Sausage making is one of the most striking examples of old-school frugality, an expression of the traditional desire to waste no part of an animal when it's slaughtered. The animal -- usually a hog -- even provides its own packaging, in the form of intestines that are scrupulously cleaned and used as casings. Modern enthusiasts have the much easier option of simply ordering casings or buying them from an obliging butcher. Natural casings are usually packed in salt or brine, and most suppliers recommend not freezing them.
A Natural Casings Primer
The most widely used natural casing comes from a hog's small intestine. They're usually 32 to 35 millimeters in diameter, or just over an inch, and commonly encase bratwurst and other fresh sausages. The larger 2-inch and 4-inch casing used for coil sausages and some dried sausages come from the middle and large intestines. Sheep and lamb casings are smaller, used for breakfast sausages, andouille and cocktail sausages. Beef casings can be 2 to 4 inches or more and are used for larger deli sausages.
A Lot of Guts
If you're taking your first baby steps as a home sausage maker, it's best to buy a few yards of casings from an obliging local butcher. If you order from a sausage supply house, you'll receive a large quantity of casings -- sometimes hundreds of yards -- packed in a bucket with either dry salt or a concentrated brine. They'll remain safe under refrigeration for weeks or even years, as long as they remain in their salt. Unfortunately, they take up large amounts of refrigerator space. It's only natural to think about freezing them as an alternative method of long-term storage.
The Problem With Freezing
Although it's the obvious way to keep any meat product fresh indefinitely, most suppliers recommend against freezing their natural casings. There are several good reasons for that recommendation. The casings are naturally delicate, and tend to dry up and become brittle after they're frozen. They can also become rancid after extended storage, or acquire "off" flavors from the freezer. If any portions of the casing are exposed to air, they can become rancid and discolored from freezer burn. All of these hazards can compromise the usefulness of your casings.
Part of the Solution
If you lack refrigerator space and don't have a circle of fellow enthusiasts to take the excess casings off your hands, a couple of options exist. One is to purchase extruded collagen casings, which can be kept in the pantry. If you'd prefer to keep using natural casings, protect them against the freezer's perils by packing them in brine. Separate your casings into portions suitable for a batch of sausage, and rinse them as you would on sausage-making day. Place each portion in a tight-sealing food-safe container, and cover the casings completely with brine. The casings can be frozen in their brine for six to 12 months with no noticeable loss of quality.
- Garde Manger: The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen; Culinary Institute of America
- Southern Indiana Butcher Supply: Natural Hog Casings
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images