Learn more about kielbasa, the Polish sausage that made its way to the American Midwest and beyond.
Kielbasa (pronounced keel·baa·suh) is a smoked sausage made from pork or a mixture of 80% pork and 20% beef. Kielbasa originated in Poland, where it’s eaten with braised cabbage or cooked in a hearty Polish hunter’s stew called bigos.
In Polish, “kielbasa” simply means sausage.
The traditional ingredients for the preparation of kielbasa are pork and/or beef, black pepper, salt, marjoram, and garlic. Other variations of kielbasa containing bear, deer, or elk meat exist.
Although the Soviet-era government of Poland had an official definition of ingredients for kielbasa, each artisanal sausage maker has his or her own variation of this classic, and there is no right or wrong way to prepare it.
With sausage making subject to the same economic pressures as any other commercially produced food, many Poles say that the kielbasa sausage of today tastes nothing like the original, especially if one buys their sausages from the supermarket.
If you have the equipment, try making this fine Polish sausage yourself at home. Otherwise, buy it from a trusted butcher or Polish deli, where you can be sure you are getting a top-quality product, albeit at a higher price.
Kielbasa in the States
In the United States, kielbasa is colloquially known as “Polish sausage” or “Polska sausage,” where it is sold as a smoked sausage in the shape of the letter “U.”
Kielbasa was probably first brought to the state of Texas by Polish immigrants—most probably in the mid-1800s when many Poles sought freedom overseas due to wars and famine in their homeland.
This sausage is particularly popular in the Midwest.
Recipes that come to mind are potato hash, sausage casserole, potato and smoked sausage soup, and navy beans with Polish sausage.
The Polish hot dog (a.k.a. “Polish dog”), consisting of a grilled or fried kielbasa sausage topped with grilled onions and yellow mustard and optional pickled whole green peppers, then served in a bun, is a fast-food staple in Chicago.
How to Cook Kielbasa
Kielbasa is a sausage that’s normally pre-cooked.
That being said, precooked sausages can still harbor disease-causing bacteria on the surface, so kielbasa needs to be heated through—for about 3 to 4 minutes and until steaming hot—for safe consumption.
Kielbasa sausage tastes its best when baked in a properly preheated 350°F (180°C) oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or grilled over indirect heat—in other words, away from the hot coals or over an unlit burner—for roughly the same amount of time.
If it’s too hot to bake in the oven or you don’t have time to fire up the grill, you can also fry kielbasa sausages in a cast iron skillet greased with a very small amount of cooking oil. You don’t need a lot of cooking oil; just enough to give the bottom and sides of the skillet an oily sheen.
Last but not least, kielbasa can be boiled or stewed without using any other cooking method. When it is, this Polish sausage releases some of its juices and fats into the cooking liquid, adding a richness of aroma and flavor to the braise or stew. (As a side note, Polish sausage pairs deliciously well with leeks, potatoes, yellow onions, and sauerkraut.)
How Long Is Polish Sausage Good For?
The general rule is that kielbasa should be stored in the fridge for consumption before the best before date and in the freezer for consumption after the best before date.
Unopened, vacuum-sealed packages of kielbasa sausages will keep for 3 to 4 weeks in the fridge and almost indefinitely in the freezer (though frozen kielbasa sausage only retains its best aroma and flavor within the first 6 to 9 months of freezing).
Cooked kielbasa sausage shouldn’t be left out for more than 1-2 hours at room temperature, or disease-causing bacteria (the kind that we cannot see, smell, or taste) may grow to dangerous levels inside it and make it unsafe to eat.