When I was in culinary school, sausage day was the day I discovered I had zero desire to go into charcuterie. It was messy, fiddly work that smelled of iron and cold, sticky meat, and I spent the whole day terrified I was going to kill one of my classmates with some pork-based foodborne illness. And yet here I am, trying to convince you to try homemade chicken breakfast sausage.
Feels a little hypocritical, doesn’t it?
And yet, making sausage at home feels a little like a magic trick, and one I love doing.
Homemade chicken breakfast sausage: the beginnings
As is the case with many of the things I make, this recipe started as a happy accident.
I was in line at Whole Foods and bought that month’s issue of Cook’s Illustrated on a whim – the recipe for hot smoked salmon struck me as a fun thing to try that Saturday since I had a new grill to break in.
Friends, I did not make the grilled salmon. The first thing I made was turkey sausage.
I had just about two pounds of turkey thighs languishing in my freezer – a casualty of an unfortunate buying error that first, lonely Thanksgiving of the pandemic – and I figured I lost nothing if I tried the sausage recipe in the magazine on them. At worst, I had cleared out some much-needed space in my freezer, and at best I would have a bunch of bulk sausage to play with – a real treat, since I have never once seen it in my local grocery.
It worked so well, I knew I’d have to try it again – but with chicken, since turkey isn’t always the easiest to find outside of November.
Before I start talking about the tweaks I made to the original Cook’s Illustrated recipe, I want to talk sausage science. At its heart, sausage is a mix of three components: salt, fat, and meat – but if you were to just mix those things together and fry it up, you’d just end up with salty browned meat. Technique is what’s transformative here, so it’s important to understand what’s going on under the hood.
Let’s start with salt.
It’s the heavy hitter here, responsible for not only seasoning, but for the snappy texture that sets sausage apart from other ground meat mixtures.
Salt interacts very specifically with myosin, the protein that’s primarily responsible for binding together all the different parts components of meat – water, muscle tissue, and fat. Imagine your sausage meat as a piece of rope or yarn. You can cut it up into smaller pieces and mix it together, but those pieces of rope are going to remain distinct until you take each piece and un-twist it so it pulls apart into individual fibers. In this case, the salt is doing that un-twisting – it helps pull myosin from the meat fibers, and that extra “loose” myosin helps the ground meat bind together and retain water to create sausage’s signature snap. In most cases, 1.5 to 2 percent of the total weight of meat will be the right amount of salt to unbind the myosin without making the final sausage dramatically salty.
Salt also helps to reduce the growth of bacteria by reducing the water activity of the sausage meat. Water activity is essentially a way of measuring how much “free” water is in a type of food – and bacteria need that free water to grow. The lower the water activity of your food, the less likely it is to grow bacteria that cause rot or disease. That’s why salt-curing fish or other meats works so well – if you bind essentially all the free water up with salt, the bacteria don’t have a place to live anymore.
Hitting the salinity required for long-term preservation isn’t super important for the fresh sausage we’re working on, but it’s still cool to think about, especially if you’d like to try other, longer-storing sausage types in the future.
Fat and meat are the other important components in sausage-making. The type of meat you use isn’t super important – if you can think of an animal protein, someone has probably made sausage out of it – but the ratio of the fat in that meat is. Fat is critical to keeping the meat juicy at the temperatures we need to cook it to for food safety, and also helps carry the intensity of the seasonings to your palate. Many of the compounds in herbs and spices are readily fat-soluble – which is why toasting your spices in oil often makes them taste more intense in a final dish. For the right balance of flavor and juiciness, most sausage contains 20-30 percent fat by weight.
Nailing the recipe
Once I understood how much salt I needed to add, the hardest part of figuring out my homemade chicken breakfast sausage was figuring out exactly how much fat is in chicken thighs.
I knew I wanted to use thighs because they are probably the fattiest of the easily-available chicken cuts, and I knew I wanted to leave the skin on, since chicken skin is mostly fat. The problem was finding the percentage of fat in that cut of meat – and I’m still not sure I managed it.
Maybe I was googling the wrong things, but most of what came back were resources for calculating nutritional macros – which mostly assumed you wouldn’t be doing something silly like eating delicious, crispy chicken skin. The best I could find was that raw chicken thighs with skin contain 16.6 grams of fat per 100 grams of total weight – so about 17 percent fat. It’s a little less than what’s traditional, but I figured it had worked with turkey thighs (which are leaner by all accounts), so I probably wouldn’t need to add additional fat as reinforcement.
I did choose to use bone-in thighs. It is a bit of a pain to de-bone them, but they’re trimmed a bit less than boneless thighs, and I wanted to keep as much fat as possible since I was already under the minimum recommendation. I don’t think really think that tiny bit of extra fat would make a huge difference if you want to avoid the hassle, but since I haven’t tried it yet I can’t confirm that suspicion.
After that, it was just a matter of figuring out the seasoning.
For breakfast, I like a slightly spicy, slightly sweet sausage with just a hint of sage. I started with maple sugar, since I had some on hand, and added chile flakes and cayenne for heat, paprika for smoke (and a tiny bit of color), and sage for that traditional “this is breakfast sausage” flavor.
It took a couple rounds of tweaking to get it right, but I am absolutely in love with this seasoning blend, and can’t wait to try it in other breakfast sausage blends. It’s warm but not spicy, with subtle earthy notes of sage, and enough maple that you notice the edge without the whole thing being too sweet.
I know making your own homemade chicken breakfast sausage is a bit of a project, but I promise that it’s worth it. The patties are perfect fried up with pancakes or paired with eggs and cheddar for a weekend breakfast sandwich, or you could brown up some bulk sausage for grab-and-go burritos or quiche.
- Fougy, Lysiane, et al. “Reducing Salt in Raw Pork Sausages Increases Spoilage and Correlates with Reduced Bacterial Diversity.” Applied and Environmental Microbiology, vol. 82, no. 13, 2016, pp. 3928-3939.
- Mermelstein, Neil H. “Measuring Moisture Content and Water Activity.” Food Technology Magazine, vol. 63, no. 11, 2009.
- Shen, Quingwu W., and Swartz, Darl R. “Influence of Salt and Pyrophosphate on Bovine Fast and Slow Myosin S1 Dissociation from Actin.” Meat Science, vol. 84, no. 3, 2010, pp. 364-370.
- The American Meat Science Association, “Common Ingredients.” The Meat We Eat. Accessed January 20, 2022.
Homemade chicken breakfast sausage
Yield: 16 2 oz patties, or roughly 2lb of bulk sausage Time: 9 hours, mostly inactive Source: Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
Any time you grind meat you’re risking grinding in a whole bunch of germs (like listeria) that could make you very sick. I cannot overstate how important it is that you wash your hands thoroughly and ensure that your meat grinder or food processor is scrupulously clean before you begin. Honestly, I would go so far as to wipe down all the parts with a sanitizing solution made from one teaspoon of unscented household bleach diluted in one quart of water and let that dry completely before you get started.
Similarly, you want your meat to stay cold while you’re working. Your chicken needs to stay below 41°F at all times that you’re working with it – this will also help slow the growth and spread of pathogens. Make sure your grinder or food processor is refrigerator cold before you start working with it, and that your chicken stays cold too – nothing bad is going to happen if you pop your meat back in the fridge or freezer midway through to chill it back down.
Make sure you cook your poultry sausage to an internal temperature of at least 165°F – but you were doing that anyway, weren’t you?
If you can’t find maple sugar, one tablespoon of packed brown sugar makes a decent substitute. I wouldn’t use maple syrup here since it tends to make the sausage batter damp and unpleasantly sticky.
- About two pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
- kosher salt
- 24 grams (2 tablespoons) maple sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon dry rubbed sage
- Heaping 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flake
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Remove the bones from the chicken, then cut the meat and skin into one-inch-ish chunks.
Now we need to figure out how much salt to add. I can’t give you a precise measurement for what you need, because your chicken might weigh a little more or a little less than mine, and this recipe works best when you’re adding 1.5 percent of the weight of the meat in salt.
Weigh your deboned chicken (in grams, please. Ounces and pounds aren’t precise enough for what we’re doing here). Multiply the weight of your chicken by 0.015 – whatever answer you get will be the weight of salt you need to add. If you need a check, your salt quantity will probably fall somewhere in the range of 9-12 grams.
Toss the chicken with the salt, cover, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to two days. I know it’s a long time, but you need to give the salt time to sink in and begin to unwind those proteins.
This is also a great time to pop your meat grinder or food processor bowl and blade into the refrigerator to chill. There is some debate about whether refrigerating or freezing your grinding apparatus is better – I fall into the refrigerator camp since that’s what I learned at school, and I also really hate it when my damp hands stick to frozen metal.
Once your chicken has cured, toss it with the sugar and spices to thoroughly coat. Spread the chicken into a single layer on a sheet pan and pop it in the freezer for 30 minutes – par-freezing the meat will help keep the fat distinct while grinding (and will also help keep the meat cold while you’re working)
When the chicken is firm around the edges but still flexible, grind it through the finest plate on your meat grinder (or process in the food processor until you have a texture that’s somewhere between a small dice and a mince – you just don’t want paste!). Take the ground meat and knead it until it is holding together in one mass and feels slightly sticky. The more you knead, the springier your sausage is going to feel.
Once you’re happy with the texture, take a small piece of sausage and cook it up real quick (I usually just microwave it) – you want to be able to taste it now so you can adjust the seasoning.
When you’re happy with the seasoning, portion the sausage into 16 approximately golf-ball sized pieces and flatten into patties – or you can just keep it as bulk sausage if you wanted to use it for a casserole or something else. If you’re having trouble with the mixture sticking to you, lightly wetting your hands helps immensely with shaping.
Cook however you like (just PLEASE make sure it hits 165°F internal), and enjoy!
Your homemade chicken breakfast sausage will keep in the refrigerator for 1-2 days, or in the freezer for up to one month.