When I was a freshman in culinary school, making sausage from scratch was nothing more than a recipe for intimidation. What did I—a Florida girl who grew up eating turkey products manipulated into the shape of bacon—know about making a great sausage? No, this craft was better left in the hands of my chef-instructor, a seventh generation Austrian butcher who could slaughter and break down a pig faster than you could say Oscar Meyer.
It wasn’t until after college, when I apprenticed on a biodynamic meat farm where they made their own charcuterie, that I took the blinders off and saw sausage-making for what it was: a simple and straightforward technique for using up scraps of meat and preserving them for as long as possible.
It has been a few years since I worked on that farm, and in various restaurant jobs. I have seen and made a whole range of different types of links. But there is one particular variety of sausage which, with its exotic and piquant flavor, has made an addict out of me: Merguez.
A spicy fresh sausage typically made from lamb, merguez hails from North Africa, but is also a popular street food item in France and Israel. I adapted this recipe for merguez from a sous chef I worked for in Maine. To make this recipe my own, I tinkered a little with the spices, but kept a couple of his more unorthodox ingredients in the mix.
Roasted red peppers are not part of a traditional merguez, but I loved how their sweet and smoky flavor complemented the spices and lamb, and I didn’t want to leave them out. You can use canned roasted peppers for convenience, but I like to roast the peppers myself. Here’s how: After rubbing a teaspoon of canola oil on the peppers, place them in a 450-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Turn them halfway through roasting so they can get dark on both sides. Placing them in a bowl immediately after roasting and covering them with plastic wrap will allow the peppers to steam a little and release their skins. After waiting about ten minutes, slip off the skins and pull away the flesh from the cores, removing as many seeds as possible.
Pork fat is also a little controversial for this recipe, since it originated in a country whose religions forbids the consumption of pork products, but I prefer it to lamb fat because of its milder flavor and accessibility. You can substitute gamier lamb fat if you prefer, but be prepared for the flavor to change considerably.
Aside: Even the best-laid plans of cooks can go awry. I had some issues getting a photo of roasting and peeling the peppers. Luckily, I had some diced roasted peppers on hand, which worked perfectly in the recipe.
Particularly with smaller home grinders, meat that is diced too large can become stuck in the feed tube. 1-inch pieces are the best size to avoid a traffic jam. Fat is flavor (and delivers the smooth, juicy texture we want), so I nixed the notion that this sausage would be good diet food and diced my pork fat into rough 1-inch pieces as well.
My favorite part about making sausage is that once I figure out the type of meat to use and the correct ratios of protein to fat, my ingredients can be whatever I want them to be. Quatre epices is a french term that literally translates into “four spices,” and it is a blend of ground black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. This mixture imparts a warm, earthy spice to sausages, especially merguez. Any leftover quatre epices can be used for the next sausage-making project.
Merguez is known for its aromatic and bold seasonings, and this recipe is no exception. Salt is crucial to enhance the principal flavors in this sausage, and it also helps with firming the texture. Freshly chopped oregano and minced garlic brighten and enhance the spices and add a layer of complexity to the sausage. For a milder batch, reduce the amount of red pepper flakes by half.
After the lamb meat, pork fat, and peppers are diced and seasonings added, mix everything together until the spices are evenly distributed. Place the mixture in the freezer for about 30 minutes. Temperature plays a large role in the success of sausage making because if things get too warm, the fat will begin to smear, the meat will get too soft, and it will all be pulverized through the grinding plate, leaving you with a messy paste instead of minced meat.
Now that the sausage mix is partially frozen, grind it using the finest plate possible (⅛-inch) into a large bowl set over another large bowl filled with ice (to keep the ground meat as cold as possible).
After grinding, place everything into a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (a wooden spoon would work fine as well). On medium speed, add the wine and water and beat it until everything is evenly distributed and the sausage develops a sticky texture. For me, it took about 30 seconds.
At this point, test a small portion of the sausage to make sure the seasoning is correct. Form a patty about the size of a golf ball and fry it in a non-stick skillet over medium heat until cooked through all the way. My first batch tasted great, so I left it alone.
At this point, you would have loose sausage to use in any recipe that calls for ground meat. This sausage is so versatile—you could fry it up with some potatoes for breakfast or roll it up in a pita for a quick gyro.
I decided to stuff the merguez into lamb casings using a jerky gun, since I was only making a small amount. Lamb casings (also called “sheep casings”) are traditionally used in merguez, and are much smaller in diameter than those made from hog or cattle. After filling the barrel with the sausage, I slipped the prepared lamb casings onto the stuffing tube, leaving about 6 inches off the end of the tube.
Squeezing the trigger, the plunger started pushing the meat forward and out of the tube. The first thing that came out was air, which was why I did not tie the end of the casing right away. Once the meat started coming out, I used one hand to control how fast the meat was being stuffed into the casings. I let the sausage form one long coil, and left about 6 additional inches on the other end.
Once finished, I tied off one of the ends with a double knot.
I linked the sausages by using two hands to pinch off five-inch long sections of sausage. To get all of the air bubbles out, I had to pinch pretty tight. Once sectioned off, I twisted the link several times away from me. When I moved on to the next section of sausage, I pinched the ends off like before but twisted it towards me this time; alternating with the links until I reached the end, and tied it off with a double knot.
There were a few air bubbles remaining, so I pricked it with a small toothpick, being careful not to create any large holes in the casings. Refrigerating the sausage for a few hours or up to a day, uncovered, gives it a chance to set up. The merguez will keep for about 3 days refrigerated and up to 2 months frozen.