Meet the sausage kings of Sonoma County

Although Father's Day is not traditionally associated with sausages, it is a day when dads and sons and daughters cook outside, celebrating the beginning of summer and savoring big flavor, what some call “manly” flavors. Sausages fit right in.

“I associate the day more with steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs,” Rian Rinn, co-founder of Santa Rosa's Sonoma County Meat Co., said, “but there are seasonal sausages that we do sell for the holiday.”

Rinn and his crew make more than 50 types of sausages, with a rotating selection available each day.

For Sunday's outdoor feasts, Rinn suggests some of his boldest flavors, including the whimsical Cheeseburger Sausage, made of ground beef, bacon, cheese and onions.

Other recommendations include Apple-Fennel, with pork, onion, sage and vinegar; Butifarra, made of pork garlic, cumin, black pepper, nutmeg and vinegar; fresh Spanish Chorizo, with pork garlic, paprika and cumin; Provence, with pork, lavender and savory; Jalapeno Cheddar, with pork, pickled jalapeños, beer, onion and an array of spices and herbs; and an old-fashioned style hot dog, twice the size of a commercial dog and both succulent and delicious.

For bread, Rinn prefers Franco-American hot dog buns - ask the bakery to slice them for you, he suggests - and has a less-is-more attitude about condiments.

For the Chorizo, Butifarra and Provence, he urges nothing more than aioli. Sausages so full of flavor need no masking.

But load up your hot dog, if you like, he adds, suggesting Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, sauerkraut and savory (not sweet) pickle relish.

“Ketchup is not necessary,” Rinn says, echoing President Obama's preference, who lightheartedly joked that you shouldn't put the popular condiment on a hot dog if you're over 8.

A wealth of wienies

Rinn, who has been making sausages for nearly two decades and honed his skills at Willowside Meats, which offers their own line of delicious links, opened Sonoma County Meat Co. four years ago. The company's emphasis is whole animal butchery; even trim is ground into healthy pet food. He divides his sausages into three groups: classic/regional; dirty, with big and sometimes crazy flavors; and staff-inspired. This year, the company has added few new sausages and instead has retested and honed existing recipes.

Rinn joins several other master sausage makers in Sonoma County, though he is one of the biggest. Sonoma County Meat Co. sausages are sold not only out of the plant's retail shop but also at such markets as Oliver's, Big John's in Healdsburg, Berkeley Bowl, and Good Eggs, a San Francisco-based on-line delivery service.

Franco Dunn of Healdsburg has been making sausages for decades, since he was the roommate of Bruce Aidells back when the “Sausage King” began his company in their apartment. Now Dunn produces about 60 kinds under the name One World Sausages. He and his brother, Dennis Dunn, sell the sausages at several local farmers markets.

Dunn calls himself a sausage anthropologist, and his inspiration comes from a curious source.

He is an avid on-line Scrabble player, meeting people from around the world as he plays. He encourages fellow players to talk about their regional sausages, then coaxes them into providing recipes.

Yanni's Sausages closed its tiny Penngrove restaurant last winter and now focuses on retail and restaurant distribution, with about a dozen flavors.

Other major players include Caggiano Sausages, produced in Petaluma and distributed throughout the region, and Occidental's Panizerra Meat Co., which has been making sausages for over a century.

There are smaller producers, too, many of which offer their sausages exclusively at farmers' markets where they also sell their locally raised meats, poultry and eggs.

Most supermarkets, including Pacific Markets, Oliver's Markets and Community Market in Sebastopol, offer house-made sausages, as well.

How to cook a sausage

Perhaps surprisingly, Rinn tests all his sausages in a microwave.

“It is the most disgusting way to cook meat,” he explained, “and so if it is good in a microwave, it will be really good cooked any other way.”

The best method of cooking, he believes, is with indirect heat, preferably on a griddle or plancha, which allows the cook to roll the sausage so that the skin is not overcooked in any one area.

If you use a charcoal grill, the hot coals should be pushed to the sides and the sausages lined up down the middle. Turn them frequently, he advises.

This process not only cooks the sausages more evenly; it also prevents fire flare-ups if any fat leaks.

You'll know a sausage is thoroughly cooked when it is firm when you press it. If it is soft and squishy, it is still raw inside, and if it is rock hard, it is overcooked.

And what about when the meat oozes out the ends of its casings?

This, Rinn says, means the sausage is not properly made.

“A sausage must rest after it has been made,” Rinn explained, “so that the filling can bond with the casing.”

This traditionally takes place in a blooming room with good air circulation; 12 to 24 hours is the ideal length of time for the process.

“Bloom” has another meaning, as well, Franco Dunn explained. It is when the nearly-cooked skin cracks open just slightly and a bit of the meat pushes through in a little burst of crispy delight. He loves it.

Some chefs insist a sausage must be poached before grilling and others recommend pricking the skin in several places.

Rinn says an emphatic “no” to both.

Leakage of fat should be minimal, between 5 and 10 percent, and a sausage is best when its skin remains intact, so put away that fork with the sharp tines.

Don't be chicken

Chicken sausages became popular in the 1980s with the phenomenally successful Gerhard's Napa Valley Sausages, best know for their chicken-apple links.

This was a time when chicken was perceived as a healthier option than lamb, pork, or beef, an opinion based primarily on fat content.

Yet lower fat is not an advantage when it comes to sausages; sausages need from 25 to 30 percent fat for both flavor and lubrication.

The best chicken sausages add fat to reach close to this amount. Yet its popularity in sausages continues, despite what most makers admit when pressed. Richard Caggiano, for example, once declared that chicken did not belong in any sausage ever but now includes a number of them in his line up.

Rian Rinn resists its popularity, too.

“If I were to make chicken sausage,” he explained, “I would have separate machinery and a separate plant to do so. But I do not want to do it.”

Salmonella runs high in chicken meat and Rinn prefers not introduce this into the area where he processes other meats.

Finally, what should you do if your papa is a vegetarian?

Instead of imitation hot dogs made of soy or sausages made of other faux meats, how about a carrot dog?

All it takes is a medium-sized (about 3/4 of an inch in diameter) carrot, roasted or grilled until tender but not mushy, and tucked into a toasted bun and topped with sauerkraut, onions and mustard.

But no ketchup. Please, no ketchup.

Sonoma County Meat Co. is at 35 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa. Retail hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

To inquire about the availability of specific types of sausages, call 707-521-0121. For special orders, allow a minimum of 48 hours.

For more information, visit

For an absolutely authentic grinder, you should not roasted the bell peppers, but simply stem, seed and slice them raw.

However, many people detect an unpleasant flavor in bell peppers cooked this way; roasting and peeling them first mitigates this.

Traditionally, sausages are either sweet or hot Italian, but you can use whatever type your dad prefers or surprise him with something bold and wonderful, such as Sonoma County Meat Co.'s Butifarra or One World Sausage's Calabrese.

Almost Classic Sausage Grinders

Makes 6 servings

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 white or yellow onions, peeled, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch wide half moons?6 garlic cloves, minced

- Kosher salt

3/4 teaspoon each: sweet paprika, smoked paprika and hot paprika, preferably Spanish

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 tablespoon double-concentrated tomato paste, plus more to taste

2 green bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and cut into medium julienne

2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and cut into medium julienne

3/4 cup homemade meat stock or water

- Black pepper in a mill

6 sausages (about 1 1/2 pounds) of choice

6 sourdough rolls, hoagie rolls or similar rolls

6 thin slices of medium-firm cheese, such as St. George, or Vella Mezz-Secco

Put the olive oil into a large sauté pan set over medium low heat, add the onions and cook until limp and fragrant, about 15 minutes; do not let the onions burn or brown. Add the garlic and sauté 2 minutes more.

Season with salt, stir in the paprika, oregano and tomato paste and cook, stirring all the while, for 2 minutes.

Add the julienned roasted bell peppers and the stock or water and stir gently.

Cook over very low heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until the flavors come together and the liquid reduces by about half.

Taste, correct for salt, season with several turns of black pepper, cover and set aside.

This can be prepared up to a day in advance; reheat gently before serving.

Cook the sausages over indirect heat in a charcoal grill or on a griddle until done; it will take about 12 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the sausages and the intensity of the heat.

When the sausages are nearly done, toast the rolls oven an open flame, stove top grill or hot oven. Set a slice of cheese on the inside of the top half of each roll.

Set the rolls, opened, on a large platter or work surface.

Put a generous amount of the roasted pepper mixture on the bottom half of each roll and top with a sausage.

Add a bit more on top of the sausage and close the sandwich with the cheese-covered top half of the roll. Press down gently on each grinder.

Enjoy right away, with plenty of napkins.

Variation: When fresh tomatoes come into season, omit the tomato paste, add about 3/4 cup tomato concasse (finely chopped fresh tomato pulp, drained and without seeds) and reduce stock or water to 1/2 cup.

This dish combines one of the two traditional methods of making grinders - here, with bulk sausage instead of links - with the Mexican foods and flavors that are so prevalent and popular in California.

The flavors and textures are similar to picadillo; it is the roll and the way it is assembled that moves it into the territory of a grinder.

Make sure to offer plenty of napkins alongside, as if you make it properly it will be juicy and drippy

Mexican-Style Sausage Grinder

Makes 4 to 6

2 tablespoons lard or olive oil

1 yellow onion, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 pound Mexican-style bulk fresh chorizo or bulk chorizo verde, preferably from One World Sausage

1 cabbage wedge (about 2 to 2 1/2 inches at the thickest part), very thinly sliced

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 serrano or jalapeño, stemmed, seeded and minced

- Kosher salt

1 teaspoon chipotle powder

1/2-1 teaspoon green chile powder, optional

2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano

3 -4 poblanos, roasted, peeled, seeded and cut into medium julienne

1/2 cup chicken stock or water

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

4-6 bolillos, sourdough rolls or other rolls of choice, cut in half, with about half of the soft interior pulled out and discarded

1-2 ripe tomatoes, chopped (omit if not in season)

1 firm-ripe avocado, peeled, seeded and cubed

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1 lime, cut into wedges

- Mexican crema, sour cream or creme fraiche, stirred to loosen it

- Hot sauce of choice

Put the lard or olive oil into a heavy skillet set over medium-low heat, add the onion and cook gently until the onion is very soft and fragrant; do not let it burn or brown.

Meanwhile, put the chorizo into a medium sauté pan set over medium heat and cook, breaking the meat up with a fork, until it loses its raw look, about 4 to 5 minutes. Set it aside.

Add the cabbage, garlic and serrano or jalapeño to the onions and cook for 2 minutes more, or until the cabbage has just wilted.

Season with salt and add the chipotle powder, chile powder, if using, and the oregano. Stir gently.

Add the poblanos, stock or water and the cooked chorizo. Stir and cook very gently for about 5 minutes, or until the juices have thickened.

Stir in the lime juice, taste, correct for salt and season with several turns of black pepper. Cover and set aside.

Lightly toast or grill the rolls and set them, cut sides up, on a platter or clean work surface.

Divide the chorizo mixture among the rolls, piling it on the bottom halves.

Top with tomato, if using, avocado, cilantro, a squeeze of lime, a generous dollop of crema and a few shakes of hot sauce. Add the top halves, press down, and enjoy right away.

It is easy to make aioli by hand, a method that achieves both the most luscious texture and best flavors.

Be sure to make it well enough in advance, so that it can rest for an hour or so before serving it.

Aioli (by hand)

Makes about 1 cup

8-10 medium garlic cloves, preferably spring garlic, peeled and crushed

- Kosher salt

1 large or 2 small-medium egg yolks from a backyard chicken

2/3- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, optional

- Pinch of cayenne

Put the crushed garlic cloves into a suribachi or other medium-sized mortar, sprinkle with salt and use a wooden pestle to crush and grind it into a smooth, nearly liquid paste.

Add the egg yolk or yolks and continue to mix until very smooth. Use a small rubber spatula to remove the egg yolk and garlic from the pestle and then set the pestle aside.

Using a sturdy whisk, begin to add olive oil a drop or two at a time to the garlic and egg mixture, whisking thoroughly after each addition.

Gradually increase the amount of oil added to about a teaspoon and continue mixing until no more oil goes into the emulsion; exactly how much oil you use will be determined by the size of the yolks.

At this point, the aioli should be quite stiff. If it is thicker than you prefer, stir in water a teaspoon at a time, using up to 3 teaspoons.

Taste for salt and if it is a bit bland, add a few sprinkles of salt in one spot and drizzle the lemon juice on top to dissolve and the cayenne. Whisk thoroughly to distribute evenly.

Transfer to a small bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes before using.

During this time, the heat of the garlic will diminish a bit, creating a balanced sauce.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “More Than Meatballs.” Email her at

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