It’s only been two months since I participated in a regional amateur sausage making competition for the first time, but that novel experience has triggered so many thoughts that I’m compelled to get my tentative plan down in writing and published long before next years Kielbasa Cook-Off. Hopefully, I will still be permitted to enter the 2020 event after voicing my options.
I was surprised and a bit concerned to learn that some past, multi-year Kielbasa Cook-Off, winners had been asked to not compete in 2019 because their dominance at the event was making it hard to get enough teams willing to continue participating. To my way of thinking, attempting to level the playing field by excluding past winners is quasi un-American. Further, that practice could well cause an overall decline in the quality of end-products offered at the event. Then that net decline in quality offered could cause declining public interest in attending future cook-offs. Achieving near parity, among persons willing to do the work required to field such a team, is a matter of supplying more meat further processing education and increasing overall hands-on experience levels. Anyone that does everything it takes to feed enthusiastic Kielbasa eaters should have access to the best sausage making information. In the commercial meat processing industry there are no real secrets because employees are free to seek better paying jobs with other free-market companies; thereby spreading competitive skills & knowledge. At the same time, meat processing equipment supply companies are a self-interested technology educator to their clients. Universities are traditionally good at observing what works in industry then eventually explaining the science behind why those things work. Therefore, handed-down trial & error “secret” family sausage recipes are a great starting point. But, adhering too closely to such secrets will likely inhibit both creativity and one’s openness to continuous improvement opportunities. In short, one can’t keep doing things the same way and then expect anything other than slightly different outcomes. I try hard to make promoting worthwhile home meat processing my forte. To that end, I’m offering my best current advice (it’s always slightly changing as I try to learn more) to any and all who want to listen. And, we can still be friends even if you judge me to be “full of it.” In the end, attempting to promote high quality homemade Kielbasa making is more important to me than trying to win a competition.
Depending upon one’s current sausage making skill level the preceding paragraph might be insulting to some; while also being welcome news to others. If you could use some help with the basics of coarse ground fresh sausage production (Click Here) for a practical tutorial post. And/or, if you want to learn more about essential home meat processing equipment (Click Here). Admittedly, the vast majority of what I observed at the 2019 Kielbasa Cook-Off was well beyond beginner stage sausage production; so my recommendations in this post will target the intermediate to advanced skill levels of homemade sausage making.
Optimal starting raw pork is an essential consideration. Beef could be used along with pork in sausage batch formulation, but beef is much more expensive, normally darker in color (could affect eye-appeal) and coarse ground chuck pieces take longer than pork shoulder meat to cook tender. A distinctive feature of authentic Polish Sausage is some larger pieces of meat dispersed throughout it; that can bring pulled-pork to mind when bitten into. Modern mainstream boneless pork loins are nearly as inexpensive as pork shoulder butts. Unfortunately for us home sausage makers, lean & naturally tender market hog loins produce dry and often rubbery textured finished products. Loins are low cost today because about 75% of the average market hog carcass is further processed into in-demand lean bacon, lean hams and comparatively leaner pork trimmings. Fat is expensive to put on young/tender meat animals. Pork carcass rough cuts and trimmings are widely used commercially to make a multitude precooked retail sausage items. Today’s common lowly marbled (intramuscular fat flecking) fresh pork loins are harder for the average modern day consumer to successfully cook (plus many people barely cook at all now a day). So, supply and demand economics have substantially lowered boneless pork loin’s price per pound; most noticeably at high product volume grocery chain stores. Economic considerations in the mainstream pork industry have made old time “eating high on the hog” pork chops a low priority. Higher collagen and seam fat levels leave us pork shoulders as the go-to sausage making material. Within the pork shoulder primal cut, picnics contain a much higher percentage of bone than butts do, and so are normally further processed commercially. Luckily whole pork shoulder butts are widely available as either a boneless roast or containing about a 1/2 pound shoulder blade bone. I used to buy wholesale cases of bone-in pork shoulder butts from Sam’s Club, but they were much too lean for highly palatable sausage making. Sam’s butts had been closely trimmed at the packing plant so that they could be conveniently cut into retail pork steaks, country style ribs, cube steak, etc. Closely trimming at harvest plants also cost effectively gathers large quantities of standardized fat percentage trim for selling to commercial meat further processors. I now buy boneless butts at Gordon Food Service (GFS) because there is no membership fee to do so, Gordon’s butts are fatter and even though their butts are boneless – the price per pound is not much higher than at Sam’s. Also, I have routinely found less bone fragments (a tooth hazard consideration) in Gordon’s butts; probably because the shoulder blade bones are previously removed at the packing plant level where the fairly large quantities of meat left on them can be cost effectively mechanically gleaned. Side note: I’m not a big fan of mechanically separated meat. “No one takes care of your business like you can.”
Because of the modern mainstream market hog type, the boneless butts that Gordon’s supplies are still a bit too lean for optimally tasty & juicy sausage production. A home sausage maker could attempt to purchase fat pork trim from either a small local packing plant or at retail stores, but driving all around is a waste of both time & money and the bacterial load contained in overly handled trimmings is normally high. Another possible solution that I have heard offered is to buy bacon ends & pieces. And, since the current market trend is to love all things bacon, that suggestion likely sounds good to a lot of people. But, bacon contains residual nitrite which can quickly darken fresh sausage and it is an already further processed meat product. I like to stick with the semi-sterile interior, whole-muscle cuts such as butts; then remove lean that can used in other pork containing products. When making premium pulled-pork (I use Polish seasoning for that meat chunk marinade too), I remove 10 pounds of coppa/money muscle from every 80 pounds of boneless butts. And, If making a little known item from my German & Irish heritage (Goetta), I take the same amount of lean, but from around the shoulder blade area. That practice brings the sausage batch fat content into an optimal range.
Authentic coarse ground Polish dinner sausages, both fresh and smoked, contain somewhat large pieces of fat that most Americanized peoples find to be objectionable. That’s the reason why such products are not commonly seen in mainstream American retail markets. Commercially, in the U.S., both the lean and fat components of sausages called either Polish or Kielbasa are nearly always ground fine enough to preclude objections about end-product fat particle size. Separating the fat and lean components of sausage making raw material is normally too cost prohibitive to practice on a high product volume/low retail mark-up basis. However, persons making sausage at home, with TLC (tender loving care), can accomplish coarse textured lean (ground through a large diameter plate) and smaller fat particle size (ground once through a 3/16 inch plate); all while maintaining a desirable fat level in either a fresh or cured & smoked sausage. If you want to see fat and lean component separation demonstrated (Click Here) to review my Fresh Sausage Tutorial blog post.
Sausage seasoning is what most people think of as what will set their product apart. But, everyone has slightly different taste preferences; so achieving a middle of the road flavor profile is the best goal. Table condiments were created to help satisfy those more personalized tastes.
There are other things besides spice or herbal seasonings that one can employ in an attempt to set themselves apart from the competition. Salt is a mineral, but one of it’s meat processing functions is to act as a seasoning. The Official Polish Government Smoked Rope Sausage recipe calls for sugar. The function of sugar in meat further processing is often aimed at taking the “bite” off added salt and/or to promote cooked product browning. In this recipe, I have opted for fairly low salt levels and consider browning to be low priority. So, I don’t use any type of sugar. Accent/MSG can be used as a meaty flavor potentiater, but some people claim to have an allergic reactions to it. I don’t use MSG, but do plan on using 3 1/2%, of batch weight, drained, fine chopped canned mushrooms in an attempt to add more juiciness and a natural umami flavor. At this year’s cook-off I went with 7% canned, drained mushrooms, but the Toledo mayor was able to detect a slight flavor difference. And no, mushrooms are not recognized as a common food allergen. Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP) serves the same function as MSG. But, since HVP is so highly processed (soy etc. is broken down to an amino acid level) I shy away from adding it as well. I do recommend the usage of sausage sodium phosphate. There is also different sodium phosphate formulated to be used when injecting raw roasts with liquid solutions. Sodium posphate inhibits the development of warmed-over-flavor (WOF, an important consideration in precooked meat items), increases finished product moisture retention (more juiciness and salable product weight) and it enhances sausage bind. Interestingly, some of the sodium phosphate can bind with metals in hard water; thereby lessening its effectiveness in meat products. So, you may find it advisable to dissolve sodium phosphate in distilled water. Crush sodium phosphate well as it is being dissolved; so none of it ends up as gritty grains in the finished sausage. Further, food-grade sodium phosphate is widely used worldwide and Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). If you care to read a blog post about food-grade sodium phosphate (Click Here). FYI, another strong inhibitor of the fat oxidation that can cause WOF is sodium nitrite (meat cure #1).
I’m somewhat audaciously going to attempt home producing cured & smoked Polish sausage/smoked Kielbasa/Kielbasa Wiejska; without using a smokehouse. From what I’ve been able to gather, fresh Polish sausage/White Kielbasa/Biala is not nearly as poplar in Poland as Kielbasa Wiejska is. So for this year’s Holiday Kielbasa I’m going to do the following:
-Purchase around 80 pounds of fresh boneless pork shoulder butts.
-Cut-out 10 pounds of coppa/money muscle lean to marinate for smoke-cooked pulled-pork.
-Mathematically adjust the non-meat ingredient quantity list in my Fresh Sausage Tutorial blog post to coincide with the actual meat weight of the new batch. If you want to see how that’s done (Click Here).
-Boil then chill the leaf marjoram, black pepper, crushed garlic and most of the water. Hold back enough water to later dissolve the sodium phosphate and curing salt #1 in. It’s OK to use a little more water than called-for if need be. Purified flake salt is blended into the seasoning blend after boiling.
-Add 3 1/2%, by meat batch weight, of drained & very finely chopped, canned mushrooms. Mix mushrooms in with the seasoning blend after everything is well chilled. Do not increase the seasoning level to compensate for added mushroom weight because the fatter pork blend used here will have greater cooking purge (resulting in seasoning concentration) and curing salt #1 is 93.75 percent salt. Further, most canned foods contain added salt. If anything, it seems advisable to reduce called-for salt levels a bit when test batching this particular cured & smoked sausage. It is common practice to use either non fat dry milk or concentrated soy protein in smoked sausages. I think those binder’s function is to soak up moisture and rendered fat, to lessen cooking purge. However, due to food-allergen concerns and in an attempt to keep things more authentic, I don’t want to use them. As mentioned, sodium phosphate both helps bind moisture and increases salt-soluble protein extraction.
-Use the widely held standard of 1 level teaspoon of Prague powder #1/curing salt #1/Pink Salt (is not the same as Himalayan Pink Salt) for every 5 pounds of batched pork. If you are opposed to “unnaturally added nitrite,” please (Click Here) for more information. Interestingly, the nitrate naturally found in leaf marjoram and some unpurified salt can convert to nitrite to partially cure Fresh Polish Sausage. Then upon cooking meat will appear pinkish; even after it has been cooked for hours. There are several reasons why cooked meat can look different than what one normally expects, therefore I only trust properly calibrated meat thermometers.
-Separate starting pork into fat and lean components; as described in the Fresh Sausage Tutorial.
-Grind half the lean component once through a 3/4 ” hole size plate and then half of it once again back through that same plate.
-Grind the fat component once through a 3/16″ plate, then use a few slices of frozen bread to help push the last of the pork out of the grinder’s head.
-Lightly mix the dissolved sodium phosphate into the batch, then add the chilled seasoning & mushroom blend; then lastly the dissolved meat cure.
-Mix as outlined in the Fresh Sausage Tutorial until everything is well distributed and the batch becomes rather sticky. Stickiness indicates that enough salt-soluble protein has been extracted (through added moisture, mechanical agitation and time) for the cooked sausage to bind somewhat. Therefore, one cannot achieve adequate sausage bind from stuffing directly off the meat grinder. Use a sausage stuffer, it’s easier and does a much better job. Home sausage making folklore has it that ground & mixed batches should sit overnight prior to being stuffed into casings; so that flavors blend throughout the batch. In real-time practice, the protein extracted from mixing stiffens the batch over time and makes it harder to do a good job of sausage stuffing. So mix it well, stuff ASAP then let uniformly distributed flavors blend inside the casings. However, in commercial cured sausage making, preblending the salt and cure with meat does have some major benefits. If you are interested in learning about those benefits, here’s an excerpt from the Processed Meats text book. “Preblending has the following advantages: (1) it permits control of composition by adjusting the final blend to a known fat content; (2) addition of the cure stabilizes the meat and helps control meat spoilage (3) it can be used on hot boned meat , where addition of the cure results in the maximum amount of salt-extractable protein and improves emulsification; (4) preblending with the cure allows the meat to be cured while the emulsifiers and other equipment are used for other products, or even while the meat is en route from one processing operation to another; and (5) it retards oxidation of the raw materials since the curing begins earlier.” Once a batch is finalized at a meat plant it moves immediately to stuffing; then thermal processing (cooking).
I buy hanks of 35 – 38mm natural hog casings online from Butcher & Packer Supply, out of Detroit. You might even want to try 38 – 42 mm hog casings. The slightly large diameter is great for dinner sausages, casings come in long lengths and they always cook tender. Pack the sausage stuffer tightly to help reduce the amount of air that ends up in stuffed casings. Tap the back edge of a knife against the metal stuffing horn as needed (that action puts holes in the casing) to release air that backs up in casings during stuffing. I cook competition Kielbasa (sausage to be precooked and cut to 1 inch lengths) in approximately 4 pound coils. Since that product does not have to be linked, casings can safely be stuffed more tightly.
For steam-cooking I use standard chaffing dish size foil pans with tight fitting foil lids. Additionally, a metal rack is put in the bottom of foil pans to keep the cooking sausage coil from sitting in liquid. Water/liquid cooking can increase the washing-out of some seasonings and water-soluble meat vitamins, minerals and protein. I like to try and avoid those water-cooked characteristics. This smoked sausage that I plan on making will have the characteristic cured meat flavor and reddish internal color. But, will still need a hint of smoke and some eye-appealing darker exterior coloration. I test cooked a coil of uncured sausage with 1 tsp. of concentrated liquid smoke added to the steam-off water. The results were a distinctive and desirable bacon flavor. The addition of cure will change the overall flavor profile yet again, and hopefully for the better. Each 4 pound coil steam-cooks for 2 hours at 212F. Low heat keeps the sausage casing from breaking. The long, low heat, moist cook nicely gels the collagen in the coarse pieces of pork; while sufficiently rendering fat as it bastes the sausage. Commercially, liquid smoke is often sprayed onto sausage casings either at the start of, or during thermal processing. FYI: liquid smoke is a by-product of hardwood charcoal production, where smoke generated from combustion is drawn through water. It actually has less tar than natural smoke because tar solidifies and is discarded.
At the 2019 go-round I warmed precooked sausage samples along with fat that had been rendered during steam-cooking. My plan is to once again skim solidified fat off chilled sausage cooking purge; then warm precooked smoked sausage samples along with the smoke flavored pork fat. I test warmed some fresh sausage in liquid smoke added – sausage cooking purge fat. But, that practice did not seem to increase the smoke flavor already present from pre-steam-cooking.
In an effort to obtain an eye-appealing smoked sausage color, the top side of the sausage casing will be exposed to the oven broiler, immediately after steam-cooking, for about 10 minutes. The optimal length of time under the oven broiler is greatly effected by how close the sausage is placed to it. Following standard smoked sausage protocol, fully-cooked sausage coils are either immediately submerged in cold water or showered for 10 minutes; in an effort to reduce casing wrinkling. However, in this entirely steam-cooked version I did not observe any objectionable casing wrinkling; so will skip the water chilling.
When cutting fully-cooked coils/ropes into 1 inch samples, cut from the side of the casing that was not directly exposed to the oven broiler. During the first go-round the browned side dulled my knives after a while. Yes, there will be some two-toning of the precooked sausage color due to the browning of just one side. But, that might help make it appear more homemade.
Now, do some test batches and don’t forget to enlighten your buddy George of any findings.
-I like having Winter weather while home meat processing because most of the meat can be covered in lugs and left out in the cold while working-up some of the meat in the kitchen. Yes, warmer weather home meat processing can be done following GMP’s (Good Manufacturing Practices) by way of using one’s refrigerator. But, in order to make enough sausage for the cook-off the refrigerator needs to be nearly empty before buying-in the pork and it’s a pain to repeatedly move small containers of meat in and out while working. Those multiple smaller containers also increase clean-up chores.
-Assure sanitary production and no temperature abuse throughout production, distribution and serving.
-Make the public feel good about eating your product by wearing hair, and if needed beard nets, make friendly small-talk with customers and thanking them as they are being served.
-Take time to evaluate your competitors product and learn what you can from talking briefly with them.
-Enjoy the experience of sharing this delicious tradition.
“One can’t really ever give anything away because kindness always returns to them in one form or another.”