From Sawdust to Succulent: A Low-Fat Sausage Redux

A few years back, my husband and I developed a relationship with another couple whose wedding I had catered. Their family owns a large estate in central Maine that is home to a herd of amazing grass-fed Black Angus cattle, and the stone castle overlooking the river is a sight to behold. Hunting at the estate is a long-held family tradition for them, and that year, my client had bagged a large deer.

These clients were foodies, and they wanted to turn some of this deer into sausage, so they called me and we scheduled a sausage-making party. Now, venison is one of the leanest meats around, and in my preparations for our party, I thawed and ground some leaf lard—which is the purest lard that lies along the kidneys–from our freezer pig. I researched recipes and to my surprise, many of them required a ratio of up to 50/50 fat to meat. Thinking I knew better, we ground, spiced, cased, and cured about 20 pounds of sausages using 20% fat. We all figured that if we lowered the fat, we could eat more sausage. The sausages were beautiful. We had all learned a new and useful skill. It was a great day.

Chorizo Sausage

Well let me tell you this: we were wrong. Sautéed in the perfect pan with the perfect boutique butter for the perfect amount of time producing a perfect brown crust and perfectly warmed interior, we were rewarded with something unexpected: a perfectly dry, sawdust-like interior. You know when you put too many saltines in your mouth and all of a sudden you fear your throat has become paralyzed, making it impossible to swallow? Yeah. It was that dry; in fact, it was so disconcerting that we were saying, “It tastes good, but I’m chewing and chewing and it’s not going away.”

When I made Boudins Blanc for Anthony Bourdain last year, I was determined to rectify the abuse I had perpetrated on those venison sausages—and our throats–years before. Desperate to succeed—not that there was any pressure, right?—I faithfully followed an old-school and purist charcuterie recipe. My esteemed client sucked down sausages so moist that—when accidentally pierced as he sat there two feet away from the pan–they shot a stream of hot fat at him. There were no injuries—besides his cholesterol, I suspect—but I learned an important lesson: moisture is key to sausage.

That being said, my sawdust-y sausages served a purpose that my boudins could not. Casings removed and the meat crumbled, they were perfect for quick sauces, chilis, and soups. Low fat meats like chicken, turkey, lean beef and wild game are excellent ways to get in and out of the kitchen fast. Low in connective tissue and fat, you can skip the long simmers and fat skimming. But if your recipe requires a low and slow cook over an hour or more, lean meats degrade like my low fat sausages did. They get mealy—almost gritty—and that’s never a good development. They can also develop an off flavor, described by some as liver-y.

Pork, on the other hand, doesn’t suffer the same effects during extended cooking. In fact, many ground meat recipes for meatloaf, meatballs, and even burgers these days call for the addition of pork to the base. For a while I couldn’t figure out why, besides a more complex flavor, that would be. Now, I’m no food scientist, but my theory is that since the pork is ground from the leftovers after the prime butcher cuts are removed, they contain connective tissue lean meats don’t. When the nutritional analysis is done on that product, the fat content tests out lower because the connective tissue is exempt; so, even 90% lean pork remains moist. Since that connective tissue is ground, it’s not a chewy problem in quick cooking recipes; even better, its inclusion imparts the benefits of moisture and flavor that the other meats cannot. I believe that during long cooking, the connective tissue remains with the pork until it eventually dissolves, protecting the pork from drying out during lengthy cooking times.

Connective tissue? Yeah, it sounds gross, but it’s what gives your soup stocks body, enhances your Porterhouse’s flavor, and makes your pot roast come out tender and juicy despite it being WAY overcooked by any other standard. High in gelatin, connective tissue is your friend.

So the result of my theory, my quest for rich flavor, and my desire to maintain the integrity of my arteries—and my wardrobe sizing—is a sausage mix that is low in fat but still tasty. The versatility of this base means that whenever your recipes calls for sausage, you can whip up a batch of this mix in five minutes. The mix starts with 90% lean ground pork with some basic seasonings, including lemon juice which provides the tart element that balances the flavor and perks up your whole dish. The Chorizo variation listed below is great for soups, quesadillas, or any other dish that needs a spicy meat component. If you need sweet or hot Italian sausage, I’ve provided those variations below.

Once you’ve made these sausage mixes, you’re set to start your pasta sauces, ragouts, and other favorite dishes that call for bulk sausage; plus, you don’t have to peel the casings from store-bought sausage to achieve the same effect. Your resulting dishes will be lower in fat, moister, and tastier.

Homemade Sausage Three Ways

Print this recipe | Get the full nutrition facts

Pork sausage brings amazing flavor to dishes from a wide variety of cuisines, and it’s especially popular as chorizo or Italian sausage. By choosing lean meats and controlling the amount of added salt, you can enjoy delicious pork sausage as part of a nutritious meal.

Tip: Double or triple the base: it freezes beautifully and packed flat (about ½ inch thick) in a quart-sized freezer bag, it thaws in no time. In fact, you can cut patties directly from the frozen flat sausage and fry them up straight away.

Servings: 4 (127 G)

Prep Time: 30 min.

Cook Time: 2 hours

Ingredients

Base Mixture:

  • 1 pound 90% lean ground pork
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • Pinch of cumin

Chorizo Seasonings:

  • 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
  • 4 tsp. minced garlic
  • ¾ tsp. cumin
  • 1 tsp. sweet paprika
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • ¼ tsp. cloves
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne (optional)

Sweet Italian Seasonings:

  • 4 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 Tbsp. parsley
  • 2 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. ground fennel seed
  • 1 tsp. basil
  • ½ tsp. oregano
  • ½ tsp. pepper

Hot Italian Seasonings:

  • 4 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 Tbsp. parsley
  • 2 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. ground fennel seed
  • 1 tsp. basil
  • ½ tsp. oregano
  • ½ tsp. pepper
  • ¾ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

Directions

  1. Combine all the ingredients for the base with the seasoning ingredients for your desired sausage variety* in a large bowl. Gently mix the ingredients with your hands or two forks until it’s uniformly mixed.
  2. Cover and refrigerate the mixture to let flavors combine (1-2 hours).
  3. Use in any recipe that calls for sausage, or form into patties and fry up in a dry, nonstick skillet over medium heat until cooked through and lightly browned (4-5 minutes per inch of thickness per side). For thicker patties, test for an internal temperature of at least 165ºF.

*Nutrition Facts Panel and Guiding Stars rating are based on the additions for the Chorizo Seasonings.

About the Expert Chef

Erin Dow balances three food worlds. As a mother of three young children, she’s fighting the battle every parent faces: how to keep her kids interested in the foods that keep them healthy.

As the chef and owner of her catering company Eatswell Farm, she utilizes original recipes and techniques–focused on enhancing the enjoyment of locally-sourced ingredients–to best interpret the client’s vision. And as Consulting Executive Chef for Falmouth-based Professional Catering Services, a business specializing in production and backstage catering for concerts, she develops and executes menus that accommodate the strict nutritional requirements of the music industry elite.

Erin and her family raise their own chicken for meat and eggs, have dabbled in pastured Narragansett turkeys, and have a very weedy but very large and productive garden.