Christmas Elk Chorizo!

By popular demand, from multiple community requests – as well as my own passion project – I bring you Christmas Elk Chorizo! Yep, it’s that time of year again when I make sausage and jerky, and it varies from year to year what products get produced. 

All that depends on which animals got harvested, and what I’m feeling like creating. Some years we have these massive sausage-making festivals with multiple friends showing up. We pool all our equipment and spend the day (and usually some of the night) making hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of product. 

This year I was on a solo mission. There were two main reasons. First, for a number of factors I don’t need to get into, my garage was super-cluttered and I didn’t have the space for a huge operation. Second, I didn’t have an excessive amount of ingredients and I had some spare time so it was easy enough for me to do by myself. And very enjoyable I might add.

On to the chorizo. There are many interpretations to the sausage. The Spanish style is a cured product similar to salami. But the Mexican version, that with which I (and I imagine many of you) am most familiar, was my goal. This takes me back over 30 years when I lived in Arizona, and chorizo (both store bought and homemade from wild game) was a staple in my kitchen. I love that Southwestern flavor profile and I’d decided to build around that theme. Historically, chorizo is made with pork and a variety of spices and chilis. But it goes great as a wild game sausage, especially when combined with some domestic meat trimmings. 

I’d already made an Italian sausage with some deer trimmings and pork shoulder (maybe that will be another edition) so I elected to combine my elk with beef trim. This is my favorite method for the sausage because I love the way the beef and elk marry together. Just my personal preference but certainly any combination can work. 

We could go back even further than I’ll do in my story, but essentially it all started when I brought an elk home this fall. Not as a family pet, but as a harvested animal that I always process myself. Despite the clutter present in my garage, I still had plenty of room to set up my meat processing area. I like to be quite fastidious about this process, making sure everything is clean, laid out in organized fashion, and ready to go. Work surface, knives, cutting board, wrapping supplies, vacuum sealer, and a variety of other accessories make up the temporary meat shop. I’ll cut and wrap steaks, chops, and roasts and stage those in my garage fridge until I put them in boxes and head for the basement freezer. As I go through the animal, I’ll collect all the trim and put that into 1-gallon freezer bags. It’s important to be meticulous about this, as your grinding experience and eventual outcome will be better if all the meat is cleaned and trimmed of any fat and fascia (“sinew and gristle”). Less junk in the grinder limits clogging and binding of the blade and it results in a sausage with a superior texture and flavor. Sometimes I’ll cube up some of the trim (as I did this time) into very small pieces and package it as stew meat. But I always save quite a bit of trim for sausage making because the process is so fun and the product so delicious. 

So here I am a few days before Christmas. It’s way below zero outside and I’ve got some hobby time on my hands. First thing to do was to get all the meat out of the freezer and stage it in the garage fridge for several days so it could partially thaw. Semi-frozen meat grinds best and it also ensures that you don’t risk any spoilage. When I took the elk trim out, I weighed it and had just about 40 pounds right on the nose. Because I was planning on going about 80/20 (percent) regarding the elk to beef trim ratio, I took a 10-pound package of grass-fed beef trim (from my local rancher) out as well. After a couple days it was just starting to thaw so I placed all the meat in a cooler on the garage floor so that it would soften up enough for me to be able to work with it. The key here is to keep checking on the meat so that you can time your grinding session optimally. 

Now that I’ve recounted the journey to this point, I’ll move into listing out specific topics in the process and describe each one accordingly.

Spices and other ingredients: The choices are many here and you can either purchase or build your own spice blend. I went with a package of chorizo seasoning from my local butcher. Now things get a little interesting. Most seasoning blends will state on the label how many pounds of meat they are designed to flavor. You can always add more but you can never take it out. I’ve made some mistakes over the years, making sausage that was either too hot or too salty for most mortals. So I had this plan of going a little mild on the mix. The package I bought was intended for 25 pounds of meat and I had 50. Here’s one of my ninja tricks. Actually it’s not mine at all because I learned it from my buddy Mighty Buck (not his real name but his actual nickname). When making sausage, you usually want to mix the spice blend with some water to make a slurry. This helps to distribute and coat your product evenly. Mighty Buck uses Spicy V-8 as his base, and he has taught me to do the same. So by my estimate, this probably bumped my meat coverage up by another 10 pounds to about 35 pounds. Then I added 2 tablespoons salt, and 1 teaspoon each of black pepper, cumin, cayenne, garlic, and paprika. Mixed it all up to a sludgy consistency in a stainless steel bowl. I desired my product to come out a little on the mild side because I wanted it to be versatile enough for burgers as well as tacos, etc. 

Next up I took two large yellow onions and chopped them relatively fine. Then 6 jalapenos received the same treatment, including seeds and veins. I’ve used anchos, serranos, and even habaneros (carefully) in other versions, but for this project, it was just onions and jalapenos. I should also mention that I had a supply of those cheapy nitrile gloves on the workbench and went through a few pairs. Great to keep your hands clean, the sausage uncontaminated, and even to keep your fingers from freezing when working with all the cold meat. If you are really sensitive you can always use arm length rubber gloves or those dishwashing jobbies. But the quickie shop gloves were good enough for me. All that was ready so I moved to the next stage. 

Grinder Prep: All the grinder parts (except the motor unit) were lightly coated in a food grade silicone lubricant and placed in the freezer. Cold meat, cold ingredients, cold metal components = better grinding and better end results. Once cold, everything was reassembled and I was off to the races.

Binder: The beef trim was the binder. Occasionally, I’ll just do a 100% lean, straight grind. This gives you a simple product that you can use for taco filler or other uses and season it to taste when cooking. Or you can add a binder for burgers or meatloaf when you take it out of the freezer. But for this sausage, I wanted the cohesiveness and flavor that the beef was going to contribute. The trim was mostly suet with a few remnants of flank and skirt steak in it. I took it all out of the package and cut it into thumb-size chunks to make feeding into the grinder very easy.

A note on meat grinders: Look for a good quality brand and then determine what size you think you need. Then don’t buy it. Find a higher quality brand and buy one size larger (usually motor rating in horsepower) than what you were planning. You’ll never be sorry. Even if you have to budget and wait a while. I’ve burned up a few budget grinders over the decades, while they are serviceable, a better tool is just a better tool. Form a club with your buddies so you can share costs. In fact, since I was going solo and had a rather small batch, I just used a little grinder. But the key was all that prep. If you don’t use a lubricant and don’t use cleanly trimmed meat cut small, the small grinders can’t handle it and you’ll be frustrated. Just a tip.

First Grind: My initial grind was simply to evenly combine the onions, jalapenos, and beef trim in a mixing tub, and then run it through the grinder with a course blade. This evenly distributes the vegetables and makes an easy-to-add product to the meat. Depending on what you are making, you may want to run everything through the grinder on a course setting and then run your final product through with a fine blade. For this chorizo, I wanted a relatively chunky texture, so the beef ended up getting ground alone first, and then again when combined with the meat.

Meat Seasoning: There are a lot of ways to approach this component. With a double grind method, it’s customary to grind the meat plain first, then season it and mix well by hand, then grind again. That was overkill for this project, so I took all my ice cold, finely cut elk trim and placed it in several mixing bowls. Then I coated each with an even amount of the seasoned V-8/spice mix slurry. Cutting right to the chase, folks, you need to get in there and mix this well. All jokes aside, you gotta massage some meat! Once you’ve got some meat ready to go, put the rest back in the fridge until you are ready to use it. 

Second Grind: Technically, this was the first grind for the meat and fat combined product but you now know the beef, onions, and jalapeno took a trip through first. While I could have went ahead and mixed that beef/veg blend into each of the mixing bowls before starting, I decided to let the grinder do the work. Either way would have turned out fine. However, here’s where a little coordination comes in handy. With the grinder running and a food tub catching the output, I fed the beef mix from the right and the seasoned elk from the left. Because my goal was an 80/20 product, and I had that ratio in weight, I now had to make sure that the grinder was fed with about 4 parts elk to 1 part beef as it cranked along. Not too tough but a bit of an art form. One nice thing to know is that when the tub is full, you can always check it and give it a bit of a hand mix as well (I usually do this anyway). 

Now, here is an important part of the process. Stop what you are doing, refreeze the grinder parts and put all ingredients back in the fridge. Make a couple small patties from the first batch of product you have created. Dash into the kitchen and fry it up in the skillet. When we are doing those big team operations, we just keep a hotplate with a skillet going all afternoon. As soon as your tester patties are done, taste them and share them with any family members or friends who are around. If you did most of the stuff we’ve discussed correctly, you won’t be over seasoned, but you just might be a little under your mark. That’s fine. You can now mix a little more slurry by hand into the ground tub and it will be fine. Add a little more to the unground stuff and you are good to go.

Complete the final grind and cover all the containers with plastic wrap to seal out all air. Store in the fridge so you can clean up the area and set up for wrapping. If you have lots of space and time you can just bang out the wrapping right then and there, but it will keep fine on ice until the following day. That’s what I did. I cleaned up everything and planned on doing all my wrapping/sealing the following morning.

The next day arrived and after a couple coffees, I was feeling the meat-wrapping mojo. For this process I like to use the kitchen island because it offers a large, clean surface area and I can quickly bang out the job. First I cleared off and wiped down the surface. Then I strategically laid out a dozen sheets of plastic wrap. Once that was done I brought in one tub (of 3) at a time and made approximately 1 pound chubs. This wasn’t going to be a link sausage (that’s another edition as well) so I wanted the portions to be roughly 1 pound bulk chubs. I’ve found that if I make a softball-sided meatball, this both gives me the weight/size I want as well as working great for the way I like to wrap this particular product. So I went around the island and placed a meat softball on each of the pieces of plastic wrap.

Before going further, I should mention that almost any way you seal this product, such as with butcher paper or in a vacuum sealer, will work just fine. But I’ve found the method I’m discussing to be fast, easy, and keeps the product fresh and free from freezer burn for well over a year (although it never lasts that long).

Now for some magic. Fold the edge of the plastic wrap over the sausage ball, seal the sides, and roll it up, flattening it as you go. Now press it fat and it will easily form into a rounded, airtight square of which 4 will fit perfectly into a gallon freezer bag. It’s the plastic wrap that is doing most of the work so even if you don’t quite squeeze out all the air from the freezer bag, you are still good to go. So I would move along, form all the packages, then fit 4 into a labeled freezer bag, and stack them neatly in the freezer. 

When all was said and done, I’d made just over 50 pounds of elk chorizo in 1 pound packages. They were ready for some gifting, some holiday meals, and for our family’s supply. And this was all done in time for a Christmas Eve Elk Chorizo Enchilada Dinner!

I think I’ll save the cooking episode for another edition as well. I’m no expert butcher or chef, just an ordinary dude who likes to celebrate extraordinarily amazing wild game animals and enjoy some outstanding food. 

I hope you enjoyed this missive. Please feel free to share your comments and questions and I’ll be sure to respond in a timely fashion. Thanks for joining me today. Happy Holidays!

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