Food & Drink

How to Find the Juicy Kielbasa of Your Dreams

kielbasa
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

When I think back to my earliest childhood memories, I see kielbasa. My father, who immigrated from rural Poland to North Jersey, introduced first my mother, and then us, his kids, to the greatest smoked sausage that ever was. A plate of kielbasa has always maintained a perpetual spot on our table, and I’m sure many other Polish families can say the same. 

Kielbasa is not only suitable for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but it also transcends seasons -- throw it on the grill for charred perfection in the summertime, or add it to a pot for a hearty winter soup. It’s a delicacy for the everyman, a food item that’s struck such a chord with us that my mother, who is from Ecuador, has even gotten her side of the family on board. 

If you want to enjoy the best that kielbasa has to offer, here are a few things you might like to know.

What exactly is kielbasa? 

The word kielbasa (pronounced: kiel-basa, plural: kiel-basy) means “sausage” in Polish. It’s used as an umbrella term for any Polish sausage, of which there are hundreds. But the “kielbasa” that we typically refer to in the U.S. is a U-shaped smoked sausage, usually made from pork. The meat gets cured, ground with fat, enriched with spices like garlic and marjoram, and then stuffed into an intestine (yes, kind of gross, but so are many hot dogs), or artificial casing. Then the sausage goes through a smoking and drying process. 

If we were to construct a matrix of famous sausages, kielbasa would take its place next to bratwurst for sharing a subtlety in flavor, but kielbasa is ultimately much smokier. A spicy sausage, like chorizo or pepperoni, would be on the opposite end. Good kielbasa will have skin that gives a slight crunch when you bite into it, and a greasy, chewy center.

What are the different types?

While there is a wide variety of kielbasa on the market, there are a few stand-outs. 

  • The most common is the kielbasa Mysliwska, or “hunter’s style”--it’s short, dark brown, and has about a 1-inch diameter. High in the smokiness factor, this sausage keeps well and is perfect for a camping trip. 
  • Then there’s the Krakowska, whose recipe comes from sixteenth-century Krakow. This type of sausage is much wider, with about a 2-inch diameter. It’s almost always sliced very thinly and used as a cold cut in sandwiches, or on a platter. 
  • My personal favorite is the Kabanosy, which is as thin and long as a Slim Jim. It serves well as an appetizer, perfect to snack on when you’re rummaging through your fridge, deciding what to eat. 

Where can you buy it?

The best place to buy authentic kielbasa is, unsurprisingly, at a Polish deli. If you live in an area with a large Polish population--like New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, or Philadelphia--then you’re in luck. But you can also make do with the mainstream brands that can be found at most major supermarkets, like the Wellshire Farms kielbasa available at Whole Foods. Polish restaurants will certainly have some form of kielbasa on the menu, but you might also see it at European-leaning gastropubs. Sometimes carnivals and state fairs will have kielbasa stands as well--Plymouth, Pennsylvania even throws its own kielbasa fest.

How do you choose the perfect kielbasa for you? 

The right kielbasa depends on how you’d like to serve it. If you’re looking to eat the kielbasa simply on its own, choose a piece that’s already very dried and smoked--it’ll be darker and wrinklier. If you plan on cooking the kielbasa in a dish, opt for links that are lightly-browned and less shriveled.

The best kielbasa has the highest meat content. If there is a label attached to the kielbasa, check to see how much meat was used to make 100 grams of sausage. If the number is over 100g (the meat loses weight during drying and smoking), then the kielbasa is high quality. You’ll also want to look out for a short ingredient list to make sure you’re not buying your sausage with a ton of additives.

How can you eat it?

Since most kielbasa is already fully cooked, consider it an unconventional addition to your next charcuterie board. Cold kielbasa is best paired with a spicy mustard or horseradish and some rye bread. 

For breakfast, slice it into small pieces and fry it on a pan for a crispy texture that puts bacon to shame. A few traditional Polish dishes involving kielbasa include: a simple kielbasa and sauerkraut stir-fry; Zurek, or a sour soup made from rye flour and chunks of kielbasa; and Bigos, a stew of kielbasa, pork, sauerkraut, and cabbage. You can also just boil a large, plump kielbasa and serve it with vegetables. But undoubtedly, the best way to eat kielbasa is with a shot of vodka.

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Jessica Sulima is an editorial assistant at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter.