiuse kitchen appliances often have a meat grinder attachment you can buy. To prepare your meat for grinding, cut it into 1-inch chunks or strips and feed it into your machine.