As mentioned a few days ago, I decided to harvest some small intestine from the pigs we slaughtered on Tuesday to make my own hog casing for sausage-making. Early that morning I had been reading in Charcuterie how Brian and/or Michael had processed some themselves, and as I sat in the farmyard looking at the growing pile of guts, I reckoned I’d give it a try. It was not nearly as gross as I suspected it might be, and really fascinating from start to finish.
First of all, I was peering at the small intestine, and noted that it was held in what looked like a fairly sturdy membrane. Imagine a big piece of cling-film with a length of tube all folded and coiled on top of it, and then another big piece of cling-film. It was a little like that, and I wondered if I’d have to carefully cut the casing out of that membrane. Chet noticed me peering, and I told him that I was interested in harvesting some. Chet, of course, knows everything, and he told me to just hook a finger around a bit of the intestine and pull. Hey presto, the casing just pulls out of the membrane easy peasy!
So I pulled out a 10 foot or so section. At this point it actually looks like a stuffed sausage, only, the sausage part is partially digested pig food. We had a hose right there, and so I took one end of the casing and stuck the end of the hose in, held the end in place, and tentatively squeezed the nozzle. Well, that worked perfectly and a small slurry of yellowish partially digested foodstuff spilled out to join the rest of the gut pile. Once I felt the length of intestine was well flushed out, I put it in a large paper take-away coffee cup. I did a few more sections, and found a fantastically creepy surprise in one section.
When I flushed one of the sections out, not only did the slurry of partially digested food come out, but a handful (not that my hand got anywhere near them) of 6-8 inch long intestinal worms came out. Now, I’m not in the least bit squeamish, and when I have occasion to fish for trout with red worms or night crawlers, I have no problem handling them, but these were just that bit more.. hm, yucky. There’s a fair amount of cultural baggage associated with parasites (like from the Alien movies), and these were just the tiniest bit disturbing. However, after a bit of wary peering, I went back to work harvesting a few more lengths of gut.
I did this a few more times until the coffee cup was full, placed a lid on it, washed my rubber-gloved hands, and got back to slicing off cheeks & ears. I should note that I kept the coffee cup full of intestine separate from the rest of the offal and meat I collected. It seemed like the hygienic thing to do.
Back in the kitchen, having cleaned and processed the rest of the pig bits for freezing and cooking, I went back and read the section in Charcuterie about preparing the casings.
First I soaked the casings in a large bowl of heavily salted water for several hours. Then I got the sink ready to process the casings –I had a small bowl for the unprocessed end of the casing I was working on, and to the right of that a small cutting board on top of an overturned bowl (this was just to put the cutting board in a comfortable position to work on) and then a pint canning jar to feed the scraped and cleaned end of the casing into to the right of the cutting board. I improvised this set up because if you just have one end of the casing draping off to the left and the cleaned bit to the right, each end tends to slither down to the sink’s drainage basket and basically get in the way.
The first step is to turn the intestine inside out and scrape off the mucous lining until one is left with only thin white casing membrane. I had used natural hog casings many times, so I had a good idea of what the finished casing was supposed to look like.
Turning the intestine inside out is easier than it sounds. Have your faucet running a good medium-hard stream of water. Take one end and begin to turn it inside out, just like you would turn a sock inside out. You only need to start an inch or so. Then direct the cold running water from the faucet into the fold created by turning that inch or so inside out. The pressure of the water continues the process, deepening that fold until the far end of the casing slides through and voila, the whole thing is now inside out, with the mucous layer on the outside. It sounds tricky, but if you’re moderately deft and you jiggle the part you’re holding onto a few times, it goes pretty smoothly. If you’re a geek like me, the physical mechanism of this part is fun and satisfying.
I used a non-serrated and rather delicate butter knife with a straight rather than a curved edge to scrape with. At first I worked rather tentatively; I was worried about cutting or piercing the casing. Also, at first I didn’t have a feel for what was membrane and what was mucosum. But it only took a minute or two to get the hang of it, and soon I was carefully but firmly scraping off the pale pinkish mucosom and uncovering the thin white casing. As I worked, the bits of mucous lining will collect in the sink drain basket, and when the sink begins not to drain well, I would pause and empty the basket into the garbage.
One thing that became quickly evident was how incredibly strong the casing membrane is. There were a few times when I got a bit heavy-handed in scraping little threads of casing off, and that will sometimes create a tear in the casing, at which point I just cut off the cleaned end and continue working on the unprocessed bit. This only happened two or three times in 20 to 30 feet of casing though, so it wasn’t a big deal. One little bit of technique is that as you’re scraping, you want to scrape all the sides of the casing, and what I would do is use my fingers to smooth a section out on the cutting board, and then I would drag my fingertips across the width of the casing, thus bringing the unscraped underside to the top.
That’s it really. I scraped my 6-10 foot sections until they were fine and white with no bits of mucosum left, rinsed them throroughly, and turned them right side out again. Finally I poured a tablespoon of kosher salt into the end of each section, added a half teaspoon of water from the tap, and squeezed that salt slurry through the length of each casing, trying to distribute it evenly throughout the section, and then placed each section into a clean bowl. After doing the same to all my sections, I got a few pieces of paper towel and poured my little pile of internally salted casings onto them, blotting and patting until they weren’t dripping wet. Into an 8-oz plastic deli container, and then then I poured on a good half-cups worth of kosher salt. I tossed the casings in the salt until they were all evenly dredged in the salt, popped a lid on, and I was done!
Make no mistake, this was a lot of fiddly work. It took me around two and a half hours to process my 20 to 30 feet, and the scraping is fairly hard work. On the other hand, I feel extremely pleased with myself, and excited to use my casings to make sausage with. I don’t think I’ll be doing this often or regularly, but now I know that I can do it, and this gives me a great deal of satisfaction.
A few notes on hygiene. As you will discover if you spend any time reading this blog, I’m a tad more easy-going than most regarding germs, but I have my own level of fastidiousness which I like to adhere to. Guts have bacteria in them, and it’s important to prepare and clean up your workspace with special care if you plan to make your own hog casings. I cleaned my whole sink area (including the faucet, sink drain basket, and drain) with a strong bleach solution, and I did the same afterward. Additionally, afterward, I washed down the wall behind my sink and various nearby objects (like my coffee maker) with a strong bleach solution. It’s the nature of the beast that when you’re scraping the intestine, little particles will inevitably fly around, so do clean up especially well.