The word kielbasa (keel-BAH-sah) is Polish for "sausage." It stretches far beyond the large smoked links commonly seen vacuum-packed in grocery stores. Polish sausage may be smoked, fresh, or cured, and include pork, veal, or any variety of meats; some types are from pork shoulder, and others use scraps or ground meat. Many varieties of kielbasa have flavoring ingredients like garlic, juniper, and marjoram. Traditionally used in Polish cuisine, kielbasa can be boiled, baked, grilled, or cooked in other ways, and there are several great recipes to explore.
What Is Kielbasa?
Kielbasa is Polish sausage and an integral part of Poland's culture and cuisine. Just as Germany is famous for bratwurst, Poland is known for kielbasa, but it does not refer to a single type of sausage. Instead, in the Polish language, kielbasa refers to all sausages. It typically includes a modifier that distinguishes a certain type of sausage, in the same way English uses "smoked" or "turkey" sausage, for example. In American markets, it's common to see packages labeled "Kielbasa Polska," which literally means "Poland sausage."
Butchers, sausage makers, and home cooks make kielbasa, most often with pork, though beef, lamb, and poultry may be stuffed into the casing as well. The amount of work that goes into making kielbasa depends on the variety, though grinding the meat and stuffing the casing can be a tedious task. Some kielbasa is uncooked, many varieties are smoked, and the meat may be mixed with herbs, spices, or other flavoring ingredients. Hunter's sausage refers to those types of kielbasa that are smoked and dried. The lack of moisture makes it resistant to spoilage and the perfect food for hunters in the field. Generally, kielbasa is an inexpensive protein, which is one reason why it has been a staple in the Polish diet for so long.
How to Cook Kielbasa
Kielbasa is cooked like other sausages and used in a variety of recipes. It may be boiled then browned, baked, sautéed, grilled, or cooked in a larger dish. There are also preferred methods of cooking and eating certain varieties of kielbasa.
Preparation is generally easy. Soup and casserole recipes may require that the sausage casing is removed. Some recipes cook the whole sausage while others cut it into pieces. The safe internal temperature for cooking kielbasa is 160 F.
With the help of a meat grinder and sausage stuffer, it's also possible to make kielbasa at home. It's not much different than other homemade sausages, and a fun kitchen project.
What Does Kielbasa Taste Like?
Generally, kielbasa tastes like any other sausage: tender meat, salted or spiced tightly packed in a casing. The meat will take on extra flavor from the seasoning ingredients used in a particular variety of sausage. Smoked sausage will pick up the flavor nuances of the type of wood used during smoking.
The opportunity to explore authentic Polish sausage varieties lends a new appreciation to this staple of the country's food.
Biała kiełbasa (BEEYAH-wah), or white kielbasa, is fresh, uncooked, and unsmoked sausage. It is typically made from pork shoulder, sometimes with a little beef and veal. The kielbasa is seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and marjoram, although this varies from family to family.
The sausage is commonly boiled and browned, baked, or sautéed with onions. It is served hot or cold often with chrzan (a horseradish and vinegar condiment) or ćwikła (horseradish and beets), with sauerkraut or noodles, and as a sandwich on rye bread. While eaten year-round, it is indispensable for Christmas and in żurek soup on Easter morning.
Kabanosy (kah-bah-NOH-sih) is a type of hunter's sausage and the generic term for any thin stick sausage. It is usually made of pork, salt, pepper, garlic, allspice, and sometimes caraway. When made with crushed pepper, the spicy sausage is called kabanosy pikantne. It can also be made with chicken (kabanosy z kury) or other meats according to the village's customs.
This type of kielbasa is smoked and dried for a firm texture and eaten at room temperature as a snack or appetizer. It's often taken on hiking or camping trips because they require no refrigeration, like many other dried sausages.
Kiełbaski myśliwska (mish-LEEF-skah) is a thick hunter's sausage that is smoked and dried. It's made of pork with a touch of crushed juniper berries.
Krupniok (KRROOP-nyee-ohk) is a Silesian blood sausage that is dark and has more blood than barley (or variously, buckwheat groats—kasza). Its cousin, kiszka (KEESH-kah), also known as kaszanka (kah-SHAHN-kah), is lighter in color and has more barley or buckwheat than blood.
Originally, krupniok was made to use up the scraps—ears, snouts, and organ meats—after slaughtering a pig and was fleshed out with spices and barley or kasza. Today, better cuts of meat are used. The mixture is cooked and then stuffed into the sterilized large intestine of a pig. It can be served at room temperature without further cooking or grilled or pan-fried with onions.
Parówki (pah-ROOF-kee) are Polish frankfurters made of finely puréed seasoned meats that are lightly smoked. They can be boiled, grilled, pan-fried, or served as a cold cut. When made with veal, they are known as parówki cielęce and when made with pork, they are known as parówki wieprzowe. Mini frankfurters are called paróweczki and often seen on breakfast buffets at Polish hotels.
Serdelki (sehrr-DEL-kee) are classic Polish hot dogs and more like jumbo frankfurters. They're usually made by stuffing natural casings with seasoned pork and veal that has been lightly smoked. They can be grilled, pan-fried, or warmed in hot water. It's common to serve them on a bun or with sauerkraut and potatoes.
Kiełbasa weselna (veh-SEL-nah), or wedding sausage, is a double-smoked pork sausage (hence its dark color) with a hint of garlic. It was traditionally served at weddings and other important events to sober guests up before going home. Wedding sausage is meant to be served at room temperature as a snack or appetizer.
Kiełbasa jałowcowa (yah-vohv-TSOH-vah), or juniper sausage, is a semi-dry sausage made with pork and crushed juniper berries smoked heavily over juniper wood. It doesn't require refrigeration and is best when served at room temperature, making it ideal for picnics, hiking, and other outdoor events.
Kiełbasa czosnkowa (choh-sin-KOH-vah) is literally "garlic sausage." It's made from cured pork, salt, black pepper, marjoram, and liberal amounts of fresh garlic. Sometimes it includes coriander and paprika as well. The kielbasa is simmered in hot water and then lightly smoked. It's ideal for grilling, as a cold cut, with scrambled eggs, or in stews like bigos.
Kiełbasa krajana (krrai-AH-nah), or country sausage, is a double-smoked sausage made with chunks of pork instead of ground pork in a thicker casing. It's great as a cold cut but also ideal for the grill.
Kiełbasa grillowa (grree-LOH-vah), or barbecue sausage, is a juicy and lightly spiced pork sausage that is already hard-smoked and doesn't require long grilling time. It's also great when pan-fried or heated in hot water.
Kiełbasa zwyczajna (zvih-CHAI-nah) gets its moniker because it's an "ordinary" sausage made with cured pork, salt, pepper, marjoram, and fresh garlic. It's simmered in water and then lightly smoked. It's a good grilling sausage, cold cut, ideal with scrambled eggs or sauerkraut, and excellent in stews.
Kiełbasa żywiecka (zhih-VEEYETS-kah) is beer sausage. The name comes from the Żwiec region of southern Poland where Żywiec beer is made. This kielbasa is made with diced pork and sometimes a little beef, and seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic. It's hardwood-smoked and is perfect as a cold cut on sandwiches, with scrambled eggs, or even on pizza.
Kiełbasa cygańska (tsih-GAIHN-skah), or gypsy sausage, is a dark, deeply smoked sausage made with seasoned pork, salt, pepper and garlic that is best eaten at room temperature as an appetizer.
Kiełbasa Krakowska (krrah-KOHV-skah) is made in the style of Kracow. It comes in three varieties—dry (sucha), semi-dry (obsuszana), and steamed (parzona). All three are made with seasoned lean pork and its garlicky aroma permeates the room. Krakowska is ideal for eating as an appetizer or on a sandwich.
Kielbasa is an excellent option for many sausage recipes. While it can be eaten in numerous ways and not restricted to Polish cuisine, it's also a key ingredient in delicious and traditional Polish soups, stews, and casseroles.
Where to Buy Kielbasa
The word kielbasa is commonly found on the labels for packaged sausage in grocer coolers. Many are simply labeled kielbasa Polska and are most similar to "ordinary" sausage, or kiełbasa zwyczajna. The best places to look for authentic Polish sausage are Polish delis and stores that specialize in imported food. There are also a number of online stores that sell and ship Polish food.
Kielbasa may be sold as a ring of two large links that can weigh between 1/2- and 1-pound, depending on the type of sausage. Some varieties, particularly those best for grilling and frankfurters, are available as individual links that average 1/4-pound each.
For food safety, kielbasa should be handled like other types of meat. Unopened vacuum-sealed packages of kielbasa will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 weeks. Once opened, the refrigerated sausage should be cooked and eaten within 1 week. Kielbasa freezes well; store it in freezer-safe bags for up to 6 months, wrapping the kielbasa tightly in plastic if it's not already packaged that way. Leftover cooked kielbasa should be refrigerated in a sealed container right away and reheated and eaten within 4 days.
Nutrition and Benefits of Kielbasa
Kielbasa is a good protein source. Depending on the blend of meat and other ingredients that go into the sausage casing, it can also be high in fat and sodium. Reading labels on packaged sausage and discussing the ingredients with a butcher or sausage maker can aid in understanding the nutrition of a particular sausage. Turkey kielbasa is a popular alternative, especially in the U.S., that often contains half the saturated fat of other sausage options.
Additionally, cured meats like sausage likely contain nitrates that help preserve the meat. Nitrates and nitrites may increase the risk of cancer because high-heat cooking can give these ions a carcinogenic effect. However, nitrates also naturally occur in vegetables such as spinach and beets and can be beneficial. Like all processed meats, it is best to limit how much kielbasa one eats in order to maintain a healthy diet.
Karwowska, Małgorzata, and Anna Kononiuk. Nitrates/Nitrites In Food—Risk For Nitrosative Stress And Benefits. Antioxidants, vol 9, no. 3, 2020, p. 241. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/antiox9030241