Homemade Hot Dogs

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Living 500 miles from my home town, I try and plan one long weekend home during the summer to spend some quality time with my dad. Ever since I was young, he has been a major contributor to the family cooking, employing varying degrees of adventure. When I was five or six, I remember him bringing home the strangest fruit he could find at our small-town grocery store: a star fruit, pomegranate or mango. I recall the first time he brought home the latter – it was unripe, but never having before seen a mango, we didn’t know what to expect and its astringent taste dried out our mouths. Now, decades later, my childhood home finally has cable (we lived too far out in the country when I was growing up) and one of my dad’s go-to channels is the Food Network. A physics major in college and a builder by trade, he particularly loves Alton Brown and his scientific explanations and home-built cooking devices.

So nowadays when my dad and I catch up on the phone a few times a week, we often talk food. He was so impressed by my latest charcuterie exploits that I sent him homemade duck proscuitto and a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie for Father’s Day. We have since been making plans to build a homemade smoker out of an old mini-fridge.

And then: the emulsion challenge.

The timing was right – I would bring my grinder home and my dad offered to set up a work table in the garage. The local grocery store has expanded since the days that mangoes were considered exotic, and now I figured I could buy almost any ingredient I might need once there. We decided on late morning, on the 4th of July. And what would be more patriotic than homemade hot dogs? Our plans were made.

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While my dad’s had made sausage with my grandparents countless times, it had been a few decades, so I took charge of seasoning (garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, mustard) and chopping the beef stew meat for the first trip through the grinder, along with just a bit of pork fat (fat back).

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We ground the meat first through a large die and then again through a smaller die, keeping it as cool as possible in a metal bowl atop ice. Ruhlman and others cite temperature as being a main element in keeping the texture firm and not mealy, so we started with nearly frozen meat and a chilled grinder as well.

I’ll note here that I also skipped the step that called for curing the meat with pink salt overnight. In speaking with the same butcher, a man who owned both a butcher shop and a gun shop side by side in a neighboring town so small it doesn’t even have a stop light, who also refused to sell me pink salt until he quizzed me on my curing experience, he noted that if I was planning to eat the hot dogs in the next few days and didn’t mind a brown versus pink color, then I could skip that step. Again, its about knowing how the ingredients work together. I was learning… In fact, for one of the first times in my memory, my dad – a man who could fix or build anything – was learning alongside me.

Next we cleaned the grinder and put that and the meat back into the freezer while we re-grouped. I must admit, I was a bit worried about the next step. I had asked the butcher from whom I bought the beef and casings if he had any tips, and his response was, “Keep it cold and don’t break the emulsion.” The long directions, according to Ruhlman, included adding liquid, and mixing the meat until it reaches specific temperature points; however the emulsifying step under the hot dog recipe only noted a quick two minute spin in a food processor, with no added liquids. I read the recipe aloud to my dad (neither of us were much on following directions when cooking, preferring to wing it based upon experience and instinct) and we debated what to do. For the first time the two of us – both a bit stubborn – feeling equally comfortable with the same task. Then I realized: we’re cooking. And we’re using ingredients with which we are familiar. While we may never have ground meat into a sticky paste to stuff in a clean pig intestine (I couldn’t find sheep casings), we understood the concept. We decided just to go for it.

 

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So we put the very cold, almost frozen ground meat into the food processor and let it run for two minutes as the recipe indicated. And we both agreed that it just didn’t look paste-y enough. I suggested adding a few ice cubes and a minute later my dad added a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and then a touch of water. Finally, we agreed that it was starting to look like an emulsion. How did we know? I’m not sure; we just trusted our collective instincts.

 

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Finally we could stuff the hot dogs. Admittedly, in the larger pig casings and without the tell tale pink tinge, they did look a lot like sausage. Which I guess a hot dog technically is.

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Maybe an hour later, with a pint of my dad’s homemade beer in hand, we threw these on the grill. The texture was right – smooth, with a bite from the casing. But the flavor was garlic-y and mustard-y with just a touch of smoky spice. Either the best hot dog I have ever had – or just a flavorful smooth sausage. But in the end, did it really matter what it was called? I just called it a good afternoon cooking with my dad.

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Stuffing Sausage

Maybe I’m getting old. But if you had asked me nine years ago¬† if I would have thought that my big Saturday afternoon excitement would be making sausage – under the watchful eyes of my co-charcuterer’s nine month old – I would have laughed at you. Why nine years? Well because my co-chef, Keith, was the friend who introduced me to my now-husband, Steve, nine years ago last month. Keith had invited me out to a show at a local music club at which he was the MC. Steve played guitar in the headlining act. I noticed Steve right away – a combination of his dimples, searing solos and the beer I was drinking – and had asked Keith to introduce us. By the end of the night I had taken introductions into my own hands; the next day Steve called Keith and asked for my number. The rest, as they say, is history.

Steve and I have gotten married in the interim and Keith and his wife now have a son and daughter. We’ve both bought houses and spend a lot less time drinking beer and watching live music. And as much fun as we had back in the day – a good Saturday afternoon involved cheap dogs on the grill and a six pack – I kind of love that our interests have shifted in similar ways towards better food and drink. When Keith and I chatted at a recent Memorial Day barbeque we talked bacon curing and wine making. Keith said he was game for any project – and when Steve took a gig when he was to sous-chef my sausage making, I knew just who to call.

At Keith’s house, we set up the newer manual meat grinder – one I bought off ebay for twenty bucks because grandma’s sturdy grinder didn’t have a sausage stuffing attachment. We shared the dicing and de-boning duties of four pounds of pork butt steaks and then roughly followed Michael Ruhlman’s spicy Italian sausage recipe – adding homegrown dried hot peppers in place of cayenne and leaving out the basil because we didn’t have any. At Keith’s suggestion we decided to run the meat through twice – first through a medium die and then again through the smallest.

We, admittedly, had a few challenges: the silver skin (I think?) and some of the tougher pieces of fat kept getting stuck in the grinder so we had to take it apart a few times to clear it out so the meat could be properly ground. I won’t mention that perhaps at one point Keith then put the grinder together incorrectly. However, he quickly made up for it with his brawn – he was, at one point, sweating with pulsing temple at the exertion of the manual grind. But it was worth it! The meat had a silky and uniform texture by the time we got to stuffing, and that step – which I thought would be the hardest part – was really the easiest.

 

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We got nine lovely if somewhat non-uniform links from our almost four pounds of bone-in pork, pictured here with the smallest grinding die. The end sausage was a bit wonky, and, well, we needed to test our creation, so Keith fired up his cast iron skillet and grilled up a link to share.

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Verdict: the texture was smooth and uniform, with the perfect amount of fat. We did try and take care to keep the sausage chilled while working with it, and Keith had put the grinder into the freezer for twenty minutes before we used it which also helped. The flavor was delicious – a bit spicy with a nice heat that hit the back of your throat after the initial taste. Our only complaint was that we wished we had remembered the basil to balance the tablespoon or so of dried oregano that we had used.

Once the stuffing and cleaning and cooking was done, like old times, we cracked a beer – but this time a good local micro brew, better than what we could afford almost a decade ago. We cheered our afternoon’s work and I thought about how much has changed in the past ten years. We may each go to bed a few hours earlier now, and an afternoon beer is more the exception than the rule, but if getting old means eating homemade sausage and drinking a better with a long-time friend, then I don’t mind it one bit.