On a frigid morning in January a couple of years ago, I pulled into my friend Eduardo Garcia's driveway to find a trailer with three mildly feral sheep huddling in the back. Eduardo asked me to help him slaughter and butcher the sheep he and his wife, Becca, were raising.
We planned to cut their throats because neighborhood covenants disallowed any use of firearms. While neither of us was strangers to gutting and butchering animals, we had never killed an animal so close to the kitchen where it would be cooked and eaten. We were used to animals that died in a pasture or woods, far from running water and refrigeration.
Given this somewhat rare opportunity, we wanted to use parts of the animals we'd never had access to. Eduardo saved the hides and cleaned the stomachs for tripe. We considered keeping brains but refrained for fear of Scrapie (similar to Mad Cow Disease) and had planned on saving sweetbreads (thymus glands), but they were too small to be useful.
However, I salvaged the small intestines from all the sheep and turned them into casings for the lamb merguez sausage that Eduardo cooked in paella the next day.
None of this means that you must be near a kitchen to save intestines for casings, only that it allowed me to experiment with a few new techniques in a somewhat controlled setting; techniques that I hope will help you in your nose-to-tail endeavors.
Sausage casings can be made from the intestines of nearly any animal, from sheep, deer, and elk to wild hogs, moose, and presumably even bears. Begin by promptly gutting the animal, ensuring not to cut or tear any of the guts.
Stomach contents and bile can be challenging to clean from the intestines, so try to avoid dirtying them in the first place. The consistency of an animal's guts will vary depending on species, age, diet, and how quickly the animal is processed. If the intestines tear with a gentle tug, they are likely too weak to be made into casings.
Locate the small intestine. It is about an inch in diameter in a sheep or deer and is attached to a membrane that causes it to bunch up in a wavy coil. There is no need to cut the membrane. Hold a section of the intestine and pull it away from the membrane. The entire thing should begin to detach and unravel.
Pinch the intestines and use your fingers to squeeze the contents out of the end as you would when squeezing the remnants out of a tube of toothpaste. It is easier to start at the end and slowly work your way back so as not to cause an intestinal traffic jam and subsequent blow-out. It’s also easier if the intestines are cut into 6- to 10-foot sections to make working with them more manageable.
Once the intestines are thoroughly emptied, use a hose with light water pressure to rinse any remaining residue. Even water poured from a bottle can be efficient if a hose is not readily available.
Once the insides of the intestines are clean, you will turn the intestines entirely inside-out. There are a few ways to do this. You can use the end of a utensil to initiate the process, poking the opposite end of a spoon or fork into the outside of the intestine and pushing up through the opening.
Running water is your friend in this process. Once the first part of the intestine has been pushed up through the opening like the cuff on a shirt, use a sink or hose to send a steady stream of water into the part that has been pushed inside-out. The water will then do the work of pulling the rest of the intestine through itself. I have found that by simply hooking my pinky under the rim of the intestinal opening, I can get a large enough pocket to fill with water and let gravity do the rest of the work for me.
Don’t worry if the intestines rupture. The flowing water will alert you to tears and holes, which you can cut out, thereby shortening the length and making it easier to work with.
Once the intestine is turned inside out, you’ll need to gently scrape off the remaining slippery mucosal layer. I’ve found that it’s easiest to use the back of a butter or paring knife to do the scraping. Apply pressure, but not so much that the intestines begin to tear. You can hold the intestine between a cutting board or your thumb and the back of the knife, running the knife down its entire length. Rinse off the white mucus as it builds up. Once you have scraped as much of the mucus layer off as possible, run water through the intestines one more time to check for leaks and rinse any remaining internal residue.
Store the casings in a strong water and salt solution. Sliced onions can be added to the salty water to remove any odors from the casings. The sooner the casings are used, the better they will hold up during sausage stuffing.
It may be a lot of work but as Eduardo and I found out when stuffing merguez sausage for lamb paella, the high quality of these casings easily made up for the time they took to prepare. Homemade casings are sure to instantly upgrade your go-to sausage recipe. With enough practice, you may never want or need to use store-bought casings again.