This essay is dedicated to one main proposition: when it comes to Polish sausage, skip the supermarket, which has insanely limited choices. The FedEx truck is a much more rewarding friend!
And then comes point #2: if your Polish sausage consciousness hasn’t been expanded yet, it is high time for an uber-haul! Here’s why. Say “Polish sausage” in America, and everyone assumes you’re talking about kielbasa. Say “kielbasa” and everyone thinks you’re talking about a fat, reddish, garlicky sausage in a ring shape, with a texture slightly meatier than a hot dog.
About two years ago, I conducted an extensive review of sausages in America that were being created by Polish companies and my wurst life was changed forever!
I discovered, for starters, that in Poland every sausage is called a kielbasa. Kielbasa is the Polish word for sausage. But even more important: under their word “kielbasa,” there’s a wide variety of sausage types and all of them are delicious! And even when the Poles turn to what we think of as kielbasa—the fat, emulsified hot-dog-like thing you get at the supermarket—there are wide variations in type of grind, color, flavoring, smoke level, etc.
In short, if all you know from the sausage-crazed country of Poland is your supermarket kielbasa, you are missing out on a lot! And the missing is particularly poignant at this time of year because many kinds of Polish sausage, including what we think of as “kielbasa,” are excellent on the grill!
Here are the five I’ve come to rely on to make me and my guests break out into our very own version of the polka at every sausage-fest:
This one comes close to the standard American supermarket definition of “kielbasa,” but holy Gdansk is it an upgrade! For starters, it’s in that very special category of kielbasas called czosnkowa kielbasa or garlic kielbasa! Most of our supermarket kielbasa is flavored with garlic anyway, but when the purveyors go out of their way to call the sausage “Kielbasa Czosnkowa” let the vampires beware! This brilliant sausage from Sweet Poland, a kind of Polish-product negociant in Brooklyn, would have kicked pork butt whether it had the garlic or not. I received a chunk of a long coil, medium-diameter (about 1 ¼”), with a wrinkled orange-copper exterior. Inside, the meat is a fairly coarse whitish-pink, with excellent whorl. But the flavor’s the thing! Great smokiness (real and not over the top), with a meat-stock kind of umami character underlying everything. The fat bubbles up beautifully when you grill this guy and adds a buttery meatiness. Then there’s the garlic! Let’s not forget the garlic! This sucker actually has big chunks of sweet garlic in it—which play beautifully off all the other flavors! Don’t let your grill go down for the season without sizzling up a few of these!
Another one in the classic American kielbasa style. But we Americans never think of our supermarket kielbasa as herbal; nevertheless, marjoram is a very common addition to kielbasa-style sausages made in Poland. This is the one that opens that herby door from a small shop east of Cleveland, where all the sausages are made by hand. Quite dark cherry-red on the exterior (lots of hickory smoke), quite dense inside, adding up to a unique sausage that’s tough and tight but a pleasure to chew nevertheless. Big herbal taste, of course. The producer recommends simmering for 30 minutes, but I thought it was even better with a total of just 15 minutes on the grill.
This category—”fresh” kielbasa”—consists of sausages that Americans would never call “kielbasa”—for they are not cured, not smoked, not reddish. The Poles call them biala or “white” sausages, and they will remind you of the sweet fresh Italian sausages available at every butcher shop! However, though they have nothing to do with what we think of as “kielbasa,” they are excellent sausages, with a Polish spin, absolutely fabulous for your grill this summer.
To me, their greatest quality is a textural one. The grind is very coarse, and when you put a fresh Polish sausage on your grill, you will probably have no idea how this tumble of chopped meat is going to hold together. Then the magic happens, the meat comes together, it coalesces, it oozes into wholeness, with a hint of goo. I love it! But in order to achieve this effect, you must cook it properly—which is to say, not too long.
Here’s the key: place the fresh Polish sausage on no hotter than a medium fire. It’s going to need 30 minutes to coalesce. Turn often while it’s cooking. I say it’s done when the meat retains a trace of pink, and when the fat is looking gooey. This is an experience not for the squeamish, so cook it further if you like. Me…I’m going only to the goo stage, which yields a primal, otherworldly taste and texture for carnivores!
Now, my fave fresh kielbasa in the tasting was this one from a specialty sausage-maker in Chicago at a staggeringly low price for the quality you get! This is a juicy dog, that stays juicy even if you overcook it. But if you follow my cooking advice (keeping it a little pink) you will get not only juice but incredible tenderness too. Deeply sweet and meaty flavors. I love it simply on a buttered roll; it tastes like something subtle from a hundred years ago. But I also love it on fresh rye bread with sauerkraut and mustard.
Those of you with Jewish heritage, or Jewish friends, may recognize a cognate here. “Kishka” was, for many kids growing up Jewish, the nightmare of any bar mitzvah or wedding. Also known as “stuffed derma,” kishka is a beef intestine stuffed with matzoh meal, rendered chicken fat (or rendered beef fat) and seasonings (paprika often among them to make it kind of orange).
Liberal feinschmecker that I am, and have always been, I’m not your typical kishkaphobe; in fact, there are times I rather enjoy it. So when I found out there’s a whole category of Polish sausage called kiszka (same pronunciation)…I barely flinched. And I’m glad I didn’t because that enabled me to discover that Polish kiszka is completely different from Jewish kishka and unbelievably delicious!!!
There, that’s the easy part…loving it. Classifying it gets much more difficult.
There are all kinds of creations in Eastern Europe called something like kiszka. The best I can tell you about Polish kiszka—at least the way it’s made in the U.S.—is that it’s a kind of blood sausage, unsmoked, with ground meat included, and, often, big pieces of a grain, like barley (krupniak) or buckwheat. The issue is confused by the fact that most Poles in Poland don’t call it “kiszka;” in Poland the most common name for it is “kaszanka.” And it’s confused further by the fact that many of the American-made kiszkas seem to go really lightly on the blood; I suspect that some of them at least don’t contain any blood at all. One of my Polish friends tells me that “kiszka” in America also means a rice sausage, to Polish-Americans, made with rice, ground meat, and spices.
But the finished product in all the American kiszkas I tasted is rustic, earthy, completely heart-warming if you’re open to that kind of thing. I am. And I super-strongly urge you to give it a try. It’s great on the grill, I swear! I served it this month to the usual gang of offal-haters…and they loved it!
Here’s what to do: grill it! Oh, the Poles like to bake it for about 45 minutes (also good or sauté it in a pan. But for my money, the crispy skin that develops on the grill is an added bonus that’s hard to refuse. Do keep in mind that the skin of a kiszka likes to go crazy, to twist and bubble, to confound any plans you may have for an orderly-looking sausage. “La’chaim,” shout I; that’s the way things are in kiszka world.
Now, if you’re gonna try just one—make it this one:
Open since 1963, Stanley’s, in Phoenix, Arizona, combines many functions: a specialty butcher hand-making Polish and Eastern European sausages, a deli and grocer with an extensive lunch menu, and a retail section with goods from Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.
Stanley’s home-made kiszka is made with liver and rice. It is a large ring, about 18” all around, and fairly thick in diameter (1 ¾”). Some will perceive the grey-brown color as scary, but that’s just kiszka being kiszka! Now, you’ll need to exercise some care on the grill (medium-hot), because the skin of this one likes to brown quickly, and split quickly. Just watch it carefully (it takes no more than 7 minutes a side), and be at the ready with a wide spatula to scoop things up. Once you get it to the plate…wow! It tastes like 1874! You get an amazing brown flavor from the crisped skin, which pairs perfectly with the liver-plus-bread taste within along with some gingerbread spiciness, brought out by the grilling. It’s also a great texture pas de deux…crunchy outside, light and fluffy inside, smooth but not puréed, just ever so slightly sticky. In the winter, I like to boil root vegetables (like parsnips and carrots), serve them in a soup bowl, with a light beurre blanc surrounding them—garnished with dropped clumps of sautéed kiszka from Stanley’s. It is awesome winter food!
Polana is an online-only grocery store created by the Machnicki family to meet the demands of Chicago’s Polish population. All of Polana’s meats are produced by Andy’s Deli—a large meat manufacturer in Chicago, from whom Polana has made a strict selection. They’ve also made a pricey selection; these are some of the priciest sausages in the tasting…but they are worth it, big-time! These guys stand out in every way. You’ll notice a difference as soon as you open the package, for they are not what we think of as kielbasa; they are wiener-sized, not kielbasa-sized (5 ½” long, 1” diameter), with an almost candy-like orange-pink look. Don’t let that scare you! If you like the kind of hot dog that’s pink and lightly smoked (not like the red and garlicky New York hot dog)…this may be the best example you’ve ever tasted! Fantastic snap. And what a bite inside!…almost like custard! Sweet meat, almost literally, and it runs with juice. Mildly smoky, leading to an astonishing buttery aftertaste. I’ve ordered these many times, as my house hot dogs. And I must confess: I liked these wieners grilled, but their purity was better preserved in the simmer pot!