Polish sausage is a term that can be used to describe over one hundred varieties of smoked sausage. Rather than defining where it is made, sausage is labeled Polish based on the way it is seasoned and prepared. Although in the English language the term "Polish sausage" is often used interchangeably with the word "kielbasa", the two are not synonymous. Kielbasa is the generic Polish word for sausage and does not necessarily refer to the smoked variety prepared according to the regulations governing Polish smoked sausage.
The kielbasa most commonly associated in North America with the term Polish sausage is called kielbasa starowiejska in Poland. Loosely translated this means "old country sausage" and it consists of pork sausage seasoned with marjoram and garlic. To be considered Polish sausage under Polish governmental standards, the sausage must be made out of cured pork. Some cured beef is acceptable but regulations adopted in 1964 stipulate that 80% of the total meat must be pork. Eastern European countries generally use both pork and veal.
After curing, the pork must be seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic. Other spices can be added for flavor but are considered optional. Marjoram is a common addition to Polish sausage varieties such as starowiejska and weselna while kielbasa kabanosy is seasoned with caraway. As long as the base spices are salt, pepper and garlic, the seasoning meets governmental standards for Polish smoked sausage.
Polish sausage is also distinguished by the smoking process which begins after the pork is contained in a hog casing. Originally, it was cold smoked for 24-36 hours after being separated into links approximately 12 inches (35 cm) long. Now, hot smoking is also allowed and varieties like Krakowska, a hot smoked kielbasa with peppers and garlic, are popular choices especially in Krakow, the Polish city from which it derives its name.
After the production process, the sausage can be prepared in any number of ways. It is often grilled, fried or boiled and eaten in a sandwich with fried onions or horseradish. Some people use chunks in soup or stews and casseroles. Kabanosy is a variety that is thinly sliced and served cold, while other varieties are eaten with nothing but a plate of sauerkraut.
The sausage sold in North American supermarkets as Polish sausage is marginally similar to the Polish old country sausage but generally contains many chemicals and differing combinations of meat. Specialty shops will carry varieties of kielbasa from other countries such as Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia. Korvasa, a Ukrainian sausage without casing and seasoned with peppers and alcohol, is popular in Canada. A wide variety of sausages made in the Polish tradition will also be found in these stores but only those prepared with the specific types of meat and spices and smoked in the proper way would be considered authentic Polish sausage.