There’s something counter-intuitive about the phrase learning curve. Back when I had a real job programming computers for a living the term came up a lot in reference to users learning a program and most folks seemed to think a shallow learning curve was best. The intuition is that shallow is easy and steep is hard because shallow hills are easy to climb and steep hills are hard. But the learning curve’s axes are time and amount learned, effort doesn’t come into it. This means that a steep learning curve represents a lot learned over a short period of time. Steep learning curves are good.
Yesterday afternoon I made four pounds of Italian sausage – about two pounds more than I should have because it’s not great sausage. I made so much because I’m an optimist (or pretend to be) and because I used the recipe in Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (click here for my review). Charcuterie is one of the two best books on food that I bought last year and one of the best cookbooks (if you can call it that, it’s more a primer than a simple collection of recipes) I’ve ever purchased. Despite earlier travails with sausage, I was sure this book would steer me right because it had on everything else I’d made from it. Nope.
Nobody seems more obsessed by diet than our anti-materialistic, otherworldly, New Age spiritual types. But if the material world is merely illusion, an honest guru should be as content with Budweiser and bratwurst as with raw carrot juice, tofu and seaweed slime. ~ Edward Abbey
After making it I tried a sample and it was almost flavorless. The fennel seed, coriander seed, basil, and oregano were way in the background. There wasn’t even enough salt in it. The only spices that came out as I hoped were the peppers. There also wasn’t enough fat, but I can’t really blame the book for that lack. Cuts of meat vary in their fat content and the pork butt I bought had been trimmed too closely and I should have added more.
Based on the sample I’d cooked and eaten, I went back and doubled the fennel, coriander, basil, oregano, and salt. The second sample was much better, but still not great.
But here’s where you run into the real trick of sausage making. I could have tweaked the mixture again, but doing a third mix on the batch would have seriously overworked the meat, destroying the texture. Also, I wasn’t sure what was needed. Thinking back, I suspect I needed some caraway seed, but I’m not on a first-name basis with caraway seed, or fennel seed either, for that matter. Or mace or anis seed. Finally, the spices in sausage need at least 24 hours to meld properly so today the flavor will be different from yesterday. However, I don’t know how it will be different.
To make excellent sausage I need to know the seasonings well and know how they’ll interact over time.
So I have four pounds of not-so-great Italian sausage. It’ll be fine for cooking with, and in fact that’s what I planned on doing with it, which is why instead of stuffing it in casings I made up 1/4 pound balls, but it’ll be a while before I get to try making Italian sausage again. And it looks like my sausage learning curve is more shallow than I’d like.
KevinÂ Weeks is a Gather food correspondent (Paisano), personal chef, cooking teacher, and writer in Knoxville, Tennessee who spends too many hours on his feet, cooking. “Paisano” is a column focused on peasant dishes from around the world. To read more of Kevin’s writings or connect to him click here. His blog,Seriously Good, is read by 100,000 cooks a month and in addition he writes a weekly column forSpot-Onand is the Guide for Cooking for Two at About.com.