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A step-by-step guide to making chicken sausage from the emotional aspect of processing to smoking the sausage and tips and recipes for everything in-between.
Story and photos by Jennifer Sartell Making your own chicken sausage can be an interesting project, and a healthy alternative to store-bought meat. Especially when the process starts in your own backyard!
I made this recipe a few years ago after we processed chickens for the first time. That year, we owned 15 roosters, and it was getting difficult to keep them all.
It was getting late in the year (for some of them, their second year), and the roosters had long since matured. They started crowing and had developed into the big, boxy fellas they were meant to be. I knew that too many roosters might lead to a processing day. I tried to find homes, and succeeded with a couple, but you can only re-home so many roosters. After some long talks and a teary-eyed commitment, we decided to have our roosters processed.
By this time, however, we faced a few obstacles. The first being the fact that we had waited too long hemming and hawing, and all of the local processing companies had stopped butchering for the season. We also had breeds that weren’t necessarily bred for meat, we hadn’t been feeding them grower, and the roosters were a bit old and probably pretty tough.
The processors wouldn’t be opening again until spring, and I didn’t want to keep the roosters over another winter, beating up our hens and getting tougher by the day. So, we talked to several people who had processed chickens, we read articles (like this one from Mother Earth News, Processing Your Backyard Chickens ), watched many … uh … interesting “how-to” videos, and gave it our all.
We set up a table on our deck, and covered it with sheets of clean plastic. We cut the top off of a large vinegar bottle, and nailed it to a nearby tree, inverted. This would hold the chicken’s head in place while the “deed” was done. We had a 5-gallon bucket to collect the blood, and we boiled a gigantic pot of water for dipping the chickens (to loosen the feather pores). Zach did the killing and dipping, and I did the plucking, rinsing and butchering. I learned a lot about chicken anatomy that day and about the life that is connected to the food we eat. I also learned a lot about myself and the emotional side of processing.
The first meal we ate from our newly processed chickens was a simple dish. I roasted it in the oven with some mild seasoning to let the meat flavor really shine through. And flavorful it was! The meat tasted rich and delicious, it was almost caramelized with chicken flavor. But tough … Oh MAN was it tough, and rather lacking in breast meat (roosters are not abundant in this area).
Disappointed and desperate to find a delicious way to eat our chickens, I started thinking of recipes that kept as much moisture in the meat as possible. After boiling, frying, and even a rotisserie, we decided that the issue wasn’t necessarily a lack of “juiciness,” but more of a texture problem.
One night, we were making pork sausage, and it dawned on me. If we ground the chicken up, texture would no longer be an issue.
So we thawed out the remaining chickens, de-boned them, and made Sweet Italian Chicken Sausage. It was wonderful! I’d like to share our sausage making experience with you. Even if you don’t raise your own meat chickens, store-bought or farmers market chickens would work just fine!
Even if you don’t have sausage-making equipment, you can still participate in homemade sausage making. I hope you give it a try!
Deboning the Chicken
The first step in creating chicken sausage is deboning the chicken. Even when buying store-bought meat, I prefer to purchase whole chickens. It’s less expensive per pound because you’re not paying for someone else to cut it up for you. I like to cut it up myself, because I have more control over the sections of meat. I also make good use of the bones, skin, and organ meat. If you decide to purchase deboned chicken, like boneless skinless breasts, I advise adding a package of chicken thighs. The dark meat gives the sausage a rich flavor and a little extra fat for juiciness.
This technique for de-boning a chicken is nothing fancy; I am by no means a skilled butcher, but it gets the job done. Butchering chicken in this way gets you a large, boneless piece of meat which can be useful for many dishes. For chicken sausage, don’t worry if your meat doesn’t come off all in one piece; it’s all going to get ground up anyway.
So let’s get started!
Start with safe handling and thawing instructions and a good sharp knife. If you want to freeze the extra sausage you make, it’s best to start with a fresh chicken that hasn’t been frozen previously.
Clean your chicken thoroughly inside and out by rinsing it under cold running water. Don’t forget the two small pockets of dark matter by the spine.
Remove the organ meat and neck from inside the cavity and trim the tail and the extra flaps of skin by the wings.
Place the chicken on its back and make a slice at the spine from back to front. (I also cut the wing tips off to get them out of the way.)
Continue cutting down the spine and around the cavity, keeping the knife slightly angled away from the ribs, but as close to the bones as you can get. Carefully use your fingers to pull away the meat as you work down.
There is a delicate “V”-shaped bone toward the rear of the chicken. Be sure to go on the outside of this bone, and slice until you reach the thigh and wing joint. Repeat on the other side.
To remove the wing from the cavity, slice the meat to the joint. Then, take the joint and “pop” it, by bending the wing down toward the cutting board. You will then be able to slide your knife past the joint, keeping close to the cavity. Repeat for the other wing.
The thigh removal is similar to removing the wing. Cut along the cavity to the thigh joint. “Pop” the joint and continue cutting through and around the cavity.
You now have the meat removed from the cavity. You could stuff the chicken at this point. Or remove the wings and legs and pound the meat flat for a rolled chicken dish.
Here, I cut the chicken in half so we can see the wing, thigh, and legs clearly. To remove the meat from the thigh bone, flip the meat over, skin side down, and find the tip of the bone that we removed from the cavity. Pull the bone away from the meat with your fingers. With a bit of assistance from the knife, the meat should slide off fairly easily. When you get to the leg joint, “pop” it and continue slicing.
Remove the leg meat by slicing down the skin and remove the bone in the same manner as the thigh. Use the knife for any tough spots. Be careful, as there is a delicate bone that runs along the leg.
For sausage, I also remove the skin. I do this by holding the skin up and away from the chicken, almost suspending the meat, and then slicing the thin tissue that connects it. (Leave the fat to help make the sausage juicy.)
You now have the boneless skinless chicken meat, skin, organ meat, and the wings.
Set your meat aside and weigh it. You will need approximately 4 pounds of chicken for our sausage recipe. (I include the organ meat in this weight because I grind it into the sausage also.) Depending on the size of the chicken, this could be anywhere from 2 to 4 birds.
Making the Links
The great thing about this chicken sausage is that anyone can make it. Don’t let a lack of sausage-making equipment keep you from enjoying this delicious chicken recipe for Sweet Italian Chicken Sausage. I’ll show you how we do the complete process (with all the gadgets) … as well as let you in on the modifications. If you find sausage making is for you, then you can take the next step and purchase the grinder, grinding disks, filling attachments, etc. We use a hand-crank metal grinder that clamps to our countertop. Our model is made by Lehman’s, but many options are available, including electric.
For those of you who have never made sausage, this recipe has a good basic sausage flavor, and can be easily halved, doubled, tripled, etc. depending on your needs. It’s mild, sweet, and similar in taste to a typical store-bought sausage.
Feel free to experiment! Sausage making has endless possibilities. You could add some onions, cumin, and cayenne to create more of a chorizo flavor. Maple syrup or maple sugar would make for a great breakfast sausage. Oregano and basil would give even more of an Italian zing. I’m planning on creating a dried cherry with blue cheese sausage in the near future. There’s SO much you can do!
For this recipe you will need a few basic ingredients:
- 4 pounds of boneless chicken, mixed parts and organ meat
- 1/4-pound bacon
- 6 tablespoons brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh cracked pepper
- 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fennel seeds
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
- 1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
- A couple tablespoons water
If you want to go the full nine yards and purchase the “official” sausage-making equipment you will need: (shown left to right)
- A meat grinder with cutting blade
- large grinding disk
- fine grinding disk
- filling tube
To begin, soak your casings in cold water. They should soak for about 30 minutes to soften. We use all-natural hog casings preserved in salt. This recipe will make approximately 12 feet of sausage links.
Pass the deboned chicken meat through the meat grinder fitted with the large grind disk. This is the first grind, which breaks up the chicken and allows it to be mixed with the other ingredients. It also mixes the dark meat and organ meat with the white meat. Sausage is all about evenly distributing the flavors throughout. Several grindings help accomplish this. If you don’t have a meat grinder, don’t despair. You can always use your food processor.
Once the chicken is ground, it’s time to add the bacon. I dice the bacon so it mixes easily into the chicken. The addition of bacon gives the chicken a delicious salty pork flavor. The fats in the bacon also help to keep the sausage juicy. Chicken sausage can dry out during cooking because chicken is more of a lean meat.
Then I pulverize the seasoning in the food processor, then add them and a little water to the chicken and mix thoroughly. The chicken mixture should be slightly sticky.
Run this back through the meat grinder with the fine disk attachment. Give it a good stir and inspect the mixture. If the spices look like they’re well incorporated, you can go right on to filling the links. If not, stir it, and run it through again.
At this point, I like to taste the sausage to see if it needs anything before we go through the trouble of filling the casings. Take a tablespoon or so, make a little patty, and throw it in the frying pan. Cook it thoroughly and give it a taste.
Filling the Casings
Fit your grinder with the filling tube. The casing package should tell you approximately how wide the tube should be. If not, most hog casings should fit onto the 1/2-inch tube. There are plastic or metal tube fittings. A longer tube will hold more casing, which can be handy if you’re making a lot of sausage at a time.
When getting ready to feed the casings onto the tube, it helps to hold the end of the casing under running water. It will open up the end (which can stick together) and allow the water to fill the length of the casing, untangling any twists and make it easier to feed onto the tube.
Spray the tube with a bit of cooking spray (this allows the casings to slide on easily). Then feed the casing onto the tube. It will wrinkle up on itself, and you’ll have bubbles trapped. This is fine: It will all work out in the filling. When the whole casing is on the tube, tie a knot.
Now comes the fun part! Start feeding your meat mixture into the grinder, and voilà! out comes the sausage! Don’t force the sausage to fill too tight, because later, when you twist the links, the casings can break. When the entire casing tube is filled, tie the end.
You can then make your links by twisting the sausage into desired lengths. Refrigerate uncovered overnight to firm up. The casings will harden slightly, and you’ll be able to cut the individual links apart without the sausage breaking out.
If you are new to making sausage, and you don’t have a meat grinder or casings, you can portion your sausage onto sheets of plastic wrap. Form the sausage into a tube and wrap securely with the plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight to firm up and then slice into patties. This can be grilled or fried in the frying pan.
Smoked to Deliciousness!
These sausages are delicious grilled on the grill, or sautéed in a pan with onions and peppers. It also gives spaghetti an extra boost when sliced into the marinara and poured over a plate of pasta! But if you want to take your sausage making one step further, I recommend smoking the links in a smoker. (See how to DIY a barrel smoker here.)
Our smoker is an inexpensive model with an electric heating element. It has four basic parts: the bottom segment with the heating coil; the water pan; the middle drum, where the meat is hung or laid on the grill or jerky screen; and the lid.
To prepare for smoking, we soak our wood chips in water for about an hour. This slows the chips from burning too quickly. We’re using a store-bought hickory chip here, but there are many different flavors of wood to choose from; each lends a different smoky note. There’s applewood, hickory, mesquite, cherry, maple and even chips that have been made from old whiskey barrels, with the aged alcohol adding its own depth.
Once the chips have soaked, we set our smoker outside on the driveway and plug it in. It’s a good distance away from anything flammable.
In the bottom section of our smoker is the heating coil. We spread coals around the coil then spread the soaked wood chips on the coals. We try to avoid placing the chips directly on the coil, as they will burn too quickly. The coil will heat the coals, and the coals will heat the chips, eventually evaporating the water in the chips and turning to smoke.
Suspended over the top of the heating coil is the metal water pan. The liquid in this pan is heated by the coils and the rising smoke. The water turns to steam and helps keep the meat juicy during the smoking process. It also helps regulate the temperature. The water pan can also be used as an opportunity to give subtle flavors to the meat. We sometimes fill the pan with apple cider or earthy alcohols like whiskey or dark ale. The flavors of the liquid marinate the smoke and give the meat one more step of complexity.
On top of the heating coil goes the barrel where the meat is placed. We placed the sausage on the grill rack and topped with the lid.
In about an hour, we peek at the sausage. Our smoker has a small door on the side that lets you see the meat without opening the top. You lose some smoke, but not as much as taking off the lid. Don’t peek too often: Every time the lid is opened, the smoke escapes and the temperature drops.
Use a meat thermometer to check for thorough cooking. For chicken, you should be at 170 degrees in the center of a link.
If you don’t own a smoker but would like to experience the delicious flavor of smoked chicken sausage, you can use your charcoal grill. Sausage is a great candidate for the grill alternative because it’s a small portion of meat and cooks quickly.
To use your grill, start by soaking your wood chips. Large pieces of wood are better in this method because the burning charcoal will smoke the wood more quickly. Heat the charcoal in the usual manner. Place a metal pie pan filled with the liquid of your choice on the bottom rack above the coals to act as the steam element. When the coals are nice and hot, place the soaked chips directly on the coals. Put your meat on the grill and allow to smoke with the lid on. You will need to tend the coals often to keep the smoking process going.
Whatever your degree of DIY involvement, I hope I’ve inspired you to give sausage making a try. Have fun with it!
Originally published on the Community Chickens website and regularly vetted for accuracy.