By the second month of stay-at-home, after exhausting an impressive percentage of several streaming services’ back catalogs, I decided it was time to learn a new skill. I’ve always prioritized crafts that I can eat, so I began to think of the type of food that I would never attempt to make on my own unless I had six uninterrupted hours to cook and clean.
Food influencers had already claimed sourdough and focaccia (and regardless, flour had long since vanished from grocery store shelves.) I nixed the trendy Dalgona coffee because I don’t trust beverages that resemble a certain emoji, and both “the stew” and “the cookie” came with too much baggage. Instead, I settled on a dish that is so aesthetically pleasing to make, there’s a whole adage dedicated to it: the unsung sausage.
The beauty of sausages, as I learned, is that they are a blank canvas that the home cook can customize with their own taste and personality. There are only two key principles: the meat-to-fat ratio, and the meat-to-salt ratio. After that, the choice is yours.
I must also confess that I had another motivation for deciding to make sausages. By April, the meat shelves in grocery stores started getting emptier and prices were going up. The news was filled with headlines about national supply chains breaking, especially in the country’s poultry and pork industries. I started thinking more about where my food was coming from and how to be more sustainable.
Sausages, which are too often associated with the hobbled waste of the butchery process—something that you only want to see as a finished product—seemed like the perfect place to start. In other words, this is not really a recipe, but a plea. If you don’t make your own sausages, you should at least consider how the sausage is made.
I usually buy meat at both my supermarket and my local butcher—the Meat Hook—although the latter is usually about twice as expensive. As the pandemic continued though, I noticed that the prices were getting closer and closer.
I called up one of the butchers at the Meat Hook, Leah Wolfe, to find out why. The Meat Hook is a whole animal butcher shop, which means exactly what it sounds like—they get whole animals from farms, which means they get all the “good” cuts like filets and rib chops, but also everything else: bones, fat, glands, and the parts that are more difficult to use.
Photos by Leo Schwartz
Sausages are one of the reasons they are able to stay in business. They use all the parts they can’t sell as whole cuts to make their famed sausages. While people may be grossed out by the prospect, “It’s not scary,” Leah assured me. They aren’t using hooves or innards—just smaller pieces of meat that can’t be sold individually.
Because the Meat Hook can use the entire animal, they know where every piece of meat comes from. Even more impressive, for pork, they get all of their pigs from a single farm: Gibson Family Farms in Upstate New York. In fact, the Meat Hook is the farm’s only client. “I make an analogy of the supply chain as dominoes,” Leah told me. “If there are 100 dominoes between the farm and the meat case, it’s not going to take a lot for there to be an issue.”
The goal of small butchers like the Meat Hook, though, is to have as few steps between the farmer and their customers as possible. “If there are only four dominoes,” she said, “there’s a little more room for troubleshooting and problem-solving.”
While I would normally be content just buying the Meat Hook’s sausages, I was still on a mission fueled by too much free time cooped up in a tiny Brooklyn apartment. I had an ulterior motive for calling up Leah: She’s in charge of the Meat Hook’s education program, where she teaches home cooks the art of sausage making.
In the pre-Covid world, I had hoped to take a class at the Meat Hook, which was unfortunately not an option. Through a combination of her guidance over the phone and a few helpful Youtube videos, I felt confident I could at least make an approximation. And since sausages on their own aren’t the most visually appealing food, I made some pasta on the side to have a Sunday gravy (disclaimer: I’m not Italian, and I ate it on a Tuesday).
So, for sausage making, here are the best tips I learned. For the meat, whether you’re using pork, lamb, chicken, or anything else, you’re going to want a meat-to-fat ratio of about 70-30. I went with a boneless pork shoulder because it had a good fat cap which put me at roughly the right percentage without having to add any additional fatback, which I couldn’t find any way. As Leah warned me though, if you skimp on fat, you’re going to have dry, crumbly sausage.
I cubed all the meat into small, 1-2 inch pieces, and then learned my second-most valuable tip: chill the meat and all of the grinding equipment in the freezer before grinding. You don’t want it frozen, but nice and cool. If it’s warm or room temperature, you’ll get all sorts of smearing that I won’t get into (the titular aphorism exists for a reason.)
Photos by Leo Schwartz
I put all the spices on the meat before grinding. The only necessity is a roughly 2 percent salt-to-meat ratio. Then you can add whatever you want. I made a combination mild-hot Italian sausage, with toasted and ground fennel, coriander, black peppercorns, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Leah also sent me a recipe for a sausage that had parmesan, parsley, white wine, and lemon zest. Her only advice was that if you’re adding a fatty or salty ingredient, make sure to adjust your fat and salt ratios accordingly. Beyond that, get creative.
After grinding, you can make a little patty and fry it up. This is your last chance to adjust ratios. After that comes the stuffing. I went all in and used natural hog casings, which you can order online or purchase at your local butcher store. I won’t pretend like it’s a pleasant process—which is why it’s the only part of the experiment I didn’t photograph—but it is oddly satisfying. Just watch tutorial videos first. It takes some practice.
And finally, you have it: a homemade, “beautiful” sausage. Air-dry it in your fridge for a night, and then serve it on a bun, make a Sunday gravy, or eat it with some mustard. I asked Leah why she started the classes at the Meat Hook, and why people should learn how to make their own sausages. For her, it’s about “feeding the people you love with food you feel good about.”
And of course, it doesn’t have to be something as time-intensive as sausage. Coronavirus is making us stop and consider where our food comes from. Availability and cost are more prohibitive than ever, which makes it even more crucial that we can learn how to find and cook delicious, affordable food.
If possible, there is one lesson she tries to impart through her classes: “Buy good meat that’s been responsibly and humanely raised,” she told me. “Your food will taste better.”
Photos by Leo Schwartz