Goetta Life

Pronounced Getta.

When I was a child my 4th generation (on my Great Great Grandmother’s side) German – American father would occasionally buy both a chuck roast and a pork shoulder butt roast and make Goetta. Heavy fat was removed from raw meat cubes, then fine diced onions, seasonings and a little water all were long cooked together in the oven until the meat fibers became easy to separate with a potato masher. The fine diced onions end up pretty much becoming part of the broth. Pinhead/Steel-Cut oats were partially hydrated at room temperature during the time that the meat was cooking. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that most Goetta today is made using raw ground meat that’s cooked along with the oats and onions. That newer to me practice can make for too many semi-crunchy onions, a strong onion flavor and a lower binding Goetta end-product.

Like many other lifelong Cincinnati, Ohio residents, my heritage is a German and Irish mix. The German – American side traces directly to Cincinnati’s Porkopolis days of the early to mid 1800’s. My Irish Mother’s side went undocumented in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, but her American roots are believed to go back to at least the time of the Irish potato famine. If you care to read more about my Cincinnati area heritage (Click Here). Surprisingly, Goetta is unique to the Cincinnati region. And, there is not a substantially similar product found anywhere else today, not even in Ireland or Germany. On both my parents family’s sides my background has long been working class. In the old-world, grain-component sausages were considered to be peasant food because they extended expensive meat or offal protein. My guess is that Goetta is a blend of Pennsylvania Dutch scrapple (made using cornmeal and fried for serving) and English – Scottish – Irish haggis; which is a pudding-like product that contains oats. Scotland claimed haggis as their national dish, but haggis appears to have been widely made in the western parts of Europe for at least 5 centuries. German panhaus, scrapple’s European predecessor, is made with buckwheat. Both scrapple and haggis use offal/meat by-products. Despite the huge influx of German and Irish immigrants during the 1800’s, Cincinnati’s population circa 1850 was still about half English – American. Other ethnicitys were also present in low percentages. Religious and ethnic disputes were fairly common in early Cincinnati. The oldest recipes that I have seen for Goetta call-for shredded meat. I read about one pork neck bone recipe that warned to check well for bone-fragments while shredding off the cooked meat . And, that would make good sense way back in the day when hog carcasses were split into sides using a huge cleaver. Given the ethnic mix of early Cincinnati residents, their working class roots and the abundance of pork neck bones that were available during the Porkopolis boom, it seems plausible that something close to the Goetta recipe handed-down to my father was invented here. In pre-refrigeration technology times, Porkopolis’s semi-boneless pork shoulder butts (Boston style butts were fabricated for economical brine barrel preservation & shipping) were waterway shipped far and wide in barrels of salt brine. A large portion of the shoulder blade is left in Boston-style pork butts, but neck bones and ribs are removed. Today, a butt roast with the body cavity side bones (split neck vertebra & a few ribs) and the shoulder blade left on or in is a Milwaukee-style butt. Side note: the thick end of something was once commonly referred to as the butt end. Hence, the thick portion of a whole pork shoulder is the butt end. The butt end of a long gun is another example. Picnics are the narrower leg portion of the whole pork shoulder primal cut. Pork neck bones were left out of Porkopolis brine barrel shipping, likely in order to make more cost-effective use of both limited barrel and ship cargo space. And, all the old Germans I ever knew were notoriously frugal. I once saw my Depression era Father straighten out a pulled nail to the point where it could be driven again. Imagine Cincinnati Porkololis citizens standing there looking at piles of pork neck bones that still had a good bit of meat attached to them. Fresh pork neck bones must have once been an affordable, or free meat source to even Cincinnati’s poorest residents (spareribs would have then been another possibility). Further, hogs being herded to market, or wild running hogs, likely gleaned rotting flesh from piles of discarded pig parts. And, you know that the old Queen City rats were eating well. If my educated guess is correct then, why didn’t Goetta production resume in America’s second Porkopolis, Chicago? My guess there is that abundant Lake Michigan ice (in the earlier years) and the advent of mechanical refrigeration both facilitated the commercial further processing of cuts such as hocks, spareribs and neck bones. Once cured & smoke-cooked those lesser pork products have a fairly long refrigerated shelf-life. And, that extended shelf-life buys more time for the distribution and retail sale of perishable meat products.

It’s hard to remove the meat from raw, irregular shaped cervical vertebrae. But, after long cooking neck bones in liquid the meat shreds off easily. Today, the lean on pork neck bones are often mechanically gleaned using advanced meat recovery systems. Such meat pulp is used in popular emulsion type sausages (most often wieners & bologna). There is also excellent broth generated from cooking meaty neck bones. It is a prudent practice to use that broth for fully hydrating the oats when making Goetta. It turns out that the meat grinder was invented in Germany during about the same time that Cincinnati’s short-lived Porkopolis boom was occurring (early to mid 1800’s). The Civil war ended Cincinnati’s Porkopolis rein because Mississippi River shipping was severely disrupted during that conflict. Further, Northern railroad networks built partially for the war and advantageous Great Lakes shipping better positioned Chicago to become fast growing America’s new meat distribution hub. Given all that background information, it’s a fairly safe assumption that original Cincinnati Goetta was made using cooked & shredded pork. Meat shreds and onion pulp help enhance the end-product bind in high quality Goetta. That increased bind makes is possible to mash Goetta patties thin while frying them crispy and without them falling apart. Mixing loose fiberglass into wet concrete is another example of many little stands helping to better bind the end product together well. Gelled collagen (in meat broth) and solidified fat both help to hold Goetta together in the chilled state. However, as frying proceeds collagen and fat liquefy. Towards the end of frying surface browning, on both sides of Goetta patties, really firms them up.

So, how did ground meat end up in nearly all today’s Goetta recipes? I figure that ground meat increases the speed of product production, allows for the usage of meat from all types of meat animals (old breeding stock included), allows for usage of meat cuts from all carcass regions (shoulder region meat makes the best shreds), allows for the easy incorporation of beef hearts & pork skins (common in commercial Goetta production) and with ground meat it is easier to incorporate more fat (because such finished product fat has been fine ground and therefore not in big objectionable globs). Significantly, stove top stirred Goetta production is more labor intensive than covered oven cooked Goetta. The oven method does take more overall time, but oven cooking Goetta requires a lot less stirring (labor). Oven cooking Goetta batches only require attention every one and a half to two hours.

When I was a youngster I had no interest in Goetta. Even as a middle aged adult I thought it odd that my parents were so into making Goetta for neighbors around their central Florida retirement community. But now that I’m an older adult I’m compelled to promote the Goetta tradition. My food industry education and work experience has helped me know a lot about the beneficial attributes of Goetta; perhaps even more than my parents did. I have a daughter, who’s a Registered Dietitian, that also believes in the impressive nutritional benefits of high quality Goetta. Contemporary nutrition wisdom has it that oats are one of the ten best foods for omnivorous humans. Oat carbohydrates are slow release, they are gluten-free and there’s a good amount of fiber and antioxidants present too. Other healthy factors of high quality Goetta include lean meat protein, onions, water and a low salt content. Further, during final preparation, Goetta can be successfully fried without using any cooking oil. Not needing to use oil is an anomaly among fried foods. I for one don’t enjoy burping-up greasy food. A much lesser known benefit of oats is that they add palatability to Goettta; where one might expect the lean meat to be dry & rubbery. Goetta is commonly considered a breakfast food, and that’s a good place for it because many mainstream breakfast foods are unhealthy to consume day after day after day.

Disclaimer: Not all Goetta should be classed as health food. Commercial Goetta, in particular, can be high in fat & sodium, routinely uses the additive MSG, plus contains animal parts such as pork skins & beef hearts.

Other good attributes of high quality Goetta production include:

  1. Can be made using inexpensive, closely trimmed, bone-in retail pork shoulder butts. That roast is occasionally offered as a supermarket “loss-leader,” weekly sale item for as little as $1 per pound.
  2. Goetta is formulated with about one half liquid, making it a potentially lucrative product to produce for selling. Commercial Goetta sells for $5.50 per pound.
  3. No expensive meat processing equipment is needed for making Goetta at home. A few different types of sharp knives is all that is needed.
  4. Goetta is easy to convenience package for freezer storage. Such frozen patties can be separated and fried directly from a frozen state.
  5. Now a days, extending expensive meat protein with grain is widely considered to be an eco-friendly practice. Goetta is a good middle ground compromise; instead of going all the way to meat mimic science experiments that are comprised mostly of food additives. Humans did not evolve eating such additives, so consuming them on a long term basis is likely an unhealthy practice.
  6. Nutritious, water-soluble meat proteins, minerals and vitamins are all part of the broth that is used for the final hydration of steel-cut/ pin head oats. No meat cooking loss. Further, the collagen in meat broth gels upon product chilling, helping hold Goetta together as it does in headcheese or souse.

If Goetta is so great, why hasn’t it become popular long before now? A big reason is that, being a grain sausage, it is routinely assumed to contain organ meat and be high in fat like its better known cousins scrapple and haggis. Then there’s the pale, non-cooked meat, color issue that all grain sausages have. Eye appeal is buy appeal. A product has to get past the eyes before it gets to the lips. Hearts have a strong red color that can help in improving the bland appearance of grain sausages. The unappealing color issue could be easily rectified with the addition of potentially cancerous, commercial caramel coloring. Caramel coloring is widely used to make pale soy grit’s color match cooked meat in many types of commercially produced precooked burgers and meat fillings. The trick to successfully promoting Goetta is to get people to try it finish fried. During frying Maillard Reaction browning does wonders for the appearance of Goetta patties plus browning further enhances desirable flavor.

To make Goetta, buy a pork shoulder butt or two to fabricate into lean diced pork. Subtract removed fat, bone and objectionable materials weights from the weight of the pork butt roast retail price label(s). The actual weight of lean diced pork is needed to adjust the remaining batch ingredients. Listed below are all ingredients in my master batch of Goetta:

A) 10 pounds of diced pork shoulder butt lean.

B) 6 medium size onions

C) 1 TBSP sodium phosphate

D) 6 and 1/4 TBSP leaf marjoram

E) 1 and 2/3 TBSP fine ground black pepper

F) 3 TBSP salt

G) 10 cups of steel-cut/pinhead oats

H) 29 total cups of liquid (broth & water)

Due to market hog size variation and how uniformly hog carcasses are fabricated into sub-primal cuts, mainstream pork shoulder butts normally weigh in the 5 to 9 pound range. The removed fat (varies widely), bone and any other objectionable material amounts vary as well from butt to butt. Again, every Goetta batch has to have all its non-meat ingredients adjusted to the starting raw pork weight. I try to find two 8 to 9 pound bone-in butts. That size of butts yields two 12 pound loaves of Goetta; plus another 5 to 7 pounder.

The butts I bought weighed a total of 18.24 pounds. After fabrication they yielded 13.75 pounds of lean diced pork. The price per pound of yielded lean diced pork figured out to be $1.31 per pound ($18.06 divided by 13.75). 13.75 pounds of lean diced pork divided by the 10 pounds of pork in the master batch mentioned above = 1.375. All non-meat batch ingredients were then adjusted by multiplying them by 1.375. The medium size onion count then went up to 8 1/4. Sodium phosphate to 1 and 1/3 TBSP. Leaf marjoram to 8 and 2/3 TBSP. Fine ground black pepper to 2 and 1/4 TBSP. Flake salt to 4 and 1/8 TBSP. Steel-cut oats to 13.75 cups. Total liquid (broth & water) to 39 and 3/4 cups. Total liquid included 13.75 cups of water to pre-soak oats in and another 26 cups of combined broth & water for final batch hydration.

The narrow knife is for blade bone removal. The middle knife is for fat removal and dicing lean. The chef’s knife is for fine dicing onions.

4.49 pounds of fat & bone is pictured on the left. 13.75 pounds of lean diced pork is on the right. One can merely subtract fat & bone loss from pork shoulder butt label weights to find the diced pork weight. Any meat plants wanting to produce this high quality Goetta can run commercially available picnic cushion meat through a dicing machine. Or more easily, run the cushion meat once through a 3/4 to 1 inch hole size grinder plate. In-line X-ray equipment can be used commercially to kick-out bone chips, metal, plastic, paper, wood etc. At home, I don’t wear gloves when making raw diced pork for Goetta production. That way I can use both my sense of sight and touch to try and remove all bone fragments, lymph nodes, blood clots etc.

As you can see here, a lot of onions are used in Goetta making. Unexpectedly, onions are barely noticeable in the finished product.

Dissolve sodium phosphate in a little water and lightly mix it in with the meat and onions. Add the sodium phosphate first because it does not dissolve well the the presence of salt. I wrote a blog post about sodium phosphate that is easy to find by computer searching “Food Grade Sodium Phosphate Meat Mentor. You may want to read it to see why I advocate the addition of sodium phosphate.

Pork, onion, sodium phosphate with a little water mixed together.

Same roaster with marjoram, pepper, salt plus enough water to almost cover everything. The cooking of meat and onions generate a lot liquid on their own. One could even include removed blade bones at this time; for some bone-broth action. Check blade bones well for any loose bone fragments before including them in this phase. Cover roasting pan and place in 300F oven.

As soon as the meat was on to cook, 13.75 cups of oats were combined with 13.75 cups of water. This bowl was left at room temperature to soak oats while the meat was cooking.

It took 3 and a half hours for the meat to cook tender. During that time it was stirred twice. After less than 2 hours of cooking time a delicious aroma fills the house. The roaster was left sitting on the oven rack during stirring. Tilt the lid away from you when opening it, so you don’t get steam burned. When the pork and onion mix is opened for the first time to stir, you will notice that the protein on the outside of meat cubes has coagulated and lightly bound the diced pork together into one large mass. That is not a problem. Light stirring separates the diced meat once again. I find Goetta to be a good Friday night project, where ingredients are prepped in the evening then I set an alarm to get up and occasionally stir things, drain off broth or put cooked Goetta into mold pans. In this picture, the broth is being separated from cooked meat and onion solids. I estimated that 3 cups of broth remained in with the meat. So 3 cups of liquid were subtracted from the 26 cups needed for final oat hydration. Consequently, 23 cups of liquid were measured in for final oat hydration.

Tender cooked pork shoulder meat & onion, mashed with a potato masher then lightly stirred.

While the meat was cooking the oats soaked up mostly all of the water. That practice cuts down on final batch cooking time.

All the broth plus a little more water (about 3 cups of water were needed after the broth ran out) was measured and added with all other batch ingredients. 23 total cups of liquid were added at that time. Everything was then stirred together well at this point for good ingredient distribution.

Big steam table pan full of Goetta on at 275F for the final cook.

I stirred the Goetta once during the final cook; after 1 and 1/2 hours. This picture is from after 3 hours of final batch cooking. The Goetta was then viscous enough to spoon into mold pans; as evidenced by the traditional free standing spoon test.

Two 12 pound loaves and one 7 pounder beginning to cool.

Chilled and un-panned Goeta at about 24 hours post cooking. One never has to line mold pans in order to get fully chilled Goetta bricks out. Take a table knife, dip it in hot water and go along the vertical insides of the pans. Next, sit pan bottoms in a shallow hot water bath for about a minute, helps the interior pan bottom release. Finally, hold the loaf upside down and jog it towards a cutting board a few times until it releases.

Convenience packaged Goetta just out of freezer storage. There are two layers of wax paper between the two quartered slices in the sandwich bag. In storage there were 4 sandwich size bags inside one gallon bag, for a tight double wrap.

From frozen, start off on medium to low heat while thawing takes place.

Goetta patties that were smashed thin during frying.

If you want to see a great shredded corned beef version of Goetta (Click Here). That post also gives some ideas on how to convenience package goetta for freezer storage.

This batch was made using right around $30 worth of retail ingredients and yielded $155 worth of Goetta. Total labor time was between 3 and 4 hours. So it could pay about $30 per hour. Combined ingredient prep, cooking time, occasional stirring and pan filling is between 9 and 10 hours in total.

I truly believe that high quality Goetta should become a world-wide health food product. It’s just that good! Spam was invented to add worthwhile value to mountains of inexpensive pork shoulders. But, Goetta is now more in tune with modern society’s healthy eating and save the planet trends.

I created a public Facebook group named Goetta Gone Global where everyone can discuss the nuances of Goetta making and finish frying.

This is a supplemental section providing references and discussion supporting the theory that the origin of Greater Cincinnati’s Goetta tradition is rooted in the opportunistic usage of wasted Porkopolis era muscle meats.

  1. In Meat We Trust page 12: “He reported that urban slaughterhouses were known less by their odor than by the remains piled outside their doors: hundreds of calves heads, large bits, and whole joints of meat, unwanted and unused, except by “street hogs” that roamed the roads feeding on the leavings of a wasteful society. In any other country less accustomed to superabundance, he marveled, all of it would be sold for some price or other.”
  2. We live In Cincinnati (5th grade history book) page 110: “Packing at first was wasteful, for there was no way to keep the meat cold. Carts of spareribs and tenderloins were dumped into the Ohio River. People who went to the packing houses could fill a market basket full of these meats for just a dime.”

During Porkopolis’s later years, meat caves chilled by winter-cut pond ice, were dug. That primitive refrigeration method made the year round further processing of lesser meat cuts both possible and economically worthwhile. The first hand crank meat grinder was patented in the U.S. about half way through Cincinnati’s Porkopolis boom. Even after meat grinders were available, it’s highly unlikely that scrimping Cincinnati Goetta makers could afford one. Long boiled, easy shredding, pork neck bones and spareribs were both good sources of lean meat for making premium Goetta. It’s much easier to remove long cooked cervical vertebra and intercostal meat, than it is to knife bone them then grind. There was competition for those free to inexpensive spare ribs from boarding houses and possibly from some local eateries. Those early Porkopolis split neck bones provided lean shoulder region meat (optimal for Goetta production because darker meat has a higher pH; which increases cooked meat moisture retention), good broth bones and were more than likely free for the taking at that point in time. Learning that pork tenderloins were ever dumped surprised me. But, I soon remembered that tenderloins are inside the ribcage (not attached to any larger cuts of meat) and dry out easily during cooking due to being lean. To this day tenderloins don’t lend themselves well to further processing into value added meat items. As the name says, they are already tender. And, are now normally, at least pumped with a low salt-water solution (aids in cooked product moisture retention) and recommended to serve medium-rare (before they dry out). But, Hey! Nearly free lean whole muscle was nearly free lean whole muscle. And, oats greatly help to make up for meat palatability deficiencies. Pork tenderloins may well have been included in some early American Goetta production. I have to wonder if the following paragraph is the reason why oats were settled upon for Goetta making. From the 3rd edition of Processed Meats page 307: “Oat brand with added beef flavoring has been utilized in production of low fat ground beef. It may also be used in producing low fat processed meats as it improves the water-binding capacity of the products and imparts the sensation of greater juiciness.”

By all accounts, the “fat-of-the-land” was in demand for pretty much all of Cincinnati’s Porkopolis days (think P&G). And, early on the hand crank meat grinder was not yet around to efficiently reduce fat particle size; to substantially increase fat rendering during batch cooking.

Written by George Wolfer

George Wolfer

Been associated with the meat industry pretty much since starting at a Vocational High school Meat Processing program in 1974. Like to learn and teach interesting and worthwhile livestock production, meat processing and marketing practices.

5 thoughts on “Goetta Life

  1. George, Very Informative and interesting on Cincinnati Heritage. I will be giving this a try soon. Thank you for your expertise.

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