Cured sausages have intimidated me, thus far. The risk of the dreaded 'case-hardening', the need for exacting ratios of cure, and the omnipresent danger of botulism poisoning made me approach this project with a bit of trepidation.
Under the careful watch and guidance of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn (or at least, their Charcuterie handbook...), I started simple saucisson sec: a French country-style pork and garlic sausage. There aren't too many ingredients, and the sausage requires neither a bacterial starter-culture, nor any incubation time. We'll save fermented sausages for another time.
As previously mentioned, one of the major problems most people seem to run into is 'case-hardening'. When conditions are too dry, the outside of the sausage will lose all of its moisture very quickly. This forms an impenetrable skin, preventing the interior from drying adequately. The result is a sausage or cured item that looks finished, but when cut open, is effectively rotten from the middle.
The best way to combat case-hardening, is to dry your sausages in a cool area with lots of humidity, such as a basement, or root cellar. For apartment dwellers, the best option is a fridge. Unfortunately, standard bar fridges have air that is far too dry, so a humidifier is often needed.
Our solution was to purchase a wine storage fridge from Craigslist. To prevent wine corks from drying out, the natural ambient relative humidity in a wine fridge is about 75%, spot on for curing meats. It also looks bad-ass. More on that later.
I also elected to use lamb casings. Natural casings are an amazing product to work with. The tensile strength is incredible, and they shrink up at the same rate as the sausage interior. The lamb casings, specifically, are very skinny, so we would shortly find out if the sausage were a success (or disaster).
Lastly, I wanted to do a cured sausage with all hand-diced fat. This proved to be a more time consuming task than initially estimated, since a small gauge sausage would require a particularly fine dice, and the fatback has to be quite chilled to slice uniformly.
At long last, success:
I'm not going to lie: These are some tasty sausages. They were a bit of pain during maturation (growing some wacky fuzzy mold that required diligent cleaning), but well worth it. So far, no botulism, either.