Casings: a Primer, Part I
Casings! The miraculous, elastic gut that smallholders, artisans, farms and factories have used to parcel their meat for centuries. They’re sturdy but air-permeable. When cooked they swell without bursting -usually- and when dried they shrink back in step with their filling.
For the traditional farmer/smallholder, recovering the gut at the point of slaughter gives immediate access to an important means of storing and preserving the meat, trim and offal. In typical northern climates, this was a critical part of preparing for a long, nutrient sparse winter.
For the curer and charcutier, natural casings provide us with possibilities for making an enormous range of products that enable 1) efficient use of the entire carcasse and 2) great variety for our customers.
On another late night internet trolling session, Owen found this document on small-scale sausage production, published by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Within it is an excellent primer on natural casings, their preparation and applications – if I haven’t bored you yet, you may enjoy reading it in full! For the less meat-nerdy, I thought I might pair its diagrams with some of the familiar and strange products possible with this fantastic resource. Let’s get to work.
Please note: while the following may be informative and possibly even engaging, it may also not be for the squeamish.
Pigs are renowned for how much of them we can put to good use. The guts are no exception – almost every bit of the alimentary canal can be put to functional-to-delicious gastronomic purpose. Starting at the top:
1. Stomach: large capacity and sturdy, it’s great for cooked, set or stewing sausages. Head cheese, ponce/chaudin, and even the odd haggis do well in a pig stomach. Below are a few photos from Ms. Enplace, who does a fine job of demystifying both ponce and the pig stomach here.
2. Rounds: these casings, made from the small intestine, have the smoothness and gentle curve of the archetypal, plump butcher’s link. They’re plentiful, too – one can recover over 20m of casing from the rounds on a single hog. The end possibilities are numerous and they make some of the most recognisable products out there: fresh sausages of all kinds, chorizos, small air-dried salami/saucisses, etc.
3. Caps: a difficult shape to put to good use – we see them in very few end products, except in conjunction with the middles. We find this in Calabrian ‘nduja, some liverwurst, and other traditionally made, oddly shaped sausages.
4. Middles: careful now. No matter how well cleaned the middle is, it has a primal smell which will not be ignored. Products employing hog middles evoke passionate feelings of adoration and disgust, depending on whom you ask. Among them: 1) andouille -the one from Northern France, not Louisiana- a smoked sausage made from concentric rings of middles and rounds; 2)andouillette, the Lyonnaise speciality of pork, hog rounds and spices, all stuffed into a middle; 3) chitterlings/chitlins. These three alone are known to be deal breakers for many steadfast meat eaters. Except in France.
5. Bung: Like caps, the size and shape of the bung has fewer uses than other parts of the pig gut, except in conjunction with the middle. There is also talk that it makes an economical substitute for calamari. Watch this space for further research.
6. Bladder: we’re back into more comfortable territory here. Pig bladders are used most often for casing smaller air-dried muscle meats, to protect them as they age. It’s the traditional covering for a culatello, the most prized of Italian hams, in which the ham is boned and pared down to its heart, cured, fermented, and dried – I’ve seen them aged for 12 months to 3 1/2 years.
I also continue to be dazzled by the fact that an inflated pig bladder was the original carnival balloon.
Tune in next week for Part II: Bovines and Ovines.