I once attended a competitive Barbeque festival and soon decided that it was mainly geared toward promoting tourism and selling all manner of expensive BBQ paraphernalia. Indeed there is a certain amount of meat preparation knowledge and skill involved with BBQ, but getting a little smoke on tough cuts; then moist-low heat cooking them long enough to become tender, really isn’t very complicated. BBQ competitions normally come down to product presentation (turn-in box display) and whatever flavors are in favor with regional judges. Those reasons are why I never have gotten motivated enough to try my hand at becoming an accredited “pit master.” Conversely, when I learned that there was going to be an amateur fresh sausage making competition 4 hours away from my home, I immediately became very interested. As is true with BBQ competitions, I knew that entering the sausage contest was bound to be a money losing proposition. But, like my little not-for-profit blog site, I view entering it as another personally doable way to try and “give back” to the massive meat processing community.
There exist a good many variables in both the making and cooking of cased sausages. The saying “garbage in, garbage out” was a well founded axiom in the meat further processing arena long before the advent computer programing. So it is, that high quality end products can not be made from low quality starting raw meat, but low eating quality end products are surprisingly easy to make from high quality starting raw product. The pitfalls are many when one tries to batch and masterfully cook an addictive tasting cased sausage. Some starting raw meat variables are: specie(s) of meat animal, age of animals at harvest, what the animals were fed & for how long, fat content, level of fat saturation, color of lean, carcass region that the meat(s) originated from and the amount of bone or other objectionable materials present in starting raw product. After the meat block has been determined, the coarseness of grind for the various meat components has to be decided upon. Coarseness of grind dictates what cooking method is needed in order to most successfully prepare different cased sausages. Maintaining raw meat (and fat components) at a nearly frozen temperature during grinding is an important factor that influences both the eye-appeal and the texture of finished sausage products. The next big consideration is the virtual universe of non-meat sausage components. Those components can be – added salt for salt-soluble protein extraction and/or flavor, additives for aroma, texture, finished product moisture retention, to inhibit oxidation (warmed-over flavor development), color, to extend product shelf-life etc. Further, batch percentages of every meat and non-meat component (including ice/water must be judged and tested. As should be apparent by now, one does not just wake up one morning and start making great sausage. The totality of all things involved is what got me excited about the challenge of an amateur sausage making contest.
This competition is Kielbasa making only. But, since the Polish word kielbasa means sausage I thought there might well be a wide variety of flavors and textures offered at the event. So, how can one standout in the sausage making arena? Flavor, aroma, texture, eye-appeal, juiciness, “mouth-feel,” and aftertaste all come to mind.
Some 38 years ago I was given a fresh Polish sausage recipe from my wife’s uncle who lived in Toledo, OH. He and his friend Spud were from the Polish neighborhood there and made sausage together for many years. From the early 80’s on I have continued to occasionally attempt to tweak their fresh Polish sausage recipe. To date, my fresh Polish is often said to be very good. That’s why my wife’s Polish relatives told me about the Toledo contest and encouraged me to participate. I shared that recipe on this blog site a few years back. If you would like to learn from it (Click Here). However, I have since made a two process modifications: Using half fine ground black pepper and half coarse ground black pepper. And, grinding half the the lean meat once through a 3/4 inch plate and the other half twice through the same plate. After viewing appetizing online pictures from past year’s Kielbasa competitions in Toledo, I thought it wise to try and “step up” my fresh Kielbasa game. My first thought was to increase the juiciness of the sausage by adding some brisket trim-fat, which is less saturated than most beef fat, to the recipe. However, I eventually decided against that change mainly due to the added expense and inconvenience that would be involved. Further, mixing the flavors of two different meat animal species (fat is thought to be the main carrier of specie specific flavor) might create a less desirable finished product. I soon thereafter decided upon canned mushroom stems & pieces; in an effort to enhance juiciness, provide some natural umami flavor and to somewhat weaken the sausage’s bind. A small test batch was made incorporating canned mushroom stems & pieces at 7% of the meat batch weight. The mushrooms were ground once through a 3/16″ plate; just ahead of fat. I’m happy to report that all three of the attribute improvements sought after (juiciness, lessened bind and an umami flavor increase) were achieved, but the seasoning level was also decreased with the addition of mushrooms. So, for the competition I’ll be adding 7% mushrooms and increasing spices & herbs 6% (I’m guessing that mushrooms are a little easier to season than meat). Due to differences in tastes among people, there is no perfect combination of sausage components and cooking practices. All we need to do in order to be successful meat processors is fall somewhere in the range that mainstream consumers will pay for on a repeat basis. Virtually all canned vegetables (I’m including mushrooms in that category) have salt added to them; so I’ll be leaving the batch salt level where it is now. Mushrooms are also a good source of phosphorous, so sodium phosphate will not be increased from where it was prior to adding mushrooms. Additionally, mushrooms are not one of the common 14 food allergens. One other pre-contest change I made was to prick a few holes in the upside of sausage coils (using a traditional sweetcorn cob holder) just prior to cooking and to change the steam-cook from 1 1/2 hours at 225F to 2 hours at 212. That change in practice keeps casing from splitting during steam cooking, yet still sufficiently gels the shoulder butt collagen in the coarse ground lean component of the sausage. All my sausage for the competition will be pre-steam-cooked, chilled and then cut into 1 inch long pieces (1 inch pieces is called-for by contest rules). At the contest, serving pieces will be browned & heated in electric skillets then dumped into a crockpot set on warm. A little Millard reaction browning is another good finished product enhancement. I’m even going to try and collect fat rendered during steam cooking so it can be used to brown precooked sausage pieces in; on the day of the event.
As I publish this post, the Kielbasa event is still more than a month away. Any constructive input prior to that time will be much appreciated. After the event I’ll revise this post; adding lots of pictures and explanations as to why I did or did not place in the top 3. And, no I’m not worried about any of my fellow competitors reading this post. It’s a lead-pipe cinch that they all already have their plans in place and therefore will not learn anything new. Besides, I might be attempting to lead them astray.
Contestants are supposed to bring at least 75 pounds of precooked sausage. There will likely be around a 25% cooking loss, so start out using 100 pounds of boneless pork butts. Non-meat ingredients, including water, will push the raw sausage batch weight slightly over 100 pounds. Batch ingredients: 100 pounds of boneless pork shoulder butts, 8) 15 ounce cans of mushroom stems & pieces, 30 TBSP dried leaf marjoram, 15.9 TBSP black pepper (half coarse and half fine ground), 64 cloves of freshly crushed garlic, 9 2/3 cups of cold water, 12 1/2 TBSP sausage sodium phosphate and 31 2/3 TBSP purified flake salt. Marjoram, pepper and garlic will be boiled with most of the water, then chilled the spice blend prior to batch mixing. Remaining water is used to dissolve the sodium phosphate. Salt will be dissolved in the chilled spice mixture just prior to whole batch blending.
Grinding: Well chill all pork and mushrooms. Separate heavy fat and exterior cap muscles from thick shoulder butt lean. Remove all objectionable material while separating pork components. Grind lean component once through a 3/4 inch plate. Then grind half the lean a second time through the 3/4 inch plate. Change to a 3/16 plate and grind mushroom stems & pieces once. Next grind fat and cap meat once through the 3/16 plate. Run two slices of frozen bread behind the fat component to help push some of it out of the grinder head.
Mix everything until batch becomes somewhat sticky.
Stuff in 35 – 38 mm natural hog casings. Make gallon plastic bag size coils that are tied off on both ends. Steam-cook as described above; on a rack in a covered oven roasting pan (whole turkey size). Chill prior to slicing into precooked serving sections.