Summer Sausage: A Wisconsin Tradition
What is summer sausage? There are many out there, but there’s only one Swiss Colony BEEF LOG…star of meat and cheese gift baskets for more than 45 years.
Wisconsin is best known for two things: cheese and beer. It stands to reason, then, that the state is also famous for making the product that goes best with those two food products: sausage.
The love for and expertise in making sausage comes from Wisconsin’s high number of immigrants from Germany and surrounding nations…and there are many types of sausage available. Depending on where you are and at what time of year, you’re likely to encounter bratwurst, Polish sausage, kielbasa, or the star of every cheese-and-sausage plate, summer sausage.
What Is Summer Sausage?
Sausage has been around since approximately 500 B.C. and was the original “you don’t want to know where it came from” food. Basically, it was a way of using every bit of an animal once the peak-quality parts were spoken for: the less desirable cuts were chopped finely, mixed with salt and spices to flavor and preserve them, and stuffed into (hopefully meticulously cleaned) intestines. The neat little tubes of meat were a much more appetizing way of cooking these parts…and the seasonings made them downright delicious.
Over time, the art and science of sausage-making evolved. Fresh (uncooked) sausages like bratwurst were the first, and had the same shelf life as other fresh meats…which is to say not much. Curing techniques allowed sausages to be stored longer and enhanced their flavor. The first preservative was salt, but that wasn’t foolproof; the discovery of nitrites and nitrates, dating back to the Middle Ages, provided a more effective method of killing microorganisms. Smoking over wood fires also helped slow the growth of microbes and imparted a marvelous flavor to the fully cooked meat.
Another preservation method actually uses microorganisms of the beneficial kind: lactic acid fermentation. This is the same technique that adds tang to such foods as yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi, and sour beers such as lambic and Berliner weisse. In sausage making, a Lactobacillus culture is introduced, along with a measure of dextrose or another sugar for the bacteria to feed on. The bacteria then produce lactic acid, which inhibits the growth of pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria and gives the sausage a highly desirable tang.
Another advancement was with sausage casings. Today, there are several types of casings that may be used for any type of sausage, including natural, collagen, and fibrous. Fibrous casings are most commonly used for summer sausage, and it is an inedible casing made from the fibers of the Abaca tree. The casing needs to be removed from the summer sausage before eating.
Does summer sausage need to be refrigerated?
Yes, contrary to many beliefs, summer sausage does need to be refrigerated, particularly after opening. It’s true that “summer sausage” was developed as a product that could be kept without refrigeration, even in the summer. As such, it typically combines all three of these preservation techniques for a more shelf-stable product. It is traditionally fermented, although many modern manufacturers skip the lactic acid fermentation part, opting to save both time and money by adding citric acid to gain the tangy flavor. But if you’re asking, “Do you have to refrigerate summer sausage,” the answer is definitely yes. Refrigerate after opening, of course, but also before opening. Unopened summer sausage will last a long time in the fridge, but don’t forget to look at the expiration date.
How long does summer sausage last after opening? We recommend keeping it up to a month, though we can’t imagine it would last that long without being eaten. For refrigerator storage, you can keep it in plastic wrap or aluminum foil, however, air-tight freezer bags will keep it freshest and maintain the moisture level. The one exception would be if you prefer a “dryer” meat, allowing the meat log to “breath” in the fridge is also acceptable.
There are really quite a few varieties of dry and semi-dry summer sausage: Italian salami (not really a single type of sausage; plural of salame), French saucisson, Spanish chorizo or salchichón, and Hungarian szálami. Many American manufacturers will give their summer sausages names like the German Thuringer or Swiss cervelat, but they are not at all like their European counterparts, which are fresh sausages to be cooked. Summer sausage, like other “cold cuts,” is ready to eat and is almost always eaten cold or at room temperature, as a snack or on a sandwich. It is at its best as part of a charcuterie platter, accompanied by complimentary cheeses and served with beer or wine. And because of its affinity for cheese, it is frequently found in gift assortments or meat and cheese gift baskets. Such is the case for one of Wisconsin’s most famous summer sausages…
The Swiss Colony BEEF LOG®
The Swiss Colony was founded in Monroe, Wisconsin, in 1926 and at first, sold nothing but cheese. Being located in Green County, there was plenty to sell—this county leads the rest of the state by far in cheese production—but if there was a national market for Wisconsin cheese, surely there was one for the fine sausages and hams produced in the area as well.
For years The Swiss Colony sold a “Swiss-Style Summer Sausage” made—like most summer sausages—of a blend of beef and pork, and a premium all-beef version. By 1969 the all-beef summer sausage was renamed the BEEF LOG®.
While the recipe for this smoked sausage remains a closely guarded secret, it is made from carefully selected beef ground more coarsely than that found in many sausages. The coarser grind gives the sausage a heartier texture and what the industry calls “mouthfeel.” It also means that the sausage is made with higher-quality meat; the pastier, more emulsified sausages allow the maker to use the more undesirable ingredients, which can simply blend into the background (just read the label on a commercial Mexican chorizo sometime). The beef is then flavored with an exclusive blend of seasonings, and uses the old-world lactic acid fermentation method to give it that distinctive tang. It’s more time-consuming and costly than using the citric acid shortcut, but it delivers better quality and more flavor…and the discerning palate can tell the difference.
Recipes with Smoked Sausage
We mentioned earlier that summer sausage, being fully cooked, is typically eaten cold, as a snack, or on a sandwich. But while you generally don’t cook with it, it lends itself to some innovative salads. Try using it to add bold flavor to a summer potato salad. The Germans and Swiss are fond of wurstsalat (sausage salad), which is usually made of something closer to bologna or mortadella…but you’ll get a heartier flavor when you use summer sausage. Also, be sure to try the Swiss version: toss in some shredded or matchstick-cut Baby Swiss cheese.
And who says you can’t toss that BEEF LOG® on the grill? In this recipe, summer sausage is lightly grilled and incorporated into some zippy summer sausage sliders that just beg for a nice cold beer.