Sausage might be nature’s perfect food. It provides nearly every culture with a way to use up otherwise unappetizing meat bits, as can be attested by the much maligned blood sausage, haggis, and hot dog. It can be as haute cuisine as the cassoulet and as humble as the beef stick. It will submit without fuss to frying, steaming, smoking, boiling, or barbecuing. Yet in its dry-cured form, sausage requires neither a refrigerator nor a stove, which makes it an excellent travel companion. It performs admirably at the center of the plate, but can play a bit part in a jambalaya without stealing the show. And sausage offers protein in a seemingly endless variety of flavors, from a brown sugar and cloves link at breakfast to a chicken and pistachio boudin blanc at dinner.
Perhaps it’s this possibility of infinite variety that’s driving Chef Matt Paulson of The Sample Room in his recently announced mission to create 100 wholly unique sausages. It may also be a little bit of one-upmanship: Apparently, a customer came in talking up Wisconsin sausages and letting drop that Madison Chef Adam Naumann of La Brioche True Food was trying to create 100. “You know what? I thought, I can do that,” says Paulson, “and it will give me a reason to make more sausage.”
Naumann recently put his 74th sausage on the True Food menu, an English-style figgy pudding, which he described as a looser sausage filled with kalamata crown figs, championship 1,000-day-old Gouda, caramelized onions, a little port, and pork. With all these premium ingredients, his sausages sell at about $14 a pound, but that just seems to make folks buy more of them — he’s selling out of 100-pound batches. As an evangelist of the sausage, Naumann was surprised but pleased to hear there might be some competition. He kind of chortled when we told him: “At least people are starting to make sausage again. It’s a shame what’s been put out there.”
On his side, Paulson has eight successful sausages under his belt so far, the relative freedom to do as he likes in the kitchen — as long as it sells — and an admirable dedication, much like Naumann, to making high-quality sausage.
When we reviewed the Sample Room nearly a year and a half ago, Paulson says, they had recently overhauled the menu and were just getting the restaurant’s meat program off the ground. “We developed it slowly but surely,” he says, “but now we get raw cuts in and grind all of our own meat, so I can get the fat ratios I want and make the burgers and sausages the way I think is ideal.”
Paulson says they initially struggled with charcuterie, especially with the sausages. “We started playing around with it back in 2009, but a lot of them would break,” he says. “You’d put a hot liquid in there, maybe a wine reduction, put it in your sausage press — and suddenly it’s ground beef in a tube. You’re like: ‘What the hell did I do wrong?’ It turns out it was temperature and salt. Every little thing that goes into a sausage adds up; get one thing wrong and it fails. We were failing all the time, so we had to stop and reassess.”
What is a sausage failure? A “broken” sausage, as Paulson describes, is like a hollandaise sauce that refuses to emulsify; the ingredients separate and the meat is grainy or crumbles. A sausage like that may not be served as such, but can definitely be repurposed in a chili or a hot dish. According to Paulson, a good sausage doesn’t even need a casing. “It’s dense, but it’s fluffy,” he says. “You bite into it and you get a snap — whether it’s in a casing or not. And there’s no crumble: You can wave it around and it will flap back and forth in your hand. And, whether it’s chicken, beef, or pork, it should have a slightly briny flavor, but the meat should stand on its own.”
Paulson consulted the experts — including local charcuterie wunderkind Geoff Hausmann of Travail and the Kim Bartmann restaurant group — cooked his way through Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie , ground down a couple of sausage presses, and eventually figured out how to get to a sausage with plenty of air and snap. To boot, the restaurant recently purchased a brand new 15-pound F. DICK sausage grinder — yes, yes, har, har and all that, but it’s a more than 230-year-old German cutlery brand featuring heavy-duty metal gears, long considered the Rolls Royce of sausage stuffers — so he is well on his way to cranking out 100 sausages.
In keeping with The Sample Room’s seasonal and local bent, spring sausages feature lamb, while summer is all turkey and chicken. We missed the opportunity to order his favorite, a chicken-based Surly 5 sausage flavored with fennel and served in balls alongside mussels in a broth of the eponymous beer. Instead, we tried the last of a batch of turkey sausage featuring apple, cranberry, and sage served with a cranberry Dijon ($6). Cooked in the smoker without any chips, it had a little residual smoke to it, but mostly it was just true to the chef’s vision: pleasantly dense and briny, with the kind of pop usually reserved for pork sausages, and a subtle fruit flavor. For fall and winter, Paulson is more focused on game meats: elk, deer, duck, and goose. We sampled his cherry, bourbon, and elk sausage ($6), which was also cooked in the smoker, but this time with the wood chips in, giving the meat a telltale pink ring. It smelled of cherries, snapped beautifully when we bit into it, and tasted of smoke and bourbon — a faint presence, considering the 34 ounces of bourbon that went into the 20-pound batch.
Both sausages were juicy without oozing fat. “Pork is in almost every one of my sausages because the fat is really creamy and works well with a lot of stuff,” Paulson says. “If someone tells me they are doing an all-beef sausage, well — I’ve seen recipes, I’ve tried to work them, but I can’t figure it out. Even the chicken sausages have pork. If someone says, ‘I need kosher,’ I’m sorry but I can’t accommodate that today — but stick with me; I’ve got 92 sausages to get it right.”
Coming up with 100 unique — and tasty — sausages sounds daunting. Other than the seasonal meats, Paulson says his inventiveness will be driven largely by what’s available. “Now I’m just looking around me,” he says, “thinking about what I can do with seasonal ingredients and what’s around — what do I have from our farmers, our garden, and stockpiled in the walk-in?” The week we visited, it was 30 pounds of kale, and the chef was planning to combine the hearty greens with chestnuts and bacon in a pork sausage. Next up? “Something mellow with goose.”
Paulson also has a bunch of family recipes in his back pocket, table sausages he inherited from his German grandparents and great-grandparents. “They’re all cold smoked,” he says. “My uncle built this cold smoker, so during Christmas I’m going to go down and do some with him, see how it works. It’s very compact, but he can fit like 100 pounds of sausages in there — I could definitely steal that idea and do it here. Smoked sausages are phenomenal.”
At an average of three a month, Paulson reckons it will take a good two years to make all 100. Here he gets a little Tinkerbell-ish, explaining that he makes about 20 pounds at a batch, so if everyone just eats a little more sausage, he’ll get through the challenge a whole lot faster. You can monitor his progress on the restaurant’s Facebook page. In the meantime, he’s keeping eight of every sausage in cold storage, which, depending on what day you talk to him, will either be part of a contest — eat all 100 sausages and win a T-shirt — or the bait for a Kickstarter campaign to start the next project. He’s also keeping detailed notes on every sausage — failures and winners — something he hopes will turn into a cookbook in the future. Below he offers a few of those insights for all the sausage makers at home.
Chef Matt Paulson’s Top Six Tips for No-Fail Sausages
1. Keep your meat cold –When you grind your meat, make sure it is just fresh out of the fridge or even semi-frozen. As long as it’s thawed enough to cut, you can put it in the grinder. Paulson says you shouldn’t sweat the trimming: “You can kind of skate off trimming the sinews, but if your meat is warm, it’s just gonna mash up in the grinder.”
2. Keep your equipment cold — Paulson keeps his grinder in the walk-in. If it’s just come out of the dishwasher, he’ll plunge it in an ice bath before he uses it. The same goes for other equipment: If you’re mixing ingredients together, make sure your paddle and bowl are as cold as you can get them.
3. Mind your fat ratios — Your ratios will change depending on what meat you are using, but for the hunters out there, Paulson says his magic fat ratio is 10 pounds of lean meat, such as venison, to two pounds of pork fat.
4. Don’t be afraid of the salt — Paulson suggests setting your trepidation aside: If your recipe says 10 pounds of meat, 1 cup of salt — just put it in! It sounds like a lot, but just follow the recipe and you won’t fail. “You should at least follow the recipe the first time, and then from there you can mess around. Trust me. It sounds like a drastic amount, but it’s not.”
5. Give your liquids the opportunity to blend — If your recipe calls for a liquid, turn the mixer on and add the liquid in a slow, steady stream — just like you would with a vinaigrette.
6. Read these books:
Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman, Brian Polcyn, and Thomas Keller
Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McLagan