Mexican Chorizo: The ins, the outs, the what-have-yous

The above picture doesn't look like much, I know.  Just some meat on a tortilla.  Not at all the click-bait food porn that can make or break a post on Pinterest.  But I don't give a damn, because that picture up there represents the culmination of the most work I've ever done on a recipe for this site.  By far.  For more than a month I've been mired in Mexican chorizo, in a seemingly endless cycle of cooking and researching broken up only by frustration when end results weren't good enough.  I've ground up 15lbs of pork, taken about 600 pictures, and written then deleted nearly 4000 words.  Twice I wrote near complete posts, only to send them to the trash when I had to admit that the product wasn't as delicious as it could have been, or at least should have been.  I nearly gave up and conceded defeat until I took a bite from what would be my final batch.  Barely even paying attention, having spent the past month conditioning myself for disappointment, about three bites in it suddenly occurred to me that it was perfect.  It was actually right.  The texture, the flavor, everything was there.  I was beyond relieved, yes, but more importantly, it was insanely delicious.  The best I'd had in recent memory, if not ever.  

Despite the effort I put into it, the end result is still a very simple recipe based on fundamental techniques.  It was an arduous process to discover something simple.  Which is to your benefit, because if you follow a few basic steps, you'll be able to make, potentially, the best chorizo you've ever had.  

My Initial Approach And The Ensuing Dilemma 

The traditional approach to making chorizo is really simple and can be distilled into 3 basic steps:

  1. Cut meat into tiny bits
  2. Make a chile puree
  3. Combine 1 and 2

Done.  Chorizo.  

There is obviously a lot of room left open there for variations of meat and different combinations of chiles and spices, but that's kinda the point.  The origin of sausage, after all, is to make something delicious from scraps, from a combination of what's left after butchering a whole animal and what's around in your pantry.  In Mexico that normally means and pig and a list of ingredients that, unsurprisingly, looks pretty similar to what would make for a nice enchilada sauce.  As is typical for food everywhere, different regions have their own approaches that are further varied by individual families.  

Informed by this approach, I ground up some pork, pureed dried chiles with some vinegar and traditional spices, combined it all and ended up with this:

It looks like chorizo.  And this looks like a pretty tasty chorizo taco:

I was in fact, pretty tasty.  But that's it.

The flavor was like a lot of the chorizo tacos I've had in the past, and, thus, my attempt should have been a success.  I went as far as editing the photos and writing up most of a post, but I couldn't shake the fact that I was actually really disappointed in the texture.  It was crumbly.  And yes, I'm aware that chorizo is a crumbly sausage, that that is how it is cooked and eaten in the country of its origin, but the way that it broke apart in the pan was unsettling to me.  Fully cooked, despite being well seasoned with good flavor and plenty of fat, the chorizo was dry and granular.  Little pieces fell out of the back of my tortilla.  It tasted great when the texture was masked by being mixed with cheese, beans, or soft potatoes, but on it's own it was unexceptional.  I know enough about sausage making to know that dry and granular is exactly what the entire technique aims to avoid, and I had to admit that my chorizo was, technically, bad.  I sent the mostly finished blog post to the trash and headed back to the drawing board.


If my chorizo was "bad" my first step was to ask what are the general characteristics of good sausage, and how are they achieved?  The first half of that question is easy to answer.  Think about what makes a sausage great.  It's the snap, the burst when the sausage casing finally gives way to your teeth.  That snap is pleasurable because it's an indicator of well made sausage, it won't show up unless everything else is done correctly.  Great sausage, though made up of a bunch of tiny individual pieces of ground meat, is great because it exists as a single, bound unit.  (And yes, I just said bound unit and sausage in that sentence.  And no, that will not be the end of what I foresee as an unavoidably innuendo laden post.)  A really great bratwurst doesn't crumble when you eat it, but rather stays firmly bound together.  Even sausages that are not encased are still judged by the same standard.  Patties and meatballs, despite lacking the initial snap of encased meats, need to have the same structural integrity underneath.  

So how is this structure achieved?  The answer is myosin and fat.  Fat brings flavor and juiciness to the game, myosin holds that all together in a pleasant texture.  It turns out that much of the process of making and cooking sausage is at the service of myosin.  What is myosin exactly?  It's one of the dominant proteins in muscle, and it plays a really important role in cooking due to its ability to bind with other proteins and then, when heated, form a gel.  The gelation of a myosin network causes it to swell when cooked, which in encased sausages pushes on the casing and causes the much lauded "snap."  In all sausages this gelling network traps the juices escaping from rendering fat and contracting muscle fibers, which means that if you treat myosin right it will keep your sausage juicy (see what I mean about innuendos?).  

With myosin in mind, it's easy to see that it played a key role in why my initial chorizo recipe was ultimately a failure.  Something along the way had hindered it from binding together.  The sausage crumbled when cooked, the evacuating juices escaped, and it all ended up tasting dry and grainy.  In order to figure out what went wrong, I had to go back and start at the beginning, ensuring that as I progressed through the 3 main steps to chorizo making, I did everything not only with flavor, but the proper final texture in mind.  


Step 1: Cut meat into tiny bits

Chorizo can be made with most any meat, but pork is by far the most common, so that's what I'm working with here.  As for what cut to choose, it's good to keep two things in mind:

  1. The meat will be ground.
  2. Sausage needs to be 25-30% fat.

The first is important because grinding is an extremely effective tenderizer.  Meat is chewy because of connective tissue, which is increases in abundance in proportion to how active the muscle is.  Grinding cuts all that connective tissue into tiny little bits, immediately making tender a once chewy cut.  This means that when it comes to sausage, there's no added benefit from working with tender cuts, because it'll all be the same on the other side of the grinder.  Stick to the cheaper, chewier, well used muscles (which just so happen to be more full flavored).

Secondly, sausage needs fat.  And yes, I know fat is a cringe inducing word for a lot of people, but I'm sorry, the only way around it in this instance is to stop cringing and deal with it.  Fat plays a huge roll in achieving the right final texture of sausage.  As it renders it keeps everything juicy and adds unctuousness.  There are some higher tech ways of making low fat sausages with decent textures, but for the most part the general rule is that there is no such thing as a good tasting lean sausage.  Fat also interferes with myosin binding, which is a bad thing at extreme levels, but at appropriate percentages helps to prevent sausage from linking up too tightly and becoming rubbery.  Well made sausage is a perfect balance of rendered fat trapped inside a myosin network that is kept in check thanks to the presence of the fat.  

The goal then is to find a cut of pork that is cheap, chewy, and has a good amount of fat.  The winner is the shoulder.  

Fatty and typically under $5 per pound, pork shoulder is perfect for sausage.  There are many times when the fat percentage is still a little low and you may need to augment with belly, jowl, or backfat, but more often than not, if you're buying a good quality product, straight shoulder should serve you well for chorizo.  

But do make sure you buy good pork.  Most mass-produced pork these days is bred to be lean (because people are scared of fat).  This is a problem because lean pigs can't live safely outside during the winter, and as a result these pigs spend their entire lives indoors.  A whole bunch of pigs in an enclosed area is an ideal breeding ground for disease and the spread of illness, which is combated with a shit-ton of antibiotics.  All this leads to most pork on grocery store shelves being antibiotic filled chunks of too lean meat from horribly treated animals.  That's a bummer.  If you can't verify where your pork came from or how it was raised, a good thing to look for/ask about is if it was treated with antibiotics.  That's a great indicator of whether or not it was able to spend time outside, thus developing better fat and flavor.  Granted, perfectly healthy and happy animals, like people, still get sick from time to time, and great farms often treat those animals to get them healthy again, so the no antibiotic rule isn't a perfect indicator of quality, but it's a good place to start.  

Once you've acquired a shoulder (I generally go with one and a half to two pounds) and cut it up into cubes that will fit in your grinder, the next step is to salt it.  The meat to salt ratio for sausage from Michael Ruhlman's appropriately named app, Ratio, is 60:1, and that's never let me down yet.  So take the weight of the meat you bought, divide that by 60, and that's how much salt you should add.  Dump it all on top of the meat and stop.

Remember, the goal here is to build a strong myosin network, but the problem is that myosin itself is not readily accessible in meat.  It's trapped within the "thick filaments of the myofibrils. It must be released and/or re-organized within the muscle matrix for its functionality to come to the fore."  We are about to grind the meat, so the re-organizing part of that will be taken care of, but is there a way to release it as well?  Turns out, yes.  With salt.  According to Modernist Cuisine, salt in concentrations higher than 6% will dissolve those filaments and make the myosin accessible.  The current percentage of salt in that bowl there is less than two, which is not near strong enough, BUT because the meat is cubed and the salt isn't yet mixed thoroughly in, it's currently at much higher than 6% concentrations on some of the pork and thus going to work bringing myosin to the party.  (Edit: Thanks to Kenji over at the Food Lab for pointing out that this percentage is only true for brines, which is actually what Modernist Cuisine says and I simply misread.  To get the most out of this extraction, leave the salt in contact with the meat in a bag for at least 4 hours and it will pull moisture out, create a brine, and the shit will get so myosined your sausage won't know what hit it (ugh, that's such an unpleasant innuendo))

After 4 hours in the fridge the meat is noticeably more tacky.  All that tackiness is going to help the chorizo stay juicy later.  

If you don't have 4 hours to let the salt and meat mingle, don't sweat it (again, because that four hours was barely enough, see note above).  Any amount of time before grinding is better than none.  I've had great luck salting the meat, throwing it in the freezer for 30 minutes to cool down, and grinding after that.  

Mentioning the freezer is a great segue into the other, critical rule of sausage making: Everything needs to be kept cold, all the time, no exceptions. 

There are two opposing forces at work here, and your job as the cook is to keep them in balance.  The goal, obviously, is to grind the meat into small chunks, but the constant slicing of the blade, followed by pushing the meat through the die creates a whole lot of friction.  Friction creates heat.  Heat softens meat. Soft meat is nearly impossible to cut, no matter how sharp your grinder blade is.  This will jam up the grinder, creating even more heat.  All of this will cause the fat in the meat to partially melt, aka "smear."  Once fat melts, its texture is forever changed and cannot be restored by re-cooling.  It stops being fat and starts being lard.  Lard melts at much lower temperatures than fat does which is a huge problem for sausage because that means it will melt out of the sausage before the myosin has had time to gel up and catch it.  The sausage will end up as dry and gross as if it didn't have enough added fat to begin with.  

Your goal then, as the maker of sausage, is to reduce friction, thus taming heat and preventing the fat from warming and smearing.  The easiest way to do this is to work extremely cold.  Cold meat cuts much, much more easily, so chill cubed meat in the freezer for at least 20 minutes before you grind it.  You don't want to freeze it all the way though, just get a good chill on it and firm it up.  While you're at it, throw everything else that the meat will touch in the freezer too.  The grinder and all its attachments and any bowl the meat will touch should get frozen first.  If you're making a large amount of sausage, work in small batches, keeping all the other meat as cold as possible, and periodically soak your grinder in ice water to cool it back down.  

Above is super cold meat being cut up by a frozen grinder into a frozen bowl sitting in a bowl of ice water.  Notice how the extruded meat is coming out in clean strands with clear distinctions between the muscle and fat.  If at any time the muscle and fat start to meld together, the fat is smearing and you have a problem somewhere.  Most likely it's because something is wrapped around your grinder blade.  Put the meat back in the freezer, take the grinder apart and clean everything up.  If that keeps happening it means either the meat wasn't cold enough or your grinder blade needs to be sharpened.  All that said, this whole step generally takes about two minutes.  It's really quick, and then everything goes back in the freezer or fridge (the latter if you won't be incorporating the chile puree right away).

Step 1 is officially done.  


In my search to figure out what was wrong with my chorizo, I followed the above technique precisely, ensuring that no part in the grinding of the meat was sabotaging the final outcome.  And guess what?  It wasn't.  My next batch of chorizo still turned out the same as the first, dry and crumbly.  Knowing that the grinding step wasn't the issue, I knew the issue was with the added ingredients or the way they were incorporated.  I also knew that my technique for step 3 had been right from the get go, and that it was highly unlikely to be the problem.  So I set about focussing on step 2.  


Step 2: Make a chile purée

Mexican chorizo gets its color and flavor from dried chiles (assuming we ignore green chorizo, which we will for now).  Like I said earlier, there's absolutely no one right combination of chiles and spices to make the "perfect" chorizo, rather there are myriad ways to end up with something delicious.  I highly recommend you spend some time online searching chorizo recipes to get a good scope of the options available (my tip to finding more traditional recipes is to search with the Spanish word for recipe, receta, instead, and then just have your browser translate the subsequent page).

That said, I have settled on a basic, chile-forward recipe that I use more often than not.  Unsurprisingly, it's starts with a big pile of dried chiles.

Ancho and guajillos are great together, playing the flavor version of the bass and treble clefs respectively, and so I use them with some arbols for some heat.  After years of making chorizo with not enough chile flavor, I derived a ratio from compiling a few Dianna Kennedy recipes and now my general rule is that I use 15% chiles by weight of pork.  In this case I started with 800g of pork shoulder, so I multiplied that by .15 and weighed out 120g of chiles; 60g each of guajillos and anchos, then threw on some arbols for luck (read: heat).  It's by no means an exact science, different chiles have vastly different weights and flavor intensity, but for the most part it works.  

Cut the stems off the chiles and throw those away, then pour the seeds into a bowl.  On a dry skillet over medium heat, briefly toast each chile for a few seconds per side until it darkens and blisters a bit, then toss in a blender.  

Toss the seeds in the pan until they turn a darker brown and smell terrific, then add those to the blender.

Next up we need to think about spices.  

 I tend to keep it pretty simple.  For a pound and half of meat I use:

  • 6 cloves of garlic, peeled 
  • 5 each cloves and allspice berries
  • 1 T Mexican oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 1 T cumin seed (not pictured)

Sometimes I also throw in a little chunk of canela cinnamon and a tablespoon of sugar to work against the bitterness of the chiles.  Use this as a template but by no means feel like you have to follow it exactly.  The best thing to do is read a lot of recipes and get a good feel for different options and general proportions.  I add a good pinch of salt here, but don't worry about seasoning it too perfectly because the meat is already seasoned well.  

Grind all this together in a spice grinder then add it to the chiles and seeds in the blender.

Next up is what differentiates chorizo puree from enchilada sauce.  Vinegar.  

Apple cider and white vinegar are the two dominant additions.  I've seen red wine vinegar in a few recipes but those were all written by white people, so I don't trust them much (which is generally a good rule of thumb...except for when you read this blog...this blog is the exception?).  I tried different batches, some with equal parts apple and white, others with only one or the other, and I've come to the conclusion that I absolutely hate apple cider vinegar in chorizo.  It can overpower the sausage extremely easy, and I ruined a whole batch by adding too much cider vinegar.  It's fine in small amounts but that's it, it's just fine.  I skip it entirely and go with distilled white vinegar, which I think adds the necessary acidity while still allowing the flavor of the chiles and spices to come through.  As for how much, add 20% by weight of pork.  So 800g of pork got 160g of vinegar, i.e. about a half cup per pound of meat.  

I turned my blender on and immediately ran into a problem.  There wasn't enough liquid to blend everything smoothly.  Even in a Vitamix with the tamper pushing everything into the blades, I had to add a whole other cup of water just to get the puree, well, pureed.

With that extra cup of water I still only managed to just barely get everything blended together.  This was immediately a red flag.  Adding liquid to sausage is an important part of getting the meat to bind well, but normally it's only a quarter to a half cup for five pounds of meat.  Here I was adding two cups of liquid to less than two pounds of pork.  I immediately suspected that all this extra water was the reason my chorizo was crumbling apart in the pan.  

I mixed the purree into the ground pork as well as I could, knowing that the more I agitated the meat, the more it would help the myosin link up.  This mixing is called the primary bind and it's step 3 in my above three step process.  It's an important part of sausage making that you can read about here.

I packed that tightly into a quart container and let it rest overnight in the fridge and...

Nope.  Didn't work.  The chorizo was dry and crumbly.  It was a bummer, but at least I had found the culprit.  I needed a way to eliminate the extra liquid.  

I turned first to the traditional approach of letting the chorizo air cure overnight.  I had read in a few cookbooks and on this fantastic blog that the old school technique for making chorizo is to stuff it in casings, prick those casings in various spots to allow for better air flow/drainage, and then hang the chorizo up in a drafty place for a day or two.  It supposedly dried the chorizo out and condensed the flavors.  Being a person who was raised entirely in an era of refrigeration, I was skeptical/scared of leaving ground pork out for a day, but I figured that a) seeing as how there was a lot of salt and vinegar in the pork and I ground it myself, I was almost definitely going to be totally fine, and b) I was more than willing to risk a little food poisoning on the quest for better chorizo.  

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One thing I still don't understand is why chorizo is stuffed in hog casings.  It's never eaten in them, every recipe for cooking it starts with the step of removing the casing.  I imagine it may have been an effective way of keeping the sausages around before refrigeration, but it's mostly worthless nowadays.  Every time I read chorizo recipes that call for stuffing in casings only to be removed before cooking I feel like I'm 8 arguing with my mom about making my bed,  "But why do I have to make it if I'm just going to mess it up again when I sleep tonight??"  Though I do make my bed from time to time, I still haven't heard a good reason for adding chorizo to casings only to remove it.  I opted to skip the stuffing step and instead wrapped my chorizo up in cheesecloth, which I figured would accelerate the drying anyway.  

I wrapped it up tightly, put it on a grate over a plate, and then left it on my counter for 24 hours. 

When I unwrapped it the next day the exterior had definitely dried out, but once I broke it open everything else was as moist as ever.  I suspected this would the case, seeing as how it takes months to properly dry cured meat, but I had to test it.  I cooked a batch up in a pan and...

...as dry and crumbly as ever.  I also tasted it against a batch I had left in my fridge overnight and I couldn't tell a difference at all.  The traditional approach was out.  

Next I turned to the authority on sausage, the cookbook Charcuterie, for help.  It had a recipe for Mexican chorizo that called for using chile powder and adding only a small amount of vinegar.  It made sense that by turning the chiles to powder you'd be able to incorporate them evenly without all the added liquid of blending them.  

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I roasted de-seeded chiles on a rack until brittle and then tossed them in the blender.  

I sent the rest of the spices through the blender and ended up with two piles of powder.  I mixed those together and added them to the cubed meat prior to grinding, and...

...it was WAY too much powder.  The resultant chorizo tasted like it had sand in it.  I made another batch, this time scaling back the ingredients, and it cooked up pretty well.  It definitely didn't fall apart like the previous batches (confirming that my initial problem was indeed with too much liquid), but what it made up for in cohesiveness it lost in flavor, and the texture of the powder was both present and unpleasant.  Because I had to use so much less chiles when I turned them to powder, the overall taste of the chorizo was diminished and disjointed.  I'm sure I could have worked on the recipe and improved it, but it seemed like a dead end to me.  

At this point chorizo in general was starting to seem like a dead end to me.  I had been making it for a month and was sick of it.  So, so sick of it.

But then I had an idea.  I needed a way to puree the chiles in enough liquid to make it smooth, but I didn't want to add all that liquid to the chorizo itself.  So why not cook it out first?  I had to try it.

This time I made a batch of chile puree but with three times the liquid I'd normally use.  I wanted it incredibly smooth.  Then I poured all of that on a 12 inch saute pan (which has a large surface area to expedite evaporation), tuned the heat to medium, and began stirring.  Slowly steam started rising from the puree.  That was the water I didn't want and a really good sign.  I kept stirring to keep it from burning, periodically weighing the pan to keep track of how much moisture was lost.

After 15 minutes I had this.  A thick, smooth paste with what worked out to be only a little more than the weigh of a half cup of added liquid.  Perfect.  I put it in the fridge to cool completely (after all that talk above about keeping the ground meat cold, it'd be a bad idea to add a steaming hot puree).  When it was cold, I mixed it thoroughly in with the ground pork in my stand mixer for a good minute.  I knew it would set up better overnight, but I just had to try it out to see if it worked.  

I formed a puck of some sausage and cooked it over medium low in a pan, flipping it frequently.  It's important to cook sausage slowly because it takes time for the myosin to set up and gel.  If you cook it over too high of heat at the start, juices and fat will escape before the myosin can catch them, and you end up with dry, gross sausage.  

After a few minutes I had this. 

And. It. Was. Perfect.

Incredibly juicy on the inside, packed full of flavor from all the chiles, and with far and away the best texture of any chorizo I had ever eaten.  It had great chew without being too dense, with way more textural character than any chorizo I'd had before.  Typical chorizo tacos have one single note of chorizo that plays through the whole thing, but because the chunks held together, this one had bursts of chorizo.  

After a month straight of eating chorizo, I ate this piece like it was the first I'd ever had.  It might as well have been.

Oh, and because it stays bound together in larger chunks, it doesn't fall out of the back of your taco.

So after all that work, it looks like chorizo is actually just a simple FOUR step process with a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Cut meat into tiny bits.
    1. Buy chewy, cheap cuts with a lot of fat.  Salt in a ratio of 60:1.  Keep it cold.
  2. Make a chile puree
    1. Ancho and guajillos are great, but there's a whole world of chiles out there.  Be wary of apple cider vinegar.  Add enough liquid to easily make a smooth puree.
  3. Reduce the puree
    1. Medium heat.  Stir constantly.
  4. Combine 1 and 3
    1. Again, this is the primary bind.  It's important.  Do it well.

Done.  

As for how much to reduce it, you can likely eyeball it and pull the puree off the stove when it looks like the paste above.  If you want to get technical (and do I!!) you can weigh the total puree before you reduce it, then subtract the weight of the added chiles, leaving you with the added liquid.  From there add it to the pan, take the starting weight of that whole thing, then cook, weighing the pan periodically until you hit the target weight.  You want to shoot for no more than 40-50 grams of liquid per pound of meat.  

You also don't have to cook the chorizo in a puck, I didn't for the taco below.  But I think I prefer it because it allows for some nice browning on both sides while still keeping the interior meat juicy.  Plus it's easier to temp a puck of meat, allowing you to pull if off the heat as soon as it's done, not overcooking it and drying it out. 

From start to finish, this taco took about ten minutes to make.  Here's how:

With the meat slowly cooking in one pan I made a couple fresh masa tortillas in another.  Then I made a super simple vinaigrette in a bowl with a tablespoon each of lemon juice and canola oil, a spoonful of sugar, and a pinch of salt.  To that I added some chopped cabbage and white onion.  Right before putting the cabbage on the taco I mixed in a bunch of cilantro and sliced a radish on a mandoline.  I already had the salsa in the fridge.  It's a basic roasted tomatillo salsa but with dried arbols in place of serranos.  

I'm not one for hyperbole here, but seriously this very well may have been one of the best tacos I've ever eaten.  And I've eaten tacos at Pujol (ok, maybe that one was better.)  But still.

Make some chorizo.  It's easy.  I swear. 

And if you have any questions or need something clarified, feel free to write me at brett@fourchordkitchen or post in the comments below.