How we tested
Kielbasa is the generic word for sausage in Poland, where types proliferate. Stateside, it is made by seasoning pork, beef, or a combination with garlic, herbs, and spices. The links may be fresh or smoked. We tasted six brands of the smoked type plain and in French-style pork stew.
The best links had a coarse texture and a meaty, smoky taste; the rest were light on smoke or bland, with no “snap” on the outside and a smooth, rubbery texture inside—more like ballpark franks than like kielbasa. Why did the quality range so dramatically? The meat sources turned out to be key. Products made with only beef or only pork tasted best. Those that used two or even three kinds of meat—pork, beef, and turkey—had “hot dog’’ and “bologna’’ flavors. The nutrition labels aided our understanding: The two bottom-ranking products stated either 2 percent calcium in a 2-ounce serving or specified “mechanically separated turkey’’ in their ingredients. Mechanically separated turkey comes from traces of meat left on bones after butchering. The bones are ground with the meat attached to them, and then the mixture is put through a sieve to remove bone fragments. The presence of bone increases the calcium and trace mineral content of the sausage—but to tasters, the use of this filler meant less meaty flavor in the finished product.
Products that had the smooth, rubbery texture of hot dogs also disappointed tasters, who commented that it was “like someone put the meat in a blender and pureed it.’’ This homogenized texture comes from mixing the meat with fat, salt, water, and nitrite to break it down; disperse the fat in tiny, even droplets; and produce a soluble protein that acts like a glue to hold the meat together. Our winning product had the coarse texture of traditional kielbasa, derived from chopping, not emulsifying, the meat. And while the other brands did not divulge how they break down their meat, their perfectly smooth texture and uniform pink color told us all we needed to know.
Some products fell short in the smoke department, either “lacking in smoke’’ entirely or having “lacquered-on’’ smoke flavor. Only two, including our favorite product, confirmed that they smoke the sausages over a live fire—and only producers using this method can print “naturally smoked’’ on their labels, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The maker of one low-ranking link disclosed that its smoke flavor comes from spraying the sausages with natural smoke that has been condensed into liquid form. The other brands would not reveal what kind of smoke they use, but none of them had “naturally smoked’’ on their labels.
The traditional casing for kielbasa comes from the intestines of pigs or sheep, a wrapping that gives the sausage a pleasing “snap’’ when you bite down. Our favorite product uses a natural pork casing that had this texture; others that lacked it probably used a coextruded cellulose casing sprayed on the meat, experts said. Coextrusion streamlines production and minimizes handling (and the introduction of bacteria) without compromising flavor. But we preferred the texture of old-fashioned casings with a snap.
With its “deeply smoked,’’ porky flavor and “nice coarse texture,’’ with a satisfying snap, our favorite kielbasa is made entirely of roughly chopped, naturally smoked pork. It was the most expensive kielbasa in our lineup, but it also had the most protein and the least sodium and fat—meaning that its flavor derived from the smoky meat, not some other source. It came out ahead whether we tasted it all alone or combined with the other strong flavors in French-style pork stew.