Now before I get into the post, I have to apologize. First, this is a long one, so if you want to jump to the recipe, you can do that. Secondly, I’ve had this post written and photographed and ready for me to click publish for over two years. TWO YEARS! I can’t give you a good reason for the delay beyond “resistance” as described by Stephen Pressfield. But I eventually pushed through and here I submit to you pylsur:
The first thing you need to know about Iceland is the most obvious thing about it: Iceland is an island. A sparsely populated island at that! As of 2016, modern-day Iceland is populated by less than 333,000 people, most of that in Reykjavik. So what makes Iceland special? Turns out a lot! They have a rich history.
First settled in AD 874 during the “Medieval Warm Period” by Norwegian Ingólfr Arnarson, Iceland always had a strong relationship with Norway the other Scandinavian countries. Farming was the way of life and governed the economy. They ate many grains such as barley, oats, and rye as a porridge, but also as grist for fermentation of beer. Icelanders also raised cows, poultry, pigs, horses, goats, and sheep for food. Being an island, many of these original stocks, or “Viking breeds” continued to be bred in virtual isolation and are still available today. Another significant food source naturally is fish from the waters surrounding Iceland.
Over time, they developed several ways to preserve what they caught. Techniques like salting came to Iceland from Norway but were difficult to execute. The only source for salt came from boiling the water from the sea. However, there was very little fuel to available to boil and drive off the water since much of Iceland’s forests had been cleared to allow their herds to graze. Therefore, it was difficult to use salting as a preservation method. However, Icelanders are a clever bunch and found another way.
Lactobacillus casei is the bacteria used in yogurt production and it produces lactic acid. As an alternative to salt, Icelanders used the fermented whey from cheese and yogurt making, allowing it to ferment and sour further to create a low ph environment to preserve meats and fish. It does change the taste though! My understanding is that it takes on the taste of a pungent cheese. With the fermented whey being ubiquitously available (lots of Skyr!), it is still done today to cure eggs or fish like herring or shark. Beyond salting and fermenting, medieval Icelanders could smoke or dry their meats, but like I mentioned before, fuel was often hard to come by.
As an aside, during this Medieval age, people ate two meals a day: a lunch and dinner. When you think about it, this eating practice is pretty convenient and is actually coming back in vogue. It is contemporarily called “intermittent fasting” and it is particularly popular in Paleo and ultra low-carb circles for fat loss. Fat loss would certainly not have been the goal for Icelanders – it would have been practicality. In fact, I’ve been this way most days for the past 5 years and love how your mind is clear in the morning and how convenient it is. Tangent done – back to your regularly scheduled program!
Medieval Icelanders ate out bowls with spoons and drank from horns (yes, horns, my Viking brothers and sisters!) and lidded tankards. I’d always wondered why steins and tankards had lids, but I finally found the answer: flies! Europe was plagued by swarms of flies. Nobody like bugs in their beer, so they added lids! It all makes sense to me now! Now you can impress your friends when you’re enjoying a tankard of mead in a leather mug at the local Renaissance fair or gulping down Hacker-Pschorr during Oktoberfest.
Iceland’s cuisine in the Medieval age was very Nordic; however, when a wave of Christianity took over around AD 1000, eating horses was banned. During this time people lived in “longhouses,” which were constructed around a long open fire pit to keep the house warm. They boiled water by heating stones in the fire and dropping them into the water (maybe you’ve tried this technique while camping) and baked by putting dough in holes dig into the floor. Around 1400, there was a climate shift during a period called “The Little Ice Age.” This cooling forced people to build better houses to stay warm: specifically turf houses.
These houses kept people warm with superior insulation provided by the earth and grass and were built with more useful kitchens because cooking generates heat. They were set-up to have open fires on a raised, instead of a sunken hearth. Hooks were hung over the fire to support cast iron cookware or suspended roasts. As fuel was especially short during this cold period, wood alternatives like dried dung or dried peat was burned for fuel instead. Turf houses had such an effective design that Icelanders used turf house building techniques all the way into the 20th century.
The significant cooling of the climate made it impractical to grow grains in Iceland, which led to more trading with continental Europe in order to get food staples. Denmark held a trade monopoly starting in the 1600s which also influenced food to be more similar to the Danish style. Icelanders would trade wool and woolen product as well as stockfish for cereal grains, salted meats, and tobacco.
Because of the monopoly, prices for grains were high and bread was rather extravagant. The most frequently eaten bread was a heavy, brown rye bread like German pumpernickel called rúgbrauð. Most meals had this bread with churned butter and dried fish. Icelanders also stretched what little grains the had with seaweed and lichens to make a porridge that would be eaten straight or mixed with skyr.
As Continental culture infused Iceland more through trade, Icelanders traded two daily meals for three meals: a late breakfast around 10 a.m., a late lunch around 3 p.m. and a dinner at the end of the evening. In the 17th century, vegetable growing also spread from Danish settlers who grew cold tolerant root vegetables and cabbage.
Modern-day Icelanders have just about any food available they could want. For the most part, they cook and eat the food all around them. Things like fish, sheep, horse, seabirds, ducks, geese, milk products, root vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, and many types of breads and pastries.
“Iceland is green, Greenland is ice…” or so they said at Wilshire Park Elementary school when I was a kid. That was about the extent of it what I knew growing up. I eventually learned just a bit more as an adult. I have become fascinated with the natural hot springs that bubble up from the volcanic earth. One of my favorite things is to be in a hot bath outside in the cold with the steam rising up all around and surrounding me. I hope to visit Iceland someday and experience that at a place like Lake Myvatn.
By the way, it’s a little-known fact that the word geyser is originally Icelandic. It comes from the word “Geysir,” the name of a certain hot spring in Iceland. It’s also related to the word geysa meaning “to gush.”
In 2011, I too watched as Eyjafjallajökull erupted spectacularly and caused significant disruptions to air travel in Europe. But it turns out that for Iceland, it was a fairly minor eruption. I learned that Iceland is one of the most active volcanic areas in the world and has produced at least a third of the world’s lava output – pretty amazing! Volcanos aside, let’s get to something else hot – the food we’ll be cooking for Iceland.
Ok, let’s get this straight, today we’re making hot dogs. Now when I say hot dogs, I mean the real thing from scratch, not boil up a pack of Ballpark franks. While they both “plump when you cook’em,” the similarity ends about there. From scratch pylsur are delicious tubes filled with meaty goodness that are sought out the world over. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s back up.
Like most cuisine develops from its surroundings so did pylsa (singular form of pylsur). German traders and settlers brought sausages to nearby Iceland. Eventually, something resembling the frankfurter emerged being made up of a trinity of lamb, pork, and beef. The addition of the lamb adds complexity and interest without being overly “gamey.” Pylsur aren’t overly spiced – they let the meat take center stage and accompany it on a bun with raw and crispy fried onions called “Cronions.” We talk about the crispy fried onions here and walk you through making them yourself. From there, Icelanders top the whole thing with a remoulade (herbed mayo) and Pylsusinnep, a mild and delicious sweet brown mustard (we’ve got recipes for them too!). Topping it this way is ordering it “one with everything,” or as the Icelanders would say “eina með öllu.” (If you sound it out, you can hear the Germanic origins of the Icelandic language.)
Where would you find these pylsur in Iceland? The most famous joint is called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a tiny stand-alone shack with a single outdoor picnic table. While this little unassuming place is small, it makes up for it with its food and celebrity following. Former US President Bill Clinton is probably their most famous customer, but actors like Charlie Sheen, and James Hetfield from Metallica have all been seen there.
You’ll find several recipes floating around the internet claiming to make pylsur. Those recipes won’t have you make the sausage yourself from scratch. They would have you buy a conventional hot dog and “dress it up” to be masqueraded like a pylsa. Would we do that to you? Nay, not Explorers Kitchen. We’ll make it from scratch and lead you through the process. We dedicate ourselves to the journey and we will take you with us. It won’t be as easy but you’ll enjoy the journey and love the destination. We don’t want to claim to be the most “authentic” because food morphs and evolves as it moves around the world – everything is a remix. You’ll enjoy the efforts you put into making these sausages.
We scoured books and online in many languages in order to develop the a representation of pylsur to share that tries to get as close as you can get in your home kitchen. After days of exhausting searching and testing we didn’t find anything close enough and decided to blaze our own trail.
I want to acknowledge Arousing Appetites for their recipe. They are the only website out there that attempted to make pylsur from scratch and I want to commend them for that. However, they did deviate from several steps that we find critical in the process: emulsifying, casing, and smoking. But that’s OK. I don’t want to take anything away from them. It takes a lot of time and effort to forge a path and create something new. They do that every day and their website is worth your time checking out. We have a lot in common and I respect their do-it-yourself work ethic. I also really like their photography and writing.
Back to our recipe! We do acknowledge that not everyone has the equipment to grind meat at home. To that, we say, get a grinder! At Explorers Kitchen, we use the inexpensive Sunmile SM-G35 which can be had for less than $60 at the time of writing. At the time we bought it, we didn’t have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer or we would have probably opted for their meat grinder attachment for about $55. With space constraints, a small attachment would simply be easier to store.
If you insist on not grinding fresh at home, that’s fine. You can buy pre-ground meats from your butcher shop and do the fine processing and emulsification in your food processor. If you don’t have a grinder, you’ll absolutely need a piston stuffer to get the meat into the casings.
If making a sausage from scratch is just too much to bear, you can buy legitimate Icelandic pylsur from time to time on Nammi.is. It’s not currently available there, but it may be back soon. They carry SS brand the “gold standard” of pylsur in the Icelandic grocery store. And it is the sausage at SS that I used to develop our recipe for Explorers Kitchen. The SS website is surprisingly detailed and shares a much of the ingredients and ratios as well as a hint of the process. Because we could get that close to the source, we can be confident that we made version of the recipe that very closely resembles what is available in Iceland.
As a side note, I did reach out to SS for recipe feedback and they chose not to reply to date.
Start by deciding how much you want to make. I made about 6 lbs, which was enough to keep me eating sausage for a couple weeks. I would think that most people would want about 3 lbs at a time, but it’s up to you. The marginal time cost for 3 vs 6 lbs isn’t that much, so I just went with more. Base your meats on the lamb (which will be the most expensive) and go from there. Play around with the amount of lamb in the calculator below and decide how much you want to have. I have it set-up in grams because it is easier to be precise, but if you need lbs, just divide the numbers by 454. Alright? Let’s get started.
Lamb is the star of the show in Iceland. It is mostly free range and is widely eaten there. Therefore, it starts as the basis of our recipe and everything else rotates around it. SS uses beef and pork in addition to the lamb. They say on their site that the pork helps to balance out the strong flavors of the lamb and the beef. For our recipe, we balanced the lamb with an equal proportion of pork and a little less beef to create a milder flavor.
By weight, lamb and pork make up 25% of the sausage by weight and beef is 15%. We selected a lamb shoulder roast, pork shoulder, and beef chuck (also shoulder) as these cuts are economical, flavorful, and forgiving. If you decide to get pre-ground meat that’ll be fine and likely originate from some of the same cuts.
The next ingredient is dried skim milk powder – 3.5% by weight. While it seems like an odd ingredient on the surface, it helps a lot in the emulsification step to bind the meats together. It does make them quite sticky and a little difficult to work with when stuffing if you aren’t using a piston-styled stuffer. More on that later.
SS also uses potato flakes and so do we. I imagined that it was there as a filler, but it’s less than 3% of the mix by weight, so that’s probably not it. After making the recipe and observing as I was mixing each step, I have come to the conclusion that it probably helps with moisture retention. When you cook these sausages, they’re very moist and difficult to overcook, yet they don’t ooze juice and fat all over the place. I think the reason for that is that the potato flakes act as a “buffer” to hold onto and regulate that moisture. If you know the real science beyond my speculation, I’d love to hear it!
Without guidance for spices, I took some liberties. Since pylsur are not heavily spiced sausages, I took a very restrained hand and selected only white pepper, garlic, onion, and smoked paprika powders. I imagined the flavor profile and equally proportioned each of those.
With those ingredients aside, the rest are salt, Prague powder, and ice. The Prague powder #1, also known as Insta Cure #1 is a blend of 93.75% salt with 6.25% sodium nitrate. The function of this in the sausage is to cure the meat, provide its characteristic texture and color, and inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungus to prevent spoilage, especially botulism. This recipe contains less than ¼ of one percent of total weight as prague powder, so it’s not super strong, yet is enough to serve its purpose well. The ice is critical in the emulsification step to keep the temperature down and to infuse some moisture into the mix.
Start by trimming your lamb roast and cutting it into 1-2 inch cubes. Trim off any silverskin. I also trimmed off the fat because that’s where the gamey flavor lives. Daisy was happy to eat my trimmings. She knows to stick close when I’m cutting meat in the kitchen. Weigh your trimmed lamb in grams and plug it into our handy calculator below. It’ll be the basis of the rest of your recipe.
Repeat trimming and cutting with the other meats until you reach the prescribed weight from the calculator for each. Then lay them all out on a parchment lined sheet pan and freeze for about an hour. You’ll know it’s the right temp when ice is crystallizing and it’s getting “crunchy,” but isn’t a frozen brick yet. Now for grinding!
Set a large bowl inside of a larger bowl with ice in it (would you call that a cold bain-marie? Reverse bain-marie?). Run your meats through the grinder with the plate that has the smallest openings into the nested bowl. Add your powdered milk, potato flakes, salt, Prague powder, and spices and mix it thoroughly with your hands until it looks fairly homogenous.
Now we’re going to emulsify the thing. In case you didn’t know, emulsification is a technique for creating a mixture of two things that wouldn’t normally mix. In this case, it is the fat within the meat with water/ice and everything else. The milk powder helps to bind them together. In this case, we’ll be using the mechanics of a food processor to help aid in the process and cut the meats into tiny pieces. You’ll have a fully emulsified, smooth sausage that’ll have a consistent look throughout.
Depending on the amount of sausage you choose to make, you’ll want to divide the amount in the food processor into smaller batches. The emulsification gets really really sticky and I stalled my food processor the first time I made it (I have the slightly older version of this Kitchenaid processor). I thought I burned the thing out! Thankfully, it looks like I didn’t and it seems to be working again. Because of that scare, I want to warn you to be careful. You probably don’t want to process more than 500-1000g at a time. Dividing it up into thirds is probably reasonable.
Whatever size you decide to do, put half that proportion of crushed ice in there. So if you divide into thirds, put 1/6th of the ice in and process for 1-2 minutes until the ice melts and is incorporated. Add another 1/6th of ice and process for 4-6 minutes until completely smooth and emulsified. Check the temperature from time to time. According to Ryan, it’s critical that it stays below 40 F, which shouldn’t be too hard to do since you’re adding ice, but it’s worth watching.
Remove that into a large bowl and repeat two more times with the rest of your sausage. Empty everything into the bowl and mix with your hands thoroughly until the batches are all mixed together. Press wax paper on top so there is no air contact. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours. This lets the meat cure and the flavors meld.
Start soaking your casings overnight in the fridge. They’re packed dry in salt and are quite brittle. Soaking helps to rehydrate – you don’t want them to burst on you.
We chose natural sheep casings for our pylsur. Having many many sheep, this was the traditional way they would have stuffed sausage in Iceland. Modern manufacturers use collagen casings because they’re more efficient in production – they’re longer and don’t require as many tie-offs. We went the traditional way because we love the snap you get from natural casings.
Try to find your casings locally because, frankly, the prices aren’t very good online. I bought mine on Amazon, for about $16, but if you can find them locally, it should be more like $5. If you want the ease of collagen or get skeeved out by natural intestines, the 19mm size is about right.
I know that it’s another piece of equipment, but if you’re serious sausage, a piston-style stuffer definitely the way to go. I have tried it both ways and the piston is much much easier.
We’re about to start stuffing the casings, but I want to touch on an important point. Make sure your work area is thoroughly cleaned and then wet with water. Water is your friend in sausage stuffing because it lubricates the surfaces and helps prevent breakage of your casings. I like to take a sheet pan and wet it as a tray for my sausage as it comes out. I’ve seen others just use a wet countertop or sink (though I wonder about cleanliness with that one).
Now if you’ve stuffed sausage before, you know that it works best if you have 3 hands. However, most people I know, only have two hands, so grab a friend if you can. If you’re using a piston stuffer, put your meat into the big chamber and drop the piston down. Crank to start filling your “exit” tube with sausage. Stop as soon as you see the meat starting to come out. Thread up your rehydrated and rinsed casings on-to the exit tube. Lamb is small and thin, so this can be tricky – be patient!
If you don’t have a piston stuffer, you can use your grinder, it’s just trickier. Pull out the cutting blade and remove the plate. Replace the plate with the kidney-shaped blank plate (often plastic) and the stuffing tube. Start feeding your grinder/stuffer with meat until you can see it starting to exit the tube. Kill the power and thread up your casings.
Regardless of which method you use, tie off the end of the casings and start extruding your sausage. This is where it is helpful to have two people. One can crank the piston (or feed the meat into the grinder/stuffer) and lightly hold the casings on the stuffing tube (to maintain adequate fill amount. The second person can “receive” the sausage and support it as it comes out. (Get your mind out of the gutter.) That second person can create a loose coil to keep it organized and ready to be twisted into links later.
The way I learned to link my sausages was to pinch the sausage at the length you want and then twist. Then you repeat with the same length, twisting in the opposite direction. I find this can be a little tricky to remember which direction you twisted last. I figured that there must be a trick and it turns out there are two tricks! The first is:
This works fairly well and you don’t have to remember which direction you twisted. But my favorite way is one I just learned from Scott Rea youtube. This technique looks really pretty and organized because you make groups of 3 links daisy-chained together, It looks really professional and reduces the length of sausage strands you have to juggle. I’ll be using this technique from now on! The video makes it very clear:
From there, the hardest part is over. Next, you simply have to smoke and finish the sausage. While it is ideal to smoke your links hanging in a cabinet style smoker, you can improvise with a standard grill. I had my cabinet smoker put away for the year and didn’t want to haul it out, so I used a normal gas grill with an A-MAZE-N Pellet smoker. Either way, set up your heat to 170F and smoke until your sausage reaches 145F, about 60 minutes. You can cool them and save them for later or eat right away.
Your pylsur are fully cooked at this point, but to continue modeling the way it is prepared in Iceland, we finished our pylsur by boiling like the way Bæjarins Beztu does. Bring a pot of water (or a mixture of water and beer) to a full boil. Drop the pylsur in and simmer until they’re plump and warm throughout, about 5 minutes.
Another way to finish them would be to seal the sausages in a vacuum bag with some beer and sous vide it. You’ll want to salt the beer so that it doesn’t leach it from your sausages. Simply seal it up and sous vide at 145F for 45 min to 4 hours. (Serious Eats has a great guide for sous viding sausage.)
If that all seems like too much work after everything you have put into this, the microwave is totally fine too.
Regardless of your finishing method, serve the pylsa in a bun with raw and crispy fried onions, a remoulade, and Pylsusinnep. The crispy fried onions are called “Cronions” in Iceland, and I hear that they could give French’s a run for their money. I made ours totally gluten-free and fried them up in home-rendered tallow. You can find our recipe for homemade “Cronions” here. We will also have recipes for Icelandic remoulade and Pylsusinnep shortly.
If you’ve got your pylsa sitting comfortably in a bun well dressed with onions and condiments, all that is left is to eat it – enjoy!
Here is the recipe using the weights and proportions we used. Of course, you can use the calculator we give you above.
These sausages are fantastic. The blend of the meats makes them really mild and approachable. The texture is excellent – the snap of the natural casing and pleasing mouthfeel make these a winner. Topping them with the onions two ways as well as the remoulade and Pylsusinnep is definitely the way to go. I’m always battling with carbs, so I ate most of mine bunless on a platter with all the accouterments.
The biggest learning came from when I was emulsifying the sausage before casing. This blend is seriously sticky and it was intense on my food processor making it stall. I because of that, I recommend blending in smaller batches – no more than ⅓ of the whole mixture if you make the size batch I did. Also, consider some gloves when handling the meat, because it will stick to you and you’ll find it under your fingernails for a few days. But don’t let that stuff stop you. I may have written a lot, but the whole process is fairly fast and produces a fantastic product you’ll love.
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