Category Archives: Outbuildings

More on Building a Smokehouse

As it turns out, my original post on building our smokehouse has been the number one hit that brings people to my blog.  Based on the level of interest and/or lack of information out there on the web, I thought I would try to post some more information for people interested in constructing their own smokehouse.

The most helpful resource we found when researching how to build a smokehouse was a little publication by Storey Publishing appropriately titled, Build a Smokehouse.  It is available on Amazon for $3.95, a real bargain, or visit their website at www.storey.com and search for “smokehouse.”

This great little book goes through some basic information on smoking food, explains the differences between hot-smoking and cold-smoking, and provides a helpful description of how smokers and smokehouses work. There are also detailed instructions for building a block smokehouse similar to the design that we used, and some smaller smoker projects if you don’t want such a large structure. The “hot smoke pit” is cheap and easy to build anywhere. In addition, the “barrel smoker” and the “box smoker” are also very good alternatives for cold-smoking smaller quantities at a much lower cost.

Feel free to ask questions in the comment section and we will do our best to answer them.

Lynell

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Making Sausage: A Family Tradition

My husband and I have hung out for a long time:  we dated for 8 years and have been married for 20 years.  Early on in our relationship, he introduced me to his family’s mostly-annual tradition of making German sausage.  I do not remember the year I was first invited to join in the tradition, but I do remember being amazed, and maybe even a little shocked by the process.  Although I too was a farm kid, I had never thought about how the sausage that I ate was actually made.

The event took place at his parent’s house and I managed to avoid participating up until it was time to weigh and package the newly ground sausage.  Someone handed me a big stainless steel bowl of fresh sausage and instructed me to start weighing and packaging the sausage in one-pound packages.  Being a teenager, and new to the family besides, I felt like I had no other choice than to roll up my sleeves, wash my hands in bleach water, and get started.

The sausage-making tradition has continued through the years, taking place in different locations and with different combinations of family members in attendance.  The equipment has been upgraded, the recipe is always being altered/improved, and the process continues to be refined.  Over the past several years, we have hosted the event at our home on the day after Thanksgiving.  We choose this weekend because people are free for the holiday weekend and the temperatures are typically cold enough that we do not have to worry about keeping the meat cold throughout the process.

Although I am unsure how far back this family tradition dates, I know it goes back at least to my husband’s childhood when they used to make sausage at his grandma and grandpa’s farm.  The recipe is of German origin, but has been changed over the years based on available ingredients and in response to discussions about possible improvements.  One thing has remained the same however, this family knows how to make good sausage.

Cleaning and Setting Up

We hosted this family event at our house again this year.  The preparation process is a long one and requires completely cleaning out our garage, mopping the floors with bleach water, hauling equipment in from various storage locations, and setting everything up.  We place clean plastic on all the tables and wipe them down with bleach water.  Cutting boards, knives and containers are also washed.  We do all this prep work on Thanksgiving evening, so it helps us work off that big turkey dinner.

Mixing the Spices

In addition to the cleaning and setting up, another important preparation that we do the night before is to mix the spices.  My mother-in-law purchases all the spices, mostly in bulk, and works with our three kids to measure them out into pint jars.  Each jar is enough spices to season 30 pounds of sausage.  The kids stand in a line and she gives them the measurement and they pass each ingredient down the line, placing the correct amount in the jars in front of them.

My mother-in-law is in charge of the recipe so I don’t know the exact ingredients, but the spices at least include various amounts of salt, black pepper, sage, coriander, summer savory, all-spice, fennel seed, cayenne pepper, sugar and clove oil.

Sectioning and Cutting

In the morning of sausage-making day, someone goes to the locker to pick up the hogs.  This year we ordered 2 whole hogs, each with a hanging weight of around 220 pounds.  Our oldest son and an uncle both got a deer during hunting season this year, so we purchased an extra 30 pounds of pork trimmings to mix with the venison to make sausage.

Once people start to arrive, the cutting begins.  The hogs are cut into sections and the people cutting are given sections from both the front and rear quarter for cutting.  The idea is to get a good blend of the different cuts of the hog, mixing together both the premium and more standard meat.  The meat is cut off the bone into cubes or chunks for grinding.  We had three tables set up for cutting.

Whole Hog Sausage

Sausage is commonly made from the scraps and least desirable cuts of the hog.  In contrast, the sausage we make is a “whole hog” sausage, which means that it includes all parts of the hog, including the premium cuts: ham, tenderloin, shoulder, etc.

Grinding

As the meat is cut off the bone, the chunks of meat from each table are moved over to the grinding area.  A few years ago, the family purchased a 1.5 horsepower commercial grinder to improve the process.  It has been a great addition to the sausage-making equipment.

The ground pork is put into a tub and weighed.  The batches of sausage we make consist of 24 pounds of ground pork mixed with 6 pounds of ground beef.  Once there are 24 pounds of ground pork ready for processing, the mixing begins.

Mixing

Each 30 pound batch of sausage is seasoned with one of those pint jars of spices mixed the night before.  A quart of ice water is also added to the mixture to add moisture and to help distribute the spices.

The mixing is done by hand, usually by two brave people.  The sausage is really, really cold and the spices make your skin itch and burn.  There are discussions about purchasing a hand-crank mixer for next year to improve this part of the process.

Bulk Sausage

After the sausage goes through the mixing process, it is ready to be packaged as bulk sausage or eaten.  We always try out the freshly made sausage for lunch.  It’s always really yummy, even though the spices have not had a chance to fully set.

The grand total for the pork sausage this year was around 300 pounds – 10 of the 30 pound batches.  Of that 300 pounds of sausage, we wrapped about 120 pounds into 1 pound packages of bulk sausage.

Link Sausage

The remaining bulk sausage is processed into links.  I find this part of the process…ummm…interesting.  Mostly because of the use of hog intestines.

The vessel for stuffing the sausage is hog casings, the intestines of the hog.  They are removed during the butchering process, rinsed and packed in salt.  We purchase the casings from the meat locker where we get the hogs.  My daughter and mother-in-law have the job each year of giving these casings another rinse before they are used.

In the first several years of my exposure to the sausage-making tradition, I truly found this part of the process disgusting.  Just the idea of it.  I had a hard time eating the link sausage because of it and would often peel off the casing.  Over time, I have gotten over it and I just try not to think about it too much.  🙂

Stuffing

After the casings are double-rinsed for good measure, they are put on the stuffer.  With one person turning the crank and the other holding the casings, the bulk sausage is stuffed into the casings.

The sausage links are then weighed for record-keeping and to help figure out the amount available for distribution to all the workers.  The total link pork sausage processed this year was 200 pounds.

Venison Sausage

Once all the pork is ground up and mixed, the crew starts cutting up any venison that we have for the year.  This year we had about 60 pounds of venison.  The venison sausage is also mixed in 30 pound batches, with 20 pounds of venison and 10 pounds of pork trimmings.  The rest of the process is the same as the pork, even the spices used.  We make all of the venison into link sausage.

Smoking

The last step in processing the link sausage is cold-smoking.  This family tradition of making sausage is the primary reason Jesse decided to build our smokehouse.  Interestingly, my post on building our smokehouse is the primary search term that brings people to my blog.  If you are interested in building a smokehouse, check out the post here.

The 300 pounds of link sausage is carried tub-by-tub out to the smokehouse and placed on racks for drying.

The sausage is hung in the smokehouse to dry overnight to form a pellicle.  The pellicle refers to the tacky surface that develops when food is dried and to which the smoke sticks, thereby adding the desired smokey flavor.


Early the next morning, Jesse fired up the smokehouse to start the cold-smoking process.  The art of cold-smoking is to keep the meat below 70 degrees F to inhibit bacteria growth and to not cook the meat.  (Refer to this post about building our smokehouse for more information on how our smokehouse works).

Wrapping

After about 5 hours of gentle cold-smoking, the link sausage is finally finished and ready for wrapping.  A work crew assembles once more to cut the links into 1 pound servings for packaging in freezer paper.

We divide the sausage between the various individuals and families according to their preference ratios of bulk versus link.

The grand totals of sausage processed for 2010:

120 pounds of bulk pork sausage

200 pounds of link pork sausage

90 pounds of venison sausage

So, after a few long days of hard work and good company we are done making sausage for the year.  In addition to the great family memories we create each year through this tradition, we get to enjoy some amazing sausage over the next 12 months.

Does anyone else make sausage as part of a family tradition?  Please share your stories in the comments!

Lynell

 

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Pesky Free-Rangers

We have put a lot of work into restoring our chicken coop from its original dilapidated condition.  The result is a very solid, safe, comfortable and cute home for our chickens.  Despite their fancy digs, our chickens love being outside any time there is not snow on the ground.

They spend hours wandering around, digging and laying in the dirt, eating grass, bugs and just doing their chicken thing.  I like the “idea” of having free-ranging chickens and I enjoy seeing them meandering around the farm.

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Township Cleanup Day

Every spring in Minnesota, townships have a spring cleanup day when residents can bring in various items to dispose of, including old appliances, electronics, mattresses, batteries, tires, scrap metal, etc.  The township charges a fee for some of the items, but allow disposal of a limited number of items free of charge.

In celebration of our township’s cleanup day this year, we decided to resume the barn project and tear out the cattle stanchions and miscellaneous piping to haul in for scrap metal disposal.

We have owned our farm for a decade now and we have never done anything with the inside of the barn, besides stash things that do not belong anywhere else.  Prior to us purchasing the place, many years had passed since any animals occupied the barn. Needless to say, it is a real disaster.

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Cold-Smoking: Salmon

Prior to building our smokehouse last year, Jesse used a home-made barrel smoker and an electric smoker to do all of his food smoking.  These styles of smokers limited him to hot-smoking, which is a process that actually cooks the meat slowly while smoking it by keeping temperatures above 150 degrees F.

Cold-Smoking

Cold-smoking is an entirely different process that involves keeping the temperature during the smoking process somewhere below 70 degrees F.  The primary reason we built our smokehouse was to be able to cold-smoke the traditional German sausage that Jesse’s family has been making for years. The large size of the smokehouse is because Jesse wanted to have the capacity to smoke 400-500 lbs of the sausage in a single batch instead of staying up nights tending the firebox. A nice side benefit is that he is also able to cold-smoke fish, cheese, ribs, chickens, turkeys, etc… which turns out a completely different product from hot-smoking.

The key design criteria for cold-smoking is to locate the firebox away from the smoking chamber to allow the smoke to cool before entering the smoke chamber. In Jesse’s design he has located the firebox 8 feet away and slightly down the hill from the smokehouse. The firebox and flue are built into the hillside, which allows the heat to be pulled out by the cooler soil temperature. It is also important to make sure that the flue pipe is at a slight incline to encourage proper drafting of the smoke from the firebox into the smokehouse and out the roof venting. Adequate venting is important to make sure that moisture does not build up in the smokehouse.

Making Cold-Smoked Salmon

Jesse cold-smoked some salmon last weekend.  It was his second attempt and the texture and flavor turned out much better this time.  The first attempt was with refrigerated salmon with no skin attached. The second attempt was with frozen wild salmon provided by a co-worker. We have found some information that frozen salmon is actually preferred for cold-smoking because it enables the curing process.

Before cold-smoking, the salmon needs to be thawed and cured.  Curing preserves meat or fish with salt.  There are endless variations of curing recipes, but the dry cure recipe that Jesse used this time was from Charcuterie; The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing. This book provides a wealth of information on these topics and has been an invaluable learning resource.

The dry cure recipe called for the following ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. pink salt
  • 1 tsp. ground white pepper
  • 1 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. ground mace
  • 1 1/2 T. dark rum
  • 1 1/2 lbs. salmon fillet in one piece (skin on is preferable)

After mixing all the dry cure ingredients together, spread half of the mixture out in a dish or pan.  It is helpful to choose a dish that is around the same size as the salmon fillets because the curing process extracts liquids out of the fish.  Having a dish around the same size allows these liquids to remain in contact with the fish and becomes a natural brine for curing.

Time to sprinkle on the dark rum and add the rest of the dry cure mixture over the top. Make sure to sample the rum during this part of the process to make sure it is of good quality.

Once the salmon is covered with the remaining dry cure, cover it with plastic wrap. Sample the rum again, just to be sure.

Place a pan (or pans) on top of the salmon and put some type of weight in it to help extract the moisture.  We used cans and a dressing bottle in between for weight.

Now it is time to put it in the refrigerator and let the curing process begin! It wouldn’t hurt to sample the rum again for good measure.

Jesse let the salmon cure for about 36 hours.  You can tell when the curing process is complete because the salmon will become firm.

Once it is finished curing, it needs to be rinsed thoroughly under cold water to remove the excess salt.

After patting it dry with paper towels, we placed it on a rack out on the screen porch to dry.  Drying is also an important part of the process because it allows the food to form a pellicle. The pellicle refers to the tacky surface that develops when food is dried and to which the smoke sticks, thereby adding the desired flavor.  We dried the salmon for about 6 hours, but it could dry cure for up to 12 hours if needed for pellicle formation.

It’s finally show time!  Time to fire up that smokehouse.  Jesse used maple wood to smoke the salmon. His first attempt was with oak wood because he forgot he had a whole tree worth of maple sitting behind the garden. The maple wood had a much mellower flavor that we enjoyed.

I could not resist poking fun at these two little salmon fillets taking center stage in this ridiculously large smokehouse, but Jesse reminded me that the operating costs were still zero since the wood was stacked head high from a downed tree in the woods.

We thought the salmon was too smokey last time after being smoked about 6 hours, so this time he only smoked it for about 4 hours. Just about the right amount of smoke for our tastes.

After all the work that went into building the smokehouse, it is fun to see it get some use (even if it only for two measly slabs of salmon).

The finished product!  I think it is best on a cracker with a thin layer of cream cheese.  The smokey flavor was perfect;  not too overpowering. Jesse will fine tune this recipe with some fruit woods in the future, and he has promised to also work harder to remove ALL the pin bones next time!

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To renovate or tear down? That is the question.

This old round-top barn on the property was one of the primary features of the old farmstead that we fell in love with.  We had all kinds of fantasies about how we would use the barn:  for horses, a sports area in the hayloft for the kids, a workshop…

After purchasing the property, we had a barn straightener come out to evaluate the structure and give us some advice.  His conclusions were mixed.  The barn was still salvageable, but was in need of paint, a new roof, a new foundation, and straightening.  Because we were short on time (we were moving to Sweden for a two-year expatriate assignment) and money, we decided to have it painted and the windows replaced to preserve it for a later decision.

We returned to the farm from our expatriate assignment in the summer of 2003.  Our friendly old barn stood there waiting for us and for our decision on her fate.  Facing the reality of the money necessary to completely restore the barn was discouraging and seemed like a poor investment.  On the other hand, the barn is what gave our little farm its character.  Being two farm kids, it’s what drew us to this place from the beginning.  We discussed having it burned down at some point by the local fire department, but our soft spot for this structure just kept us putting off any final decision.

In the spring of last year, we experienced a nasty day with high winds gusting in from the south.  As I stood inside looking out the kitchen window, I could see shingles flying over the barn after peeling off the southern-facing roof.  With the yard littered with old asphalt shingles, I knew that a decision would soon be necessary about the fate of the barn.  The barn’s deterioration would now be quickened with the more seriously compromised roof.

After some inquiry to the insurance company, we realized that we would have some coverage for the damage caused by the wind storm to the roof.  We started gathering information and quotes on the costs of repairing the roof.  Although not the most visually appealing alternative, we concluded that the most economical approach would be to have a new steel roof put on the barn.

Prior to having the new roof installed, we hired the barn straightener to shore up the barn structurally.  The process took about two weeks.  He moved it gradually over the two weeks by bracing, pulling, and cranking it back to an upright position.  New lumber was installed inside to strengthen the structure further and hold it in its new “straight” position.

Finally sitting straight and tall, the barn was ready for its new roof.  The first step in installing the new steel roof was to put cribbing across the old roof to level everything out.  The cribbing is an efficient way to quickly cover the many sags in the roof.

The whole roof was eventually covered in the cribbing.

The roofers then began installing one sheet of metal roofing at a time.  Brave, brave men.

Rain or shine, they just kept working their way across the roof putting on the steel…

Until they finished the entire roof.  Our old barn now stands straight and tall with a new roof, waiting for us to find the time and money to take the next steps.  It might take many years to make any more progress, but at least our decision has finally been made.  We will keep the old round top barn that we fell in love with a decade ago.

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Building a smokehouse…

As a farm kid, I grew up with a smokehouse right outside the house in the front yard.  It was a small brick structure without any door.  My parents called it a smokehouse, but it was never used to smoke anything.  The sole purpose of the “smokehouse” was to burn things…garbage, boxes, etc.  Eventually they removed the smokehouse from the front yard to construct a fence.

Jesse started talking about building a smokehouse soon after we bought the farm.  He finally turned his vision into a reality last summer.  After a lot of research and sketches, he came up with a design.

Smokehouse Design Sketch

Jesse already had a barrel smoker for hot-smoking or cook-smoking, but what he really wanted was a cold-smoker to be able to smoke pork sausage in the tradition that his grandfather used to do on the farm. There are also several other cold smoke products that are absolutely delicious: salmon, hams, cheese, nuts, and various sausages.

Cold-Smoking

The art of cold-smoking is to keep the meat or fish below 70 degrees F to inhibit bacteria growth and to not cook the meat product. For instance, if you would like smoked venison sausage, but don’t want to eat the complete deer all at once (who would….?), then cold-smoking will impart the desired smoke flavor and will also retain the fat inside the sausage so that it doesn’t become dry and hard. Toss cold-smoked venison sausage into the freezer until you are ready to cook it for another tasty meal.

Another example that we have become very fond of is cold-smoking 5 to 10 racks of baby back pork ribs, wrapping them in freezer paper and tossing them into the freezer. Take them out of the freezer later and bake them in the oven for a couple of hours and you have some of the best ribs ever!

Construction

The concrete slab was poured in the spring.  Our boys learned about mixing, pouring, and finishing cement. The 5 gallon bucket in the middle of the slab is where the smoke will enter the smokehouse. The slab is what is called a “floating” slab. There is no frost footings below the slab, it is simply framed to have a 10 x 10 inch “curb” around the outside of the slab and the rest of the slab is 4 inches thick. There is also reinforcing rebar in the curb and criss-crossed across the slab. I don’t think it is going anywhere, and after one winter of freezing and thawing, there are no signs of cracking or shifting.

Jesse’s uncle, a mason by profession, came over to help in building the smokehouse.  His skills amazed us as he tossed just the right amount of the mud in just the right place.

Jesse did a great job supervising….

Jesse designed the smokehouse to have glass block windows to allow in natural light.  Laying the glass block was the most time-consuming part of the block laying process and the expertise of Jesse’s uncle was definitely necessary to get the glass blocks set just right.  Our son worked on smoothing the joints between the blocks.

After the blocks were cured, Jesse and our son went to work building roof trusses, sheeting the roof, and laying shingles. Jesse decided to build the trusses so that the rafters could be used for hanging meat, so they are about 6 ft. high.

There are vents covered with window screen in the peak at each end of the smokehouse for draft. Jesse had built elaborate hinged doors for adjusting the draft level if needed. However, the correct draft position turned out to be full open.

Firebox

The firebox for a cold smokehouse is located away from the smokehouse to allow the smoke to cool before entering the smokehouse. The smoke from our firebox increases the temperature in the smokehouse a mere 5 to 10 deg F. This allows Jesse to safely cold smoke on days as warm as 60 degrees, but he prefers to have the outside temperature around 30 – 40 degrees.

The tricky part for the firebox is that in order to have adequate draft for the smoke to enter the smokehouse, the firebox should be located about 10 – 12 inches below the smokehouse floor and 8 – 10 feet from the center hole in the smokehouse. So the only logical way to build this operation is to locate the smokehouse on a hill or slope with enough fall to allow access to the firebox.

The firebox can be made from concrete and firebrick with a sliding steel door, but Jesse chose to use an actual home fireplace insert that someone had discarded into a road ditch. With the air intake vent controls on the fireplace he figured that he could control the fire for smoking to just the right levels (and it works perfect). He dug a hole into the side of the hill for the fireplace, and left enough room for about 2 – 3 inches of sewer rock around the fireplace to assist in water drainage around the fireplace. With the heavy gauge steel, the fireplace insert should last longer than our lifetime before it rusts out (it weighed about 5oo lbs. and had to be moved into place by a tractor).

Jesse used 8 inch chimney pipe to connect the firebox to the 5 gallon bucket in the floor of the smokehouse. Obviously you want to install the pipe before you pour the concrete floor. The reason he chose the 8 inch metal chimney pipe was that the firebox had an 8 inch exit, and he needed something that would withstand the heat near the firebox. He says that he would NOT recommend using PVC or other plastic pipe as it may melt or out-gas if heated.

And here is our lovely little smokehouse in action…..

Maybe a bit over-sized for your casual home smoking, but it works GREAT!

Lynell

More on Building a Smokehouse

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Keeping the chickens warm

Winters in Minnesota get cold.  Really cold.  On January 2nd, we woke up to temperatures of -30 degrees F.  We have 11 laying hens that we do our best to keep somewhat comfortable during these frigid winter months.  One of the strategies that we use is to bank snow up against the coop to help insulate and minimize any draftiness.  The walls of the coop are insulated too, which helps a lot, although I am certain that not many chicken coops were insulated on original working farms of our parent’s generation.

Inside the coop, we keep a heat lamp running to generate some heat for the chickens and to help keep the water thawed out.  Jesse also keeps the water font sitting on top of a homemade font heater for the really cold days. The font heater is made from a thermostatic controlled heating element in an upside down drain oil pan.

The windows on the coop are single pane windows, so this year Jesse decided to add an interior plexiglass panel to decrease the heat loss out the windows.  We believe it has made a big difference in helping the coop stay warmer, but we have had some condensation issues when the outside temperatures rise.

Layer chickens can drink anywhere from 1 to 2 cups of water each day.  During this latest cold snap, it seems as though the chickens have been going through a LOT of water. It is nice to have the water hydrant close to the coop for quick fill-ups.

Here are the chickens  all cozy and looking for scratch grains that I toss them for a treat.

We were away from home for one night and the chickens filled the nest boxes. You can see that we have a couple of Aracaunas that lay the green eggs.

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