The last time we harvested an elk, we had 192 lbs of boneless meat after butchering. If that seems like a lot of meat, it is.
But having that much meat presented an opportunity to try lots of different recipes and learn some new skills. We couldn’t wait to make a smoked Polish Sausage with elk meat.
Polska Wędzona Kielbasa
Smoked Polish Kielbasa or as they would say in Poland; “Domowa wiejska wędzona kiełbasa” (translation: Homemade Country Smoked Sausage) is traditionally made with pork, but I’ve also seen recipes that use veal, beef, turkey or lamb and we have made our version with elk.
The basic ingredients and flavors that stand out with this type of sausage are garlic, marjoram and pepper (black and/or hot) and of coarse the smoke flavors.
Basics of Making Sausage and Food Safety
I’ve written several posts about the Basics of Making Sausage and Food Safety of Homemade Sausage and Cured Meats, so make sure to read those articles if you haven’t made sausage before to make sure you get all the hints about safely handling the meat and using the correct type and amount of curing salts.
Making simple breakfast sausage and lose Italian is sausage is as easy as making ground meat and then adding a few seasonings. Stuffing sausages into casing is a little more complex, but nothing you can’t safely do, but smoking sausages adds another level of complexity and has to be done correctly to be safe.
Properly cooking meat kills all bacteria and is safe to eat. Smoking meat is a good way to cook meat and add smoke flavor at the same time, but slow smoking raw meat can be dangerous, especially inside the casings where oxygen levels may be low, so the meat needs to be cured to it can safely be smoked at low temperature.
Steps to Make Smoked Polish Kielbasa
- Choose Meat and fat – in our case, we had fresh elk meat, so we just needed to add fat. Beef fat is easy for me to get by calling the local butcher, but I have to call days ahead of time and drive 60 miles to get pork fat. So this time Beef fat it was.
- Decide on the fat content – most commercial sausages range between 30-40% fat, but sometimes we want to cut down on the fat a little (See Table 1).
- Grind the Meat and Fat – use medium grinder plate – the smallest grinder plate is too fine, making the texture of the sausage too much like ground meat, the largest plate is too coarse and makes the sausage too chunky and chewy. The medium plate is just right.
- Mix in Curing Salt and Spices – see recipe below
- Stuff Sausage Mixture into Casings
- Dry Sausage Casings
- Smoke the Sausages
Fat Content of Sausage
Before grinding the fat and meat, you need to decide on the percentage of fat you want in the sausage. See Table 1 for measurements in both ounces or grams for various percentages of fat.
The Polish Sausage recipe in the Charcuterie book is 44.4% fat, which is on the high end and probably close to the fat content of most commercial sausages. No doubt they will be juicy and flavorful, but that also means I have to walk lots of miles afterwards to get rid of the extra calories.
On the other hand, A 20% fat sausage will taste a little dry, so we generally like stuffed sausages to have between 30-35% fat and find that is a good balance to have enough “juice” and to help cut a few calories. Fresh sausages like breakfast sausage or sweet Italian sausage can have less fat (20-25%) without tasting dry, since most of the extra fat is rendered out during cooking anyway.
But that is part of the beauty of making your own sausage. You get to decide how much fat you want in the sausage.
But remember if the fat you use has strips of meat in it, it is not 100% fat and the fat ratio will be lower. Also, if the meat you are using still has fat in it, the fat ratio will be higher.
Table 1 Meat and Fat Ratios for Five Pound Batch of Sausage
Polish Sausage/Kielbasa Recipe
This recipe makes a 5 lb batch of sausage.
- Meat – 2.78 to 4.0 pounds (44.4 – 64 oz. – depending upon desired fat content see Table 1)
- Fat – 1.0 to 2.22 pounds (16 – 35.6 oz. – depending upon fat content see Table 1)
- Kosher salt – 2 Tablespoons (36 grams)
- Ground black pepper – 2 teaspoons (5 grams)
- Marjoram – 2 – 3 teaspoons (5 – 8 grams)
- Garlic Cloves – 3 – 6 minced or crushed (depending on how much you like garlic)
- Prague Powder #1 – (1 teaspoon for 5 lbs of meat or 1 oz. for 25 lbs of meat = 0.2 oz for 5 lbs of meat = 5.67 grams)
- Ice water – 3/4 cup (177 ml)
- Sausage casings (Hog, sheep or collagen)
- Sugar – 2¼ Tablespoons (45 grams)
- Dry Mustard – 2¼ Tablespoons (27 grams)
- Ground red pepper – 2 teaspoons (5 grams)
Directions for Making Polish Sausage/Kielbasa
Grinding Meat and Fat for Sausage
- Chill meat and fat in freezer until they show signs of freezing – keeping the meat and fat cold keeps bacteria from growing and later will help create a meat/fat emulsion instead of meat that is coated with oil. Hint: use metal mixing bowls that have also been kept in the freezer or have a large bowl of ice that the bowl of meat can rest in while cutting, mixing or grinding. Anytime you can, put meat you are not working with back in the refrigerator or the freezer. Remember… Anytime meat is above 40°F (4.4°C) bacteria have a chance to grow.
- Cut the nearly frozen meat and fat into strips. Remove all sinew and silver skin you don’t want to chew, but remember that much of this tissue that is hard to cut away will be trapped next to the grinder plate. Note: sometimes it is easier to remove sinew and tough membranes from the grinder plate than to cut it away without wasting meat. Practice will let you know which is easier for you. Also, many recipes call for 1 inch cubes, but every meat grinder I’ve used likes to ingest strips of meat and fat better than cubes.
- Some say add the salt, curing salt, garlic, marjoram and pepper to the meat and mix well and return to the refrigerator or the freezer, but I prefer to mix the salt and spices with the ice water later. This is because it insures a better mix of the water soluble curing salts, kosher salt and sugar, so I add all the salts and spices to the ice water and return that to the refrigerator.
- Grind the meat in your grinder (or food processor, but it will be a mix of an over-ground paste with chunks, not an even-sized emulsion). Personally, we like the medium grind die plate for kielbasa. Note: to reduce mixing later, add meat and fat to the grinder in the same ratio as the entire batch. For example, almost all sausage will be between one part fat and two, three or four parts meat, so always feed meat and fat in those ratios to the grinder so you don’t have a pile of pure ground meat and a pile of pure ground fat to be mixed together later. Remember to keep bowls cold or rest in a bowl of ice and put ground meat back in the freezer as soon as possible.
Mixing Meat, Water and Spices for Sausage
- Add the ice water that has the salts and spices to the sausage mix and mix well so the sausage binds together. Mixing the That does help insure a better mix of the water soluble salts and sugars.
- Now is the time to test a small amount of sausage for seasoning. Note: make a small patty and fry it like breakfast sausage. But first, return the rest of the sausage mixture to the refrigerator.
You need to decide if you want natural casings (from hogs or sheep) or synthetic casings made from collagen, cellulose or plastic. Collagen casings are edible, but plastic casings are obviously not edible.
For this Kielbasa, we went with natural hog casings. Depending upon where you live, natural casings may be hard to find. We found casings at Whole Foods (just ask the butcher), but you can also order (natural casings online) that are packed in salt. Also see an example of collagen casings.
Sheep casings are smaller than hog casings (19-21 mm vs 32-35 mm) and slightly more delicate.
Prepare the casings by soaking them in water until they are smooth and pliable, but depending upon the casing you buy, make sure to follow any special recommendations on the package or container.
Depending upon the casing you have, you will need to start soaking them in warm water to rehydrate or in to rinse them in cold water and then soak until they are smooth and pliable. Five pounds of sausage will require about 10 feet of normal sized (about 32-35 mm) casings.
We don’t have a sausage stuffer, but we make enough sausage that it would save us a bit of time if we had one. We have used both our hand grinder and our electric to stuff the casings. The electric grinder works, but is a bit slow, but the hand grinder just takes way too much effort and even with the grind plate removed, it takes too much pressure to keep the mixture flowing into the casings. We could buy an attachment for the KitchenAid mixer, but it will still never be as fast as a dedicated sausage stuffer.
Stuffing Sausage into Casings
Stuffing the sausage mixture into the casings takes a small amount of practice.
At first, you will have a tendency to under-fill or under-fill and the links will not be filled evenly and you may not leave enough extra casing to tie the sausage off.
If you are not happy with the way the sausage was stuffed, it is O.K. to remove the sausage from the casing and start over. The casing will be reusable unless you over-fill it to the point the casing ruptures.
If a casing does rupture, while you are on a roll, you can simply pinch the sausage and twist it off below the break and tie it at that point. Return any spilled mixture back to the stuffer or the grinder and start a new length of sausage.
- Prepare the sausage stuffer or electric grinder by feeding a length of the casings over the stuffer attachment. Some lubricate the attachment with vegetable oil, but I’ve never found it necessary. Note: if using an electric grinder to stuff the casings, you can use the large grind plate because you have already ground the meat to size.
- Start stuffing the sausage mixture into the casings. I like to stuff the entire length at one time if I can, but it’s O.K. to stuff one or two feet at a time, especially on your first attempt. This is your sausage. Start by pulling off 4 – 6 inches so you have room to tie an overhand knot after you stuff some sausage and then remove the air from the end of the casing. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect, even your ugliest looking sausage will taste great. When your first sausage ruptures, you will be disappointed, but it will still taste great. When the casing ruptures of when the sausage is a large as you want, pinch off the sausage and pull off another 4 – 6 inches and cut with a knife. You can also tie off short pieces with butcher’s twine if you don’t have room for an overhand knot.
- After the sausages are stuffed, check the links for air pockets. For short sausages, you can probably “milk” the air out the end of the sausage. For long sausages, you will have to prick them with a needle (sterilized of course – heat with match or on stove burner until glows).
- Hang the sausages in a cool place to dry. Smoke will not adhere to wet sausages, so they need to dry on the outside. If the place where you plan to hang the sausages is warmer than 40°F, don’t leave them more than an hour. Otherwise, you can let them dry in the refrigerator overnight.
Smoking Elk Sausages
I removed the racks from our smoker (10 year old Masterbuilt) and replaced them with three green sticks that fit tightly between the walls and hung the sticks above the slots for the upper rack (Photo 3).
I wanted room for all the sausage links to hang without touching the walls or racks. You can smoke sausages on the racks, but I wanted to try hanging them.
We used cherry wood for the smoke this batch, but have used everything from hickory and pecan, to peach, mesquite and alder to smoke sausages in the past.
The main thing to remember about smoking sausages is to start smoking with a temperature about 160 – 165°F (71-74°C) with the goal of achieving an internal sausage temperature of 152°F (67°C), which will take between 4 – 6 hours.
The reason we need to smoke on a low temperature is to prevent all that good fat from rendering out and dripping out of the sausages. If you do lose some of that good fat, save it to make smoky gravy later.
I have seen recommendations that the smoking temperature can be raised to 175°F for a short time to quickly raise the internal temperature at the end, but you will risk melting much of the fat.
When smoking is complete, remove the sausages and drop them into ice water to cool them quickly and to prevent the casings from wrinkling. This will also wash some of the smoke off of the casings, so some recommend cooling them in the refrigerator overnight. Try it both ways and see which you like best.
After smoking, the smoked kielbasa will be fully cooked. They will be safe in the refrigerator for at least a week as any other fully cooked meat. For long term storage, they should be put in the freezer. Simply re-thaw them in the refrigerator overnight or defrost them carefully in the microwave.
Now tell me you’re not hungry.